February 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In my middle-American high school, students could get in trouble up to being expelled for “public displays of affection.” By the time I graduated, the administrators had become so strict, they were expelling students for hugging or high-fiving at school.
Stewing in a retrospective rage about PDA’s recently, I thought anew about how this system estranges young people from their own consent. Shaming and punishment for completely consensual acts of physical affection, whether sexual or not, probably grew from administrators trying to prevent students from making out in the hallways, cracking down in an overzealous attempt to maintain control. The rule is, in short, an incredibly bad rule. It is counterintuitive to just about everything I can think of that is good: consent, touch, solidarity, body autonomy, friendship, happiness, and, yes, sex.
I wish I could replace a legalistic, authoritarian PDA rule with a consent-based rule system. I was thinking about how little I knew about consent when I was in middle and high school. I think a lot of people have their first real, deep friendships as teenagers. And a lot of us have our first sexual relationships then. All in all, it’s a pretty important time to advance in our comprehension of consent and ability to engage an exchange of negotiating our own boundaries and wellness with someone else’s.
I started to think out a model of what new rules might look like. Students could be collectively introduced to consent and engage in a week of EVC where they were not allowed to touch without getting explicit verbal consent. Any touch that was not explicitly allowed would become taboo, as it should be. The language of consent and skills to ask for desired touch, respond authentically, and manage one’s own feelings when disappointed could be taught as rudimentary skills required when touching other people. And after that week, consent could be expanded to a standard of more simple expressed consent. There could be discourse teaching students to bring in nonverbal signals and cues, to look for and give consent, and use basic consent skills like the 90-10 approach.
The rule then would be that no touch was allowed that was not consensual. I think just about everyone would break the rule at some point, and particularly at first. Adults would need to be capable of leading students through negotiating hurt feelings and miscommunications. And in the end each student would need to have their right to account for their own experience of having consented or not upheld and never overridden. Teachers and administrators would then have to apply their own judgment as to an offending student’s intent and the proper response. Rampant offenders would be singled out pretty fast. Types of bullying and coercion that go on without breaking any “rules” would come to the surface. And in general, everyone would get some model of consent in their mind and start learning skills early.
I didn’t have a language for consent until after college, but was figuring it out in slower, foggier ways from my experience years before then. During my sophomore year of high school, a trend kicked up where we would suddenly pat each other on the rear and say “good game.” I thought it was hilarious, and I was really bold about it and got some fantastic responses from people. One guy I did not know well was in mid-conversation when I got him. He turned and winked and said, “I play hard,” then picked up what he was saying without losing stride. We actually became better friends after that.
But I patted one of my friends, standing in the midst of a bunch of our mutual close friends, on the rear who was really, really upset. She had already had her butt touched several times that day and didn’t like the joke. She didn’t have any solid footing to make an argument, since she was considered a “prude” and had been essentially judged all day for her “weird” response. Those of us who were her close friends I think were all surprised and abashed for a moment by her response, but then staunchly defended her right not to be into “good-gaming.” I apologized and felt genuinely sorry, putting onus on me and not her for being out of line. And I only got people I knew liked the game afterwards. It was a weird moment of recognizing consent, and realizing that it was a real risk to invade someone’s boundaries even with good intent, not knowing how they would feel.
My group of friends didn’t have any language to talk about consent. We just had to feel our way about it. It’s a confusing business to sort things out in the midst of a rape culture. I think I would have been really into EVC and an applied consent ethic as a teenager. It would have helped me to think and relate to other people better, and I think it is worth teaching. To be honest, I think it is imperative, and I find it really twisted that we don’t consider consent a standard topic of education for all people.
February 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
I was recently on my favorite blog Yes Means Yes and read a post by Jaclyn Friedman on the sexual politics of the show Glee. Towards the end of the article was this section outlining a marvelous confluence of coercion in everyday life:
“Not so for the Parents Television Council, who have launched a ferocious campaign against the show, saying, ‘The fact that Glee intends to not only broadcast, but celebrate children having sex is reprehensible.’
That the Parents Television Council considers seniors in high school ‘children’ tells you nearly everything you need to know. The rest you need is about their willful denial of the importance of context. They seem to believe that any depiction of teen sexuality — including depictions of teens negotiating safer sex, and an early Glee episode (which gave me false hope for the show) that saw a lead character unapologetically informing her peers that girls have their own sexual desires, and another one challenged by male performance anxiety — is a danger to ’our children.’ In order to believe this, you must also believe that all teenagers are a) too dumb to tell the difference between the vapid, ornamental bunnies on the deservedly cancelled Playboy Club and, say, the smart, abrasive, complicated and proudly sexual Britta on Community, and b) would be completely asexual if they could only avoid the sexy grip of Evil Television Shows. These are far more childish beliefs about sexuality than any held by most of the teenagers I’ve met.
Over here in reality, we know that many teens explore sex. It’s true that television can influence how they think about sex, which is why erasing all sexuality from the airwaves is never the answer. Sex is a part of human life, one that many teens are working hard to understand for the first time. Silencing the media’s conversation about sexuality just drives the subject underground. That leaves young people less equipped to negotiate safer sex and contraception, and to articulate needs and boundaries. Instead, we should be working toward a media that prioritizes the quality of its sexual messages over the quantity of them. Much like all of us would do well to do with sex itself.”
In broad strokes, both the parents and the feminist in question wan these children to grow into a healthy, mature sexuality. But the tactic is totally in contrast. It is not what is being taught that these parents are reacting against. The priority of these parents is not to protect their children from coercion and teach them to protect themselves. Though they confusingly and bizarrely cast the television show Glee as coercing teenagers – cough, cough, excuse me – children into having sex. But coercion is not truly their enemy, sex is, and anyone who is not them threatens to provide information or influence causes them to react because these parents want the power to control knowledge about sex and to coerce their children to say no to sex or yes within a tightly controlled set of parameters and don’t want anything to threaten that power.
Essentially, they have the legal right to do so. Their children are their property, there is essentially no transition of rights into adulthood, cultural or legal. You hit eighteen and you belong to yourself. Before that, you’re theirs. There are many parents who do not want to relinquish control over their children, and are merely forced to by the passing of time and their children’s’ uncontrollable encroaching autonomy. (Though, in my view, there are some children too demoralized and controlled to ever truly get out, who do not survive in one way or another.)
Benevolent patriarchy is a term I learned from bell hooks (who taught me just about everything I thought I should’ve learned in college) that describes the behavior of those who hold power for the supposed good of others. In the nineteenth century on women’s rights, it was common to hear the idea that men wanted to protect women from rights to choose for themselves for benevolent reasons, to protect them. Patriarchy has at least two manifestations, especially outlined in the Second Wave movement, the domination of men over women and the domination of men (and women, which is often understated) over children.
I am challenging a pseudo-sacred cultural assumption here. A lot of loving people have children. But a lot of people have children. It is untrue to claim that all, and perhaps even that most, parents love their children. It is true to claim that all parents have substantial power over their children. Unlike the once considered “natural” domination of men over women, children are inherently helpless and subject to parents. And history has proven time and again that without substantial checks and balances human beings do not use power well, that is they use power for their own seeming gain typically to the detriment of those under them. There is more mitigation of that power now than ever before, but the work is not nearly done.
The nuclear family is perhaps the most unchecked, private sphere of domination in our society. We all begin as children, and it is there that most of us cut our teeth on oppressive systems, starting with helplessness in the face of almost total control by parents. There are laws against physical cruelty (historically recent laws beginning only past a certain point) and yet no laws regarding psychological cruelty or domination committed by parents against their children. If you were not abused as a child, you are in the fortunate minority – fortune here meaning merely that you were privileged with what ought to be extended to every human being and as yet has not.
Why so many parents are terrified of their children having sex or merely knowledge about sex may seem like a mystery. But parents were once children, too, and it is very hard for people not to pass down trauma. And many institutions of power are also invested in controlling human sexuality. Abstinence only education is an attempt to maintain control over human sexuality rather than to place power where it belongs, in the hands of the individual. Parents hate all sex ed because it threatens their control. Religious groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control. Political groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control.
As Shulamith Firestone said, “Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle.” Quality sex education would give rise to the powerful and dreaded monster informed consent. It threatens to put the knowledge necessary for young adults (notice the avoidance of that phrase by the Parents Television Council) to claim ownership over their own bodies, their own sexualities, their evolving right to choose.
Yes it is complicated to teach young people about sex. Yes to do so responsibly it will take more resources than we commit now. But will it honestly be more risky? Is anyone noticing how rampant child sex abuse, unacknowledged rape, unintentional pregnancy, and other unchecked pain and untended suffering surrounding sex exists in our current culture? In my view, the sex negative generation has had their time. A long, long, long time. They have proven incompetent at creating a healthy, sane, or safe world or cultivating ethical and happy sexualities in people. This may seem like a low blow on my part, but since the Catholic sex abuse scandals, I feel anyone touting sex negative messages and appealing to benevolent patriarchy as deserving our trust hasn’t got a leg to stand on. It is time to try something new. And, honestly, I’d be shocked and amazed if we could mess it up any worse than it already is.
Parental ownership of children needs to be challenged on every societal level. Parents need to rethink their role. As a parent, you are raising a human being who belongs inarguably and only to their own individual self. They can and will choose for themselves (eventually) and you have no right ethically (albeit still legally, but times, they change) to dominate and control them. It is your appropriate role only to support and equip them to make the best choices they can once they are able and ready. Our broader society does not seem to know what rape is. And it certainly does not know what child abuse is either. I’d like to ask those Parents Television Council folks, why don’t you ask young adults – er, I mean children – how they experience the show… or yourselves. Sound scary? Cause if it does, you should do some thinking.
April 20, 2011 § Leave a Comment
There’s a lot of necessary and important conversation going on surrounding the ways our society coerces people into sex they don’t want. Dismantling dominance culture and realizing the ways that rape culture solicits us to participate in a system of oppression and abuse is one of the most important works facing new wave feminism. I want to flip the coin a bit and talk about the side of coercion not usually focused on, societal pressure to not have sex even when consent is present for everyone involved. Just as people will express consent when the consequences of not doing so create too much risk, we will also refrain from expressing or acting on consent to sex when the environment and consequences are too high risk. It short, just as much as you can be forced into sex you don’t want, you can be forced to deny sex you do want. I see both as sexual coercion and as traumatic experiences.
My youth was shaped much more by this experience and my relationship to my own consent more damaged and suppressed by it than sex I was forced to have. I know many of my friends, especially in high school, and sexual partners since then have had similar experiences, especially those raised in environments shaped by conservative religion. I think a lot of people have.
I grew up in a small, rural town in the Midwest, where there was a church and a liquor store adjacent on every corner. There was an atmosphere of poverty and despair, an enormous amount of meth production that went unaddressed. It fit the bill for everything that is wrong with the commonplace hypocrisy of the system often attempted to describe by the inadequate phrase “conservative Christianity.”
The first place I went to as a young person looking for ways to ground my sexuality in a love ethic was the Christian church and Christian writing available to me. No one else was talking about ethics, and no one else was talking about sex, at least not outside of jokes and secret discussion with other teenagers I knew. The shortage of information and resources available would shock most New Englanders, indeed I have shocked many a friend with my description of “sex ed” in my school, which was showing us horrid pictures of STI’s and one graphic birth video. No one talked about the relationship elements, except Christians.
I went to youth group. I studied the Bible. I read books like those by Eric and Leslie Ludy and Elisabeth Elliot. And I got more and more confused.
The compromise I struck with my conscience resulted in an almost complete suppression of my sexuality. I was uneasy and disturbed by the marriage-focused dating lit I found. I stopped thinking “sexual” thoughts and stopped masturbating. I focused on my energies on other things, mostly good ones that served me well, mainly on genuine love bonds in friendships and on the education that got me out of my town and my family of origin once I graduated high school.
When I fell in love with one of my close friends my junior year, I felt a new round of turmoil. All of a sudden, my sexuality, which I’d mostly buried rather than evolving, was all I had to work with in negotiating my first really passionate romantic bond. I had a great relationship with Tom. He was an artistic, high status, attractive boy who played in a metal band and had long hair was new to the area. He moved between clichés and was one of those rare high school students of high status who is socially generous and disrupts bullying. He was the sort of guy that parents and teachers dub a bad boy and other teenagers consider really nice and a good guy. Tom had been moved around all his life and had negligent parents who were largely hands off. He’d had lots of sex and had lots of guilt mixed in with it. By the time we broke up, a year and a half later, we’d done a lot of making out and both done a lot of freaking out about ourselves and our bond, which was mostly unconstructive. The main theme of those freak outs was whether or not our bond was ethical, whether or not we were treating each other with genuine love and respect.
I think now, we weren’t, but not because we didn’t want to, but because we were unresourced, unsupported, unskilled, and not yet free to go and find those things for ourselves. I can see now how many factors were at play in frustrating our connection to each other, which was inclined to involve a deeply passionate sexual bond: lack of safer sex information to allow us to talk out our risks and evolve sexual practices we were both comfortable with, lack of parental support and instead threats and shaming, a complete lack of privacy in both our homes, sex negativity in our culture and school, intense teen negativity, unconscious assumptions about what having sex meant about us and about our bond, unprocessed family trauma, and ingrained sexist beliefs about gender, and the intensely sex negative, body negative, fear-based conservative sexual ethics our Christian (he was raised Catholic) religious backgrounds imprinted into us. It is very hard to make any sex, much less beautiful, consensual, fulfilling sex happen in the midst of an environment that hostile.
There was a general impression I took, particularly from the youth group culture I experienced, that the goal of adults was to keep teenagers from engaging in wild, reckless, foolish, catastrophically damaging sex they thought they wanted to have. Yet all around me, I saw young people confusedly trying to sort how to make real connections with each other and treat each other well and survive the utter misery of being teenagers. Namely, I saw a lot of young people willing to love and desperate to find out how to be loving in their romantic relationships and sex lives meeting not with support and education but instead being met with the sort of vague, hostile disapproval that crushes self-esteem and creativity of soul and a general imposition of fear about their sexuality and their sexual choices. The assumptions seemed to be that teens were bad, sex was bad, and that control was necessary, and that fear was an instrument of love.
From the way we treated each other in our bond as it did exist, I think Tom I could have experienced a lot of good with each other if we’d had sex. A partner who respects your rights and consent is bare minimum. A partner who resonates with the deepest core of you and wants to know as much of your real self as possible and to participate in and witness the journey as you coax that true self further and further out into the world – that’s where the best sex is had, and what I experienced in my relationships later in life. The inability to create that sexual bond and loss of one of those rare, intense soulmate sexual partners was an experience I was not able to name, but that mingled grief and despair into my sexuality that took me years to process and move past.
Why is sex not being had a problem? Because it is also a part of system of oppression, dominance, and control. And it alienates us from our own desires and consent and rights. It blurs the line between consent and coercion, between sex and abuse. Without clear definitions and practices along those simple lines, we will never see a world free from abuse and full of great sex.
In this culture, there is a complex web of consent confusion. Women don’t have sex for fear of pregnancy, slut-shaming, family abuse and rejection, and other punishments. Men don’t have sex because they’ve imbibed a belief that they have to be “masculine” to get sexual partners or because they’ve internalized a belief that their sexuality is inherently dominant and violating and a harm to their female partners. People of all kinds don’t have sex with people of the same gender because of internalized homophobia and fear of harm. People in relationships don’t have sex with anyone but their single partners for fear of societal punishments, loss of the relationship, and an inability to imagine or create healthy, safe, loving bonds free of the romantic myth, which most often translates in practice into a life of jarring serial monogamy. Christians don’t have sex because they believe it is wrong. People who don’t fit the image of physical beauty imposed on us all by an exploitative culture and media don’t have sex because they believe they are of less worth and less deserving of loving, passionate sex partners than others.
Enabling people to say no to sex they do not want and yes to sex they do want, and even maybe to sex they haven’t decided on yet is my vision for the world. Many seem to think chaos and more abuse would ensue. I think sorting sex from abuse, choice from coercion, free will from submission to dominant culture, love from fear will only create of more truth and more love. And yes, more sex.