Colleges (and even high schools) have come under fire in recent years for their hookup cultures and the prevalence of sexual assault and rape on their campuses. According to RAINN, 1 in 4 women has been sexually assaulted on campus, and our justice system doesn’t know how to treat these cases, as evidenced by the outcome of the Stanford rape case. Consent has been highlighted as a relatively simple and necessary step in any sexual encounter, and yet it still seems to be a difficult concept for many to grasp. (See this cartoon teaching about consent using tea as a euphemism for sex.)
Some writers have recognized that consent is not taught to boys as they are learning about sex, which contributes to the problem. But I’d take it one step further and say that children, boys and girls alike, are not taught to talk to each other about it at all.
In the United States, we do not have a culture of communication when it comes to sex. Sexual desire is steeped in shame and sexual encounters are also times of extreme vulnerability, both of which make it difficult to identify and articulate needs and wants with partners. And the young age at which most Americans are starting to having sex (the average American loses their virginity at 17, according to the CDC) makes these conversations more difficult.
The way we learn about sex only exacerbates the problem due to the technical focus and gendered messaging of sex ed programs, where they exist at all. When I was growing up, my classes on the topic were almost clinical. We learned about the science of our bodies and reproduction: what was happening to our bodies as we went through puberty, the mechanics of sex, and the physical consequences of it, such as pregnancy and STDs. (It is also worth mentioning that it only covered heterosexual intercourse.) But we did not learn about the emotional part of sex or the cultural context in which it exists, which we were left to glean from friends, parents, older siblings, TV, and the internet.
My sex ed experience, in and out of the classroom, also reinforced gender roles and power dynamics. Girls were taught to cover up, travel in packs, and to never leave our cups unattended at parties, while movies like American Pie glamorized high school boys’ quest to get laid before graduation. All of these messages tell girls that sex is not for us and that our only power comes from withholding it. It also sets women up as the sole decision-makers. If men are assumed to want sex no matter what (boys will be boys), women then can be the only ones to say yes or no.
So how do we solve this problem? Unfortunately, adding a college seminar about sexual assault and consent, as many schools have done, isn’t going to do the trick. As with most societal problems, the answer is much more complicated. But we can start by 1) normalizing sex: have conversations with our kids about it, acknowledge that it can be an awkward and uncomfortable thing, and answer questions openly and honestly; 2) sending the same messages: make it clear that sex is for both men and women, that both are equally deserving of the benefit and both carry responsibility for the consequences; and 3) teaching communication skills: provide young people with the ability to have difficult conversations in a healthy and effective way.
I’m hopeful that openness and communication will lead to a sex culture that is based on mutual respect and understanding rather than power and shame.