Sometimes Yes Means No
Buried on p.18 of the New York Times about two weeks ago was “Obama Seeks to Raise Awareness of Rape on Campus.” President Obama is creating a task force charged with, among other things, recommending best practices for colleges to prevent and respond to assaults on campuses. Rape is most common on college campuses and several deplorable statistics were cited in the article. 20% of college students (primarily women) have been assaulted, but only 12% of those students actually report the assault. In one study, 7% of male students admitted to committing or attempting rape and 66% of those students said they had done so multiple times.
I am terrified of violent rape by a stranger, as most women are. It informs how I deal with strangers. No eye contact. Walk swiftly and confidently. Pair up with someone for safety. As I’ve become older, my concern is less for myself and more for my daughter. Perhaps of more concern however, is how to talk to her and help her prepare for the variety of more nuanced sexual overtures she is bound to receive. I have been thinking a lot about sex on college campuses, as I prepare to send her to college this fall and wonder how to talk to her about it in a loving and supportive way. It’s not an easy conversation to have. My mother certainly didn’t have it with me. I found out about sex from boys who wanted to have sex with me. Talk about a conflict of interest.
While rape and sexual assault are of obvious concern, it is crucial that we teach our sons and daughters about navigating the murkier areas of sexual exploration and identifying some guidelines for consensual sex and nonconsensual sex. Yale published a document at the beginning of the 2013/14 academic year tackling the question of sexual misconduct and presenting a variety of grayer scenarios and how the university would rule on whether or not the situation was consensual. The goal is worthy but the tone was clinical and Gawker mocked the androgynous fictitious characters. Perhaps Freshman Orientation should include small group discussions facilitated by trained upperclassmen that would role-play various scenarios, teaching men to be respectful and teaching women to trust their instincts and teaching both to not be afraid to slow the process down. And to be aware of the disinhibiting effects of drinking alcohol. Consider this familiar scenario:
Young woman goes to party and flirts with young man she finds handsome. She is attracted to him. She wants to please him. After all, she has been brought up to be compliant and accommodating. She wants him to like her and only her. She is aroused and wants a physical encounter. As well as a lasting relationship. Young man wants to prove he is a player. He gets off on the sexual conquest, adding another encounter to his tally. The more sexual encounters he has the more likely he is to be considered popular and desirable. The more sexual encounters she has the more likely she is to be disdained as a slut. Not to mention she bears the risk of getting pregnant. Or an STD. It is in his best interest to get her to have sex with him. As curious as she is, sex is a much more mixed bag for the woman. Back in the dorm room with him, she may have second thoughts. No, I just want to kiss, she says, I am not ready for sex. Oh come on, he says, you led me on! She reluctantly acquiesces. After all, everyone else is doing it. Maybe she enjoys it, maybe not. Either way, she feels out of sorts about the encounter. The boy gets his win. It’s over. Is that consensual? No, it’s not. But it happens. All. The. Time.
It seems there is increasing pressure on girls (and boys) to go along and hook up casually, as if sex were just a physical need that must be met regularly with no emotional consequences. Consensual sex has gotten more complicated. Oh yeah, she pretends, I’m cool with sex and hooking up and comfortable with lots of experiences with different guys, with different girls, and all types of sex acts. Huh? Sexual contact is intimate and results in a range of emotional reactions. Young women may be propositioned by other women as well, which can be confusing. Is it trendy? Is it taboo? Female sexuality is more fluid and women form deep and intimate bonds with their friends which may lead to sexual intimacy. But women should be encouraged to say no to other women as well as to men, if she doesn’t want to go down that path.
Mother to daughter to granddaughter, it takes generations to change women’s attitudes and behavior toward men, sex, and intimacy. My mother, whose second husband was abusive, imparted to me through non-communication that sex is better left undiscussed and to be wary of men. The residue of her experience and its impact on her impacted me. The essence of her being is at the core of my being which is at the core of my daughter’s being.
Call me a prude (because I am), but casual hook-ups are not what I want for my daughter. Nor do I want her to be afraid of physical intimacy. Here’s what I want for my daughter as she becomes a woman and learns the difference between sex and making love.
Feel beautiful. Because you are beautiful.
Enjoy your body. Be comfortable with your naked body.
Have fun exploring your sexuality. Unafraid, but safely.
Know that it is okay to wait until you are older. Even if everyone else is doing it. The older you are, the more self-awareness you will have and the more likely you are to have an emotionally mature experience with your partner.
I hope you will move slowly when you explore your sexuality with another person. Get a sense of them as a respectful person who will appreciate you, body and soul.
I hope you have a number of fun and joyful sexual experiences that leave you confident and feeling loved.
I hope you have as few experiences as possible that leave you feeling bewildered, hurt, abandoned, violated, ashamed.
Remember that men may approach sex differently than you and that it may not serve you well to acquiesce.
You can say no.
You can ask for help.
You can talk to me. There is absolutely nothing you can say to me that would surprise me. I went to college.
You don’t have to talk to me. Thank goodness for aunts and cousins and wise friends who love you.
I love you.