Teaching our kids that sex means something

The truth is that someday my son might commit rape. And if that day ever comes, he may not even realize that he is a rapist. His victim may not realize that she has been raped. Certainly she would feel uncomfortable, maybe even deeply frightened and unhappy about what has happened, but I’m not confident that she would be able to identify and articulate what she has experienced as rape. Everything and everyone, their peers, the media, our culture, would collude to convince them that what has happened is not a crime.

A mother who seems genuinely concerned about the future of her 2-year-old son wrote this in a blog post recently. I feel like this highlights a lot of problems with the way we currently think about rape.

It’s kind of strange, when you think about it, to believe so fervently that a horrific crime can take place without the perpetrator, victim, or larger society recognizing it. I honestly can’t think of any other crime in which that could be the case. In some ways, it’s turning rape from a criminal act into a zen koan: If a sex act occurs and only the internet calls it a rape, did a rape take place?

It also raises the issue of the limited vocabulary that feminists and progressives have for talking about sex. The idea here is that the girl feels badly: she is unhappy, uncomfortable, scared when she thinks back on what happened. Therefore, it must be rape. Because, there is no other word to describe sexual acts that somebody looks back on with sadness or regret.

I mentioned my own first intercourse in an earlier post, but, to recap, I initiated and willingly engaged in sex with a guy I barely knew because I wanted to lose my virginity. Afterwards, I felt unhappy, uncomfortable, and scared. Why? It was not because I was raped. It was because sex was never meant to be engaged in so casually. I did the most vulnerable, intimate thing you can do physically with a person I had no connection to and honestly didn’t even like very much. I felt badly afterwards because I made a bad choice.

Drunkenly hooking up with somebody is going to be a bad choice. You are going to feel badly about it the next day. Hell, I’ve done things after I’d had too much to drink that made me feel terribly ashamed and uncomfortable the next day that had nothing to do with sex. Last fall I had too much to drink when out with friends, realized I couldn’t drive myself home, had a panic attack, started to cry, and needed one friend to drive me home and then another friend to take my car home. I wanted to crawl into a hole the next day, and I felt unhappy, uncomfortable, and scared when I looked back on what had happened.

This is not in any way to say that drunk women cannot be raped. They can. And, “but she was drunk” is never, ever an excuse for ignoring a woman’s no. But, that’s not what we’re now talking about. We’re not talking about situations where a woman said no or resisted and the man forced her to have sex and then excused it by saying “She was drunk” and the courts agree that her being drunk means that her no didn’t count. That is a clear example of forcible rape, and we now have laws in every state that would recognize it as just that.

What we’re talking about are situations where two drunk people engage in sexual activity that neither party objects to.

Is it wrong for a guy to have sex with a drunk girl? Yes. Even if he is equally drunk. Women feel differently about sex than men, for the most part. In that situation, the girl is far more likely to regret it the next morning than the guy, and I do think that guys have a responsibility to acknowledge that and act accordingly. But, if they fail to do that, they aren’t rapists. They might be good guys who made a mistake while drunk. They might be douchebags. They might be guys who have a pattern of taking advantage of women and the girls in their class would be best to avoid them. But, what they did did not and should not meet the legal criteria for rape.

Protecting the feelings of women should indeed be a morally responsibility for men, but it should not be a legal responsibility. It would be profoundly anti-feminist to make it such. What happens in a situation where two drunk people have sex that neither resists and one later regrets it is sad, and it’s wrong and it causes pain, but it’s not rape. We need a language for talking about sex that is sad and wrong and causes pain beyond just labeling it “rape.”

I think in many ways this mother, and other people having this conversation about how to stop boys from raping, are misguided. People seem to want to figure out how to teach their sons to engage in hook-up culture without ever leaving a girl feeling hurt, confused, or scared. The problem is, such a thing is impossible. It will never happen. There is no way to engage in a culture of often-alcohol-fueled casual sex that leaves everybody always feeling great and empowered. That’s misunderstanding what sex is and how sex works. You will never teach your son to responsibly engage in hook-up culture because there is no responsible way to do so. You’ll never teach your daughter to be an empowered participant in hook-up culture because hook-up culture is not empowering. You will never teach teenagers to make wise choices about drunken sex, because drunken sex will always be a very, very unwise choice.

But what you can do is teach your kids that sex means something. Sex is the most naked, both physically and emotionally, that you can ever be with another person. And, because you are both physically and emotionally vulnerable, if you have it with somebody you don’t love and trust, there’s a good chance you will feel hurt, confused, sad, frightened, or bad. It’s not because you were victimized, and it’s also not because you are horrible. It’s just because you made a bad choice, as we all do, about many things. Your life isn’t over, you aren’t ruined, but you do have an opportunity to learn.

Let’s teach our children that sex and love cannot be separated. They should wait to have sex until they are in a loving, committed relationship.

And they should never, ever, ever mix sex and alcohol. It’s just as dangerous as mixing driving and alcohol, and the legal consequences are even more serious. If they absolutely cannot wait to have sex until they are in a loving, committed relationship, insist that they do it while totally sober, with a partner who is totally sober. Put the fear of God in them about that.

But don’t make that the ideal. A casual hook-up where both parties have given enthusiastic, affirmative, verbal consent while totally sober should not be the ideal we hold up to our children. The ideal is sex reserved for loving commitment, and if we are willing to go against the tide and teach them that, and help them to understand why that’s the case, then we will go a long way towards eradicating “rape culture.”

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