[Note to family: This post contains some discussion of my personal sex life, and therefore may be hard to read. Feel free to skip this one.]
[Trigger warning: sexual coercion/abuse, appallingly bad sex ed]
When I was 15, an authority figure (a Catholic priest) stood in front of an auditorium of a couple hundred teenage girls, including me, and told me that, as a female, I was responsible for the sexual actions of men around me. My sexuality, my body, were dangerous, and I had to protect both myself and my male friends or partners from this danger I presented.
You see, men could try to control themselves, but biology was against them! In particular, we should avoid ever letting a guy get “too far” with us before marriage, because, you see, once a guy has “pitched a tent” he is ready to… um… “stay the night”, if you take my meaning, ladies. So if you want to know how far is “too far”, there is your answer.
Now obviously, this is absurd and angering on a number of levels:
- An adult man using these childish euphemisms for a ‘sex ed’ talk.
- An authority figure telling teenage girls, in a fairly blunt way, that they had to be ‘good girls’, because boys just couldn’t help themselves when it came to sex.
- A supposedly celibate man claiming expertise on sexual relationships.
- Anyone making the supposition that if a teenage girl gets a teenage boy hard, she has sinned and she is responsible for what he does with that erection.
…and I could go on. But the point is, at the time, I was actually impressionable enough and sexually inexperienced enough to buy this horseshit, and all the other horseshit that session fed us, including other such gems as “sex is like velcro(or tape)… it’s supposed to hold relationships together, but if you use it too many times it wears out and doesn’t work as well anymore, so if you have too much experience with sex in early relationships, you’ll never have a successful adult partnership/marriage!”
It’s unfortunate, because if I had had the balls to actually discuss this with almost anyone in my life, they would have set me straight. I don’t think my parents ever intended for me to get my sexual education primarily from the church–in fact, my mother is probably pulling her hair out now if she’s still reading this. (Sorry mom.) It just sort of happened. I moved from Maryland to Indiana in my freshman year of high school. Maryland taught health/sex ed in high school (they had a brief “your bodies are going to change soon!” discussion with us in sixth grade biology, but there was no real discussion of even the basic mechanics of sex, much less moral issues surrounding it), while my Indiana school district covered it earlier.
So at 15, I had no personal experience with sex, and while I’d scraped together a basic understanding of the mechanics of it from friends/tv/books/osmosis, I hadn’t discussed it with any adults and I really hadn’t come to any cogent conclusions about how sex was supposed to actually happen, or how I was supposed to feel about it, other than “Bad. not for me. for grownups only, for after you’re married. (which to a dorky 15-year-old who’d felt rather meh about dating up til this point, seemed about as unlikely as the sky falling.)” But I had friends and adults in my life with more sophisticated information and opinions than “don’t even think about it, or you’ll be responsible for sinning yourself AND tempting a boy to sin,” and had I discussed my feelings on it with them, I might have saved myself a lot of anxiety.
But unfortunately, at the time my own discomfort with the subject won the day. The “pitch a tent” metaphor and related messaging did stick with me appallingly well, and it did affect my life negatively. My first kiss was pretty PG-rated… there was some mild making-out, but no touching above or below the waist. And it was sweet and lovely, and I fell head-over-heels in puppy dog teenage love. BUT… I was also pretty sure that I saw his dick get hard, through his jeans, and I was mortified. It felt so good, and I had never dreamed that just kissing could be “too far”… and yet there it was. Well FUCK.
Thankfully, I did have some lovely friends who I eventually confided in, who informed me in no uncertain terms that teenage boys get erections “constantly”, and that what that priest had told me was “seriously fucked up.” And that sort of support helped some, but I still struggled with guilt about everything remotely sexual thing I did with my boyfriend for a long time, even though the vast majority of what I did in high school was still pretty PG-13. But more important than just the guilt itself was what the guilt obscured, which was what I really wanted from the sexual part of my relationship. I felt certain that the church had to be wrong, because surely at least kisses had to be okay. But where was the line, and what was okay for me to want? And what desires were coming from ME, from my mind and body, which from the church, and which from the horny teenage boy I was in love with?
My confusion and to be fair, inconsistencies, in what I wanted and what I claimed to want gave my boyfriend an opening. He guilted me in the opposite direction, pushing me to disregard my discomfort as the result of “faulty programming”. And part of me agreed with him! Part of me wanted all the same things he did. But I also wasn’t at the same place he was, as a boy who had been masturbating and watching porn for at least several years at that point. Even with religious arguments aside, I would have liked to move slower at times than he did, but I lacked the confidence, vocabulary, and negotiating skills to advocate for myself. Most importantly, I didn’t feel I fully had a right to argue. I mean, if I was provoking those desires in him, I was responsible for taking care of them… or so I’d been taught.
This set up an unfortunate dynamic in my relationship, as it set a precedent that it was acceptable to pressure me sexually. Looking back, that certainly feels coercive and gross, but it was too complicated to call assault or rape. Because early on, I let him pressure me in part because I did want what he wanted… I just also didn’t want it. I gave him mixed signals because my feelings were genuinely mixed, and the guilt I felt when I didn’t give in was an equal force to the guilt I felt for wanting things in the first place. And so later, when I had largely got past my religious and general “good girl” guilt about sexual activity and was willingly and enthusiastically having sex… I didn’t balk right away when he pressured me to have sex when I was tired or busy or angry at him or sick. I was used to taking responsibility for his desire, to feeling I had to yield to it. I was even used to initially resisting, and then coming to enjoy it. So even though I should have known better by then, even after I realized that what he was doing was very Not Okay… it was hard to fight back. Because I felt complicit, responsible, guilty.
Obviously, my boyfriend who did this was being a slimeball, and he deserves a lot of the blame for it. But it was possible, in part, because of the attitudes and beliefs I came to the relationship with. And those were things that I was taught.
And I would argue that I wasn’t unusual in being taught those things. Yes, my particular story is remarkable for how directly I was told by authority figures that I was responsible for the sexual feelings and actions of male people around me, and for my relative dearth of sex ed… but these general messages are things girl hear from our culture all the time. This idea that women have the responsibility to help men “control themselves”, that you can’t complain if you “asked for it”… that idea is everywhere. Every time someone questions whether a rape victim “brought it on herself”, they are perpetuating that idea.
And here is where the “hope” part of my story comes in. I know better now, and I am fighting back.
And I’m not alone.
I’m sure most of you are as tired as I am of the discussion surrounding the Steubenville rapes. The story is fucking everywhere, and a lot of the media coverage has been truly appalling, and that’s heartbreaking. But in response, we are calling out the fucked-up-ed-ness.
And yes, a lot of that is going on in the blogosphere, in circles where the more sane ideas about sex–about consent, and boundaries, and about rape being something men should stop doing rather than something women should stop bringing on themselves for fucks sake–are already common. But you know what? I’m also ranting about it to my friends. And on facebook. And people are seeing that.
People including my younger siblings, and younger cousins and friends.
And I have to believe that matters. Because yes, it is a small thing that I can say my 18-year-old sister has “liked” facebook posts of mine that have overtly feminist messages, that tell her rape is not inevitable, that consent does matter and that controlling male sexuality is not her fucking job.
But it’s also everything. Because guys, if the background noise of my life at 16 or 17 or 18 had contained the kind of overt positive messaging about feminism and boundaries and consent, the kind of messaging that I am trying to spread around in my little bubble and that I am seeing more and more of all the time…. that would have mattered. It may not have changed everything–my bad relationship became toxic for a variety of reasons, and sex was only one of them. But it still would have taken that much less time to shake the toxic beliefs that helped keep me with him.
Change doesn’t happen as fast as we want it to, and we have every fucking reason to be angry and frustrated that we’re still fighting these battles. But talking about it matters. Our anger matters. And that’s what gives me hope.