BY LAUREN JOHNSTON
The #MeToo movement has brought on a tide of public energy in the fight against sexual harassment and assault. But, before we can address the question of what constitutes sexual harassment and assault, we need to examine our sexual culture more broadly. Doing so will hopefully shine light on what behavior is inappropriate—which will help men and women both—and help us reimagine a healthier relationship between sex and society.
To begin, the way we learn about sex is almost entirely negative. Don’t have sex; close your legs; be scared of pregnancy and STDs; don’t give yourself up to somebody who doesn’t deserve you. At the same time, we have a culture that embraces sex—to sell clothes, perfume, cigarettes, and anything up to diaper wipes and toenail clippers. Our cultural environment appeals to sexuality and is so saturated with sex that it’s hard to escape it. What’s the result of these conflicting messages? I think that, for girls especially, sexuality has been conflated with sexual objectification. There is a dichotomy between rejection of sex as physically and morally dangerous, and the glamorization and exploitation of sex to sell products, which strips us from the concept of sex within the context of pleasure and healthy relationships. We do not embrace sex for the right reasons.
In a sex-positive cultural environment, I imagine teaching the risks and rewards of sex simultaneously. Instead of a conversation that begins, “Don’t have sex, sex is bad, (you will get chlamydia and die),” we could have a conversation that highlights sex as something natural, beautiful, and as much a normal part of life as eating, sleeping, and breathing. It’s supposed to be enjoyable, not something to be scared of. It’s a way to connect with another person, not something that you do because it’s taboo, just to break the rules and show that you’re liberated.
We have taken steps, as a culture, to reclaim sex for women specifically. We have fought against the virgin-whore bind, and against the double standard that judges girls and praises boys for having sex. Today, we say to girls, “You can have sex with as many people as you want, because you are free; you can have sex without being judged for doing so.” And that is a step in the right direction. But when you think about this message, it omits the most important aspect of sex: pleasure. Enjoyment. Feeling close to another person. Exposing your physical and emotional vulnerability in an environment where you feel safe, respected, and cared for. In other words, it is not enough to say to girls that they can have sex. We need to talk about why, and in what contexts, sex is empowering—and conversely, when it is not.
Girls should learn that sex is supposed to feel good, and that sexuality is not something they should be embarrassed about. They should enter sexual encounters without feeling ashamed of their desire to orgasm, because there is no shame in sex—girls should not feel like they are losing something to another person, but gaining something for themselves. The #MeToo movement rightly brings up the issue of consent, but even the concept of consent can become problematic. The word itself means: “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” There is limited space in this definition for the person giving consent (usually the girl) to act willfully, because the word itself connotes the idea of the consent-giver as the passive object upon which somebody else enacts his desire. The word does not suggest reciprocal pleasure. It places the girl in the negative position, as one who gives. One reason why we don’t discuss the reciprocity of sex is because we tend to erase female sexuality. We are happy to sexualize girls’ bodies, and to advertise our own sexuality on social media (hello, Instagram), but we squirm at the thought that girls actually orgasm. Today, just because a girl will not be judged for having sex or exposing her body does not mean that the sex she has will be fulfilling or good—and we are not jumping out of our seats to correct the distinction. The conversation about what constitutes consensual sex is great, but to only talk about consent is limiting.
We need to change the terms on which sex is negotiated. We need to foreground female pleasure in the conversation—to recognize that girls have sexual desire, which assumes that they deserve to have fulfilling, consensual, and pleasurable sex, where they can expect that their partner will value her enjoyment. That is a model of sex that I believe would precipitate changes in sexual harassment and assault, for multiple reasons. First, it shifts the conversation away from one where the woman is always the vulnerable, objectified party. It places power at least somewhat back in her hands, by framing sex as mutually beneficial and a source of pleasure.
Second, I think that the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior would become much clearer if sex itself became more enjoyable for girls. As it stands, girls are still very much objects of men’s sexual desire, where their sexuality begins and ends with a man finding them attractive. Girls’ desire or potential to orgasm from sex is still largely ignored, because heterosexual sex still privileges male sexuality. Maybe if women had more to gain from sex in the first place, they wouldn’t come away from so many encounters feeling exploited.
A logical next step for the #MeToo movement is to begin a conversation about what empowering sex looks like. Hopefully then, the boundaries of appropriate behavior would become clearer, because women and men both would know what respectful, loving sexual relationships looked like. We could more easily apply the Aziz Ansari test: sexual assault, or sexual exploitation as a result of a culture that undervalues and stigmatizes female agency and sexuality? The two are categorically different, but both are worth examining and overcoming. Let’s empower girls to speak up for what they want and view themselves as central to sex. Boys, for their part, can recognize that girls are socialized to be accommodating and to please others. Instead of exploiting that socialization for their advantage, they should help girls realize their own power.