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What To Tell The Next Generation

November 24, 2008

I have kids.  I think a lot about the world I brought them into; how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.  Some days, I think I have no idea where to start.  Other days, I remember where to start: start now, with what I have, where I am.

We all learn the sexual culture a piece at a time.  If our early learning is all screwed up, it may take us a lifetime to figure it out.  (I’m reminded of a perhaps obscure Melissa Etheridge lyric: “There’s a hole in these jeans/I only wanted to fade/I’ve been ripping out the seams/Somebody else made tonight”.)  

We live in a culture that tells women that they are powerful and interesting when sexual, that begs them to be sexual, but that usually punishes and devalues them for it.  We live in a culture that tells boys it’s a competition, a joke and a prerequisite without telling them what “it” is, what it should be for them and their partners.  Mostly, we talk around it and hope they figure it out.  That’s a stupid strategy, popular only because adults are too embarrassed to act like adults in front of their own children.

So I started thinking before they could walk about what to say about sex.  My children will eventually become adults, in all probability sexual beings, and I can’t just close my eyes and hope they figure it all out.  Last May, I had a chance to sort though some of those things in a thread about abstinence-only education at Feministing (here).  I’m revisiting this now, and reprinting it here with only slight edits, because it still reflects my thinking.  What I’m aiming for is a model for my kids to work from when they are making the decisions that young people make, whatever their gender expression, whoever their partner(s), whatever they are thinking about doing.

When it’s time for them to decide whether they are ready for sex, I will provide them a better answer than “no.” Because that doesn’t work, and because it’s not our view. Instead, since they will ultimately make that decision alone, without me standing over them, they need to know how to decide.

(1) Consent
They need to know that they need to feel safe, know their limits will be respected, believe their partner sees them as an equal. They need to hear and respect their partner’s limits and see their partner as an equal. They need to know that consent is not the absence of “no,” that consent is the presence of “yes,” it is affirmative, enthusiastic participation. Sex with a partner who is merely willing to acquiesce is wrong; if their partner is not into it, I expect them not to push.

(2) Limits
If they can’t talk about what both of their boundaries are, what they want to do, then they also will not be prepared to say when they are over their heads, moving too fast or want to stop. If they are with a partner who can’t verbalize limits, how could they know if their partner is okay? The only way to make sure that both people are getting what they want is to know that both people are willing to actively say what they want. That’s a high standard, but in my view it’s a lot more realistic than “wait until marriage,” and a lot more likely to lead to a lifelong healthy view of sex.

(3) Respect
They need to know that they and their partner have the same view of what it means. Are they both in love? Is this a relationship or not? What are the rules of the relationship? If it’s just play, are they both prepared to say that it means neither partner has any expectations of the other?

(4) Safety
They need to know what precautions to take and be able to discuss them. If they can’t walk into a drug store, buy condoms and lube and tell their partner they intend to use them, they are not ready. When they are ready to answer those questions for themselves and resolve them with their partners, they can go ahead and do what they like; if they are not ready then they need a reason to say that, even when there are no authority figures there to wag a finger.

That’s not to say that we want to encourage early sexual activity. We plan on telling them honest information about how teens nationwide stack up, to counter the rumor mill about who did what. We don’t want them thinking they are late to the game if they are not sexually active at 16 or 17; they have a lot of company, though much of the culture would lead one to conclude that 14-year-olds are having intercourse in the hallways or school, it’s not true. And we plan to de-emphasize intercourse: lots of women don’t really enjoy penetration until they are older (though that’s not universal), not everyone prefers intercourse to oral or manual stimulation, and it comes with a lot of risks that other sexual activities reduce.

There are alternatives to hysteria and denial. One such alternative is to teach our children from childhood, progressively, assuming that they will become adults who will make these decisions for themselves and preparing them to do so.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2008 3:00 am

    I’ve always felt very bad about the whole “Yes Means Yes” concept – mainly because that has totally not been part of my sex life.

    As a young boy, (I’m talking early elementary school age here) my mom had the brilliant idea that it was OK to stop her sexual relationship with her husband (my dad) and begin one with me.

    That went on for the next 5 years or so.

    As an adolescent, as my peers were begining to explore sex, I was totally left out.

    Not that I didn’t notice my female peers (far from it) just I was so deeply uncomfortable with sex that I was unable to go any further than just looking and dreaming.

    Now, if you’re male, that’s a pretty rough place to be in – at that age, you start getting the message that “real men” are sexually active with girls, and if you aren’t out there “getting some” then you’re some kind of (fill in homophobic slur here).

    So I got to be a really good liar – a skill that’s stood me in good stead down through the years.

    My dating/sex life didn’t begin until my mid 20’s, and it was far from “mutual consent” of the “yes means yes” variety that you advocate.

    I had just gotten into the Carpenters Union apprenticeship program at that point in my life, and for the first time in my life I was making good money.

    So my social interactions with women were very much of the transactional variety – if I brought them X number of fancy restaurant meals/movie outigns/trips to the casinos of Atlantic City/articles of designer clothing ect I would get Y amount of female companionship and Z amount of sex.

    And yes, the brought and paid for companionship was less than enjoyable – and the commercial sex was even worse (the only pleasurable sexual encounter I’ve had in my entire life was with a professional stripper – somehow, the fact that it was open commerce, rather than a business deal mascarading as romance made it more tolerable).

    But, it wasn’t like I felt that celibacy was an option – after all, that’s not ver manly, now is it?

    In fact, that’s kind of (fill in homophobic slur here)!!!!

    When I hit age 40 last year, I terminated the last of these commercial relationships, and embarked on a life of covert celibacy [and no, I won’t be telling any of the men I work with about this newfound abstenance – cause that just would not fit into the manhood script]

    I honestly wish I could envision a world where the whole “Yes Means Yes” thing would work for me – where that would actually lead to me having a fulfilling sex life.

    I just cannot see it, unfortunately – and I have to tell you, that makes me really really really sad!

  2. December 2, 2008 10:00 am

    Gangbox, I’m sad for you. What was done to you was wrong. The damage that flows from it is not your fault, though you are stuck dealing with it.

    I know well several people who were sexually abused, and I know that the damage has never left them. You don’t talk at all about seeking professional help, and I don’t know if you lack the resources, or if you have gone down those avenues without success, or you haven’t tried for some reason. My thought, based on watching some dear friends work through the damage, is not to give up on yourself. If celibacy is what you want, then it’s right for you, and to hell with what other people think is manly. But if it’s not what you want (and I get the sense that it isn’t), then professional help may be able to get you to a place where you can have meaningful and fulfilling sexual and romantic interactions.

    I’m really sorry for what was done to you, and I hope you can find some peace.

  3. December 2, 2008 10:16 am

    Thomas,

    I’ve actually been in psychoanalysis since I was 21 (I’m 40 now) – that’s how I got as self aware as I am today.

    On the celibacy thing, I am sexually attracted to women, and, in a perfect world I would like to be sexually active.

    Problem is, we don’t live in a perfect world.

    I really dislike the whole transactional sex thing, and I never want to do that again, and I would like to at some point in my life be sexually involved with a woman who likes me, rather than how much money I make.

    I don’t see that happening, because on the rare occasions when i meet an age appropriate single woman who’s not into transactional sex, I really have no idea how to relate to them in such a way as would lead to developing a sexual relationship.

    I’d like to learn how to do that – and I have no idea where I would learn those kind of skills (it’s not like carpentry – there’s no blueprints or specifications to tell you step by step what to do “Step 1 snap access line Step 2 measure back to your dimention line ect ect ect” so I have no clue as to how to make that happen)

    So, I’ve resigned myself to a life of covert celibacy – avoiding as much contact with women as possible (because that only reminds me of the kind of life I will never have) and telling other men as little as possible about my personal life (because it’s embarrassing and unmanly).

    Which sucks – but even after 19 years of therapy I really don’t see any other way out.

    And the older I get, the harder it is to find an age appropriate single woman who would be compatible – and the harder it is to explain the “gaps” in my life (there really aren’t that many African American men in their early 40’s who are childless – to many women, this is taken as a sign of closet homosexuality… only they’ll use a much harsher and more bigoted word for that)

    So I unfortunately don’t see a way out, Thomas, other than permanently giving up hope of ever having a real sex life.

  4. Miranda permalink
    December 24, 2008 2:32 pm

    Gangbox? Hi, I’m a 40 year old woman. Maybe I can help.

    What works is to find areas of interest…hobbies, books, fandoms, whatever…and then use the magic of the internet to locate women who share those interests. Not dating sites; those are horrible. I like to use meetup.com and interest-based local email lists (local such as the city I live in.) Meetup is just that…meetups. For the regular email lists, when I get a sense of whom I click with online, I arrange to meet for coffee, often as a group. At said meeting, you discuss topics of interest (as well as a bit about yourself) and if you like that person, you arrange your next meeting with them around said topic of interest. Say you are a science fiction fan: You arrange to see a sci-fi related movie that’s playing, or go listen to an author speak at a bookstore, or such. Avoid super lavish things at the beginning.

    When it’s just at the “friends meeting” stage, go mostly dutch. Now I’m not saying don’t buy her a cup of coffee, but don’t spring for expensive things and pay the whole way yourself. This method will instantly weed out the gold diggers. It will also weed out a few old-fashioned girls who think men are always supposed to pay, but…oh well, that may be for the best. If/when you develop a romance, then you can take turns paying for outings.

    So basically, while relating on the basis of a shared interest, you gradually get to know each other. And possibly there is chemistry; if not, you have gained a friend and you just keep meeting more women.

    I met my partner on a gothic email list. Went out for coffee. Been living together happily for 8 1/2 years now. It works!

  5. Daphne B. permalink
    December 30, 2008 10:51 am

    I just want to second the advice about meeting people online. It’s what worked for me and my husband (two socially awkward, geeky people outside the mainstream). It gave us a chance to get to know each other as people before we brought sex/romance into the equation. Also I wanted to add that he had a lack of experience with women, but that didn’t stand in our way. So, gangbox, I hope you keep trying, because the chances are greater than zero that you can find someone that way.

  6. April M. permalink
    April 4, 2009 5:19 pm

    May I also suggest trying different kind of therapy, if that is of any interest to you. I know about too many people who have tried one approach to psychotherapy without success and never get the chance to experience other methods that may be more helpful. It sounds to me that psychoanalysis has not quite given you the results you want, so you may want to look into other types of counseling/therapy (such as solution focused therapy, cognitive behavioral, interpersonal, skills training, etc.). There’s a lot out there…😉

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