Your Childrens’ Questions
Many Questions But Few Good Answers
Note: I base my beliefs on responses from students in the thousands of sessions I have presented across the U.S. in middle schools, high schools, colleges, juvenile and adult prisons, group homes among other venues. I have presented approximately one hundred sessions in high schools and colleges in Canada. Based on my reception from Canadian students, I feel my conclusions are valid for Canadians as well. Additionally, high school and college students from nearly every country in the world who attended my educational sessions while they were studying in the U.S. have remarked that my discussion of the toxic socialization of boys in the U.S. matched their experiences growing up even considering differences of language and culture.
Cautiously Entering the Minefield of Students’ Emotional Lives
In the thirty-three years that I have been educating students, some things haven’t changed. As they arrive for classes or speeches, they file into the room looking bored or at least appearing to not be expecting to learn anything new or useful. Nor do they expect to be surprised. The public faces they present to me the outsider, the speaker, are carefully controlled and maintained. Their “cool” facial expressions are masks, an attempt to protect themselves that they wear to (barely) cover the seething mass of emotions and questions and doubts that roil just beneath the surface. As there are few positive surprises from adults in their daily school routine, they think they know what to expect from me. “Come on, surprise me,” they seem to say to me, “I dare you. I’m holding my breath.”
They are certain that I’ll be like the other adults (especially men) in their lives. They are positive that I will not take the time to answer their questions or validate their concerns, because so few adults previously have taken the time to listen to them and show them that they care about them by speaking honestly and by listening respectfully to them. The way that most adults choose to interact with students (or more frequently to not interact with students) unfortunately bears out students’ belief that their lives must be unimportant and irrelevant to adults. Students are resigned to this. From similarly bitter experience with adults, they are positive that nothing I have to tell them will have any relevance whatsoever to their lives and life stories. Students see that adults don’t know about their lives. Whether that is due to adults not wanting to know or not caring to know is not clear to teens and ultimately is beside the point.
In an evaluation of my presentation a high school boy wrote, “We need more people like this guy to teach us their stories.” Few students have been exposed to men who understand that the personal is the political and speak appropriately and from their experience. My anecdotal, personal style does not resonate with everyone, but does engage most students. I don’t feel that they need statistics. None of them see themselves as a statistic so they tune out discussions that feature statistics. Neither will any of them ever change their attitudes or behaviors in response to a recitation of statistics. They do not need to stay in their heads, debating frequently contradictory statistics that are irrelevant except to prove that a problem exists. They don’t need their experiences proven to them statistically. They may not be able to state the exact parameters of the huge problem of ending sexual assault (few people can), but most of them already know from experience that there is a real problem. They need help imagining a world without sexual violence. They need practice feeling their feelings about these often-painful topics. They need help changing their world, learning how to be and feel safer.
They have already learned from adults’ unwillingness to discuss sexual assault, that critiquing rape culture—let alone ending it— is hopeless.
They desperately need (and want) to hear from adults who care about them enough to tell them the truth. That is what they are lacking: adult models who demonstrate caring. Yes I want them to learn my thousands of truly important facts, so at first I was frustrated by evaluations from students where in response to the question, “What is one new thing you learned from the speaker,” they responded with some variation of, “That there were men who care.” Later, when I was reading evaluations, I would mutter to myself, “Well, of course I care. That should be obvious. I could’ve just sent them all signed, glossy photos with a note enclosed reading, ‘I care.’ Weren’t they listening to my material?”
As I thought more and listened to students express amazement and appreciation that a man would dare to care publicly about these unimportant “female issues,” I came to realize that most of the “normal” men they have been exposed to in and out of schools hide behind shields, hide hoping to keep students from seeing inside them to see who the speaker really is. Sometimes, what the speaker talks about, is at direct odds with what the speaker believes, or how they act. Students sense this really well. That is why I like addressing students—they keep me honest.
I have an extensive agenda for what I want to teach students. I find it facilitates helpful communication to speak honestly and personally to them. They are disarmed because it seems to them that so few men to speak as I do. Few male students have an idea of how a caring man they might aspire to be like acts. Few females or males can imagine partnering with a caring man (or voting for one). Similarly, few can imagine how to raise sons who will grow to be caring men. So many females have resigned themselves to accepting the consequences of the low expectations males have for themselves and for one another. I want males and females to hold males to a higher, more ethical standard. “Teaching them stories” is effective and I am comfortable modeling behaviors I’d like them to adopt or consider “normal.”
As I step into the landmine-filled zone of student expectations and experiences, I definitely do surprise them. Initially, they are startled when I take them seriously and when I seem to care about them. Beyond my caring, they are shocked that I seem to know all about them, especially about the “secret” details of their lives, secret because so few adults have previously bothered to ask or listen when they tried to tell them. Their shock and disbelief quickly turns into appreciation as they see that I will answer their questions and validate their concerns and in my responses demonstrate that I take them and their lives very seriously. That I respond as I do reassures them and comforts them. It also frightens some of them. As I talk candidly about sex, rape, incest, domestic violence and sexual orientation, among other necessary, but loaded topics, it is inevitable that everything I bring up will resonate uncomfortably for someone.
This is often the first time that they have heard issues discussed publicly (in a classroom or auditorium) as societal problems that they previously only felt were their own painful, personal secrets. This is also often the first time that they have heard that other people have had painful experiences similar to theirs. Hearing stories similar to theirs can inspire in them a stunned realization of commonality with other people instead of the feelings of alienation from other people that moments before were normal for them. This can be deeply reassuring, with the prospect of long years of feeling isolated suddenly ended.
It can also be deeply threatening for the same reasons. Their fragile sense of self was precariously maintained, contingent on distrustfully keeping other people at arms length. They can feel further threatened when they fear that their own unique story could suddenly become lost, made public without their consent, taken from them by these recent “allies,” strangers who might be able speak of their own pain better, faster, more persuasively. No one, not even someone who has survived a seemingly identical experience, can know how exactly how another person feels. These new, unfamiliar “allies” might presumptuously speak for the newly self-identified survivor, and misrepresent their abuses and feelings or reinforce a stereotype of “helpless victim” who needs another person to “interpret” for them. Worst of all, they might simply cruelly deny the painful experiences of the survivor.
As they sit there reeling, they focus on me instead of the torrent of feelings they are feeling. As they strain to make sense of the caring man paradox I embody, they try to imagine what in my life would explain my motivation for dedicating my life to educating students, especially males about these topics. From questions in sessions and from their comments written on evaluation forms, some wonder was I raped or was someone I know raped; some speculate about my sexual orientation as if the answer to any or all of those possibilities would provide the complete answer for my passion for the topic. The mystery nags at them. Why have no other men in their lives talked as I do, they wonder; what makes me so completely different from those “normal” men? One student asked me, “Did you have parents?” “No kid, I sprang forth fully formed from the forehead of Andrea Dworkin.” Since I am available at that moment and only in their lives for the duration of the session, it is more convenient and safer to direct their attention, their energy, and sometimes, their fury at me instead of at those who neglected, misled and abused them.
I haven’t quite seen and heard “it all” in my over 4,700 speeches, workshops and trainings, nonetheless I am rarely surprised by the range and even vehemence of student responses to me and my material. Undereducated by adults and under-protected by them as well, they have been left alone to try to make sense of the abuses they have lived through, the abuses they have witnessed, the abuses friends, relatives and partners have lived through and described. Some of them provided great emotional support for those friends. Few had help from adults healing and putting their abuses into perspective. Many others were neglected emotionally and physically growing up, and they raised themselves and their peers as well as they could. They too can be set off by my discussion.
Their discomfort and fear and resistance are natural responses and are sometimes expressed as anger at me as they realize the enormity of how much they have previously been neglected, lied to and abused by adults. “Why couldn’t my father, mother, teachers or any other adult I know talk to me about any of these important topics?” they rage silently to themselves and sometimes aloud. “How can it be that I am this old when I first heard these topics discussed? Why didn’t anyone who knew me and who supposedly cared about me tell me anything at all helpful about sex and relationships and domestic violence and rape? And why didn’t any of them protect me?”
Initially, it took me some effort to learn how to feel comfortable being so open in front of students. The very few adults I encountered growing up who were comfortable with themselves shone like beacons, standing out from the mass of adults who were just going through the paces unable to see beyond the overwhelming minutiae of their own lives. Seeing how hungry students were for adult honesty and direction helped push me to become increasingly at ease with myself so I could be a more effective ally for them. In response to my honesty, the students were trusting enough to express their questions aloud or written down and turned in to me. The questions poured out of them, becoming more intense (and self-revelatory) as my stated receptivity to answering “any” question increased. Boys and girls evidently feel safe enough to ask the questions that kids have had for generations, but rarely have had answered by adults.
I don’t want to sound like their Grandpa when I talk to students about sexual assault and sexuality, so the approach that I most avoid would sound like the familiar, “When I was your age everything was different [read: much better].” Sex education was definitely different forty-plus years ago. But much better? No. It would have been had we grown up in an educational Eden where schools discussed sexuality openly and appropriately, building on and refining the thorough, unembarrassed sex-positive messages of parents and clergy. None of us grew up in a world faintly resembling that Eden. Any Grandpa’s recollection of having done so would be dishonest or delusional, an utter fantasy.
But as poor as the sex education was that adults in their infinite discomfort and internal conflict inflicted on the kids of my generation, the current abstinence-only sex education travesty has diminished the substance of the sex education of the 1960’s through the 1990’s. Simply put, the objective of abstinence-only sex education partisans and their followers is the death of comprehensive sexuality education. This killing off of comprehensive sex education is just practice for them on their way to their ultimate goals. These are:
- the end of all birth control,
- re-illegalization of all abortion,
- girls and women forced to carry their pregnancies to term no matter the health of the pregnant female, the fetus, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and
- forced marriage to tie everything into “nice, neat, happy, heterosexual packages.”
The purpose of the introduction and promotion of abstinence-only sex education is merely to provide a smokescreen behind which they can hide their true intentions. And they have been succeeding having encountered insufficient resistance to their transparently hateful and destructive agenda.
You might ask, “What does abstinence-only sex education have to do with rape prevention education?” It has everything to do with rape prevention education. In high schools, sex education class is where most rape prevention education was presented in the past. Even as the majority of students nationally leave high school without having taken part in a single rape prevention session and many do not receive any sex education at all, the substance and value of sex education has been negatively impacted by the advent of abstinence-only sex education. Rape prevention material was one of the first casualties. It was either removed outright or rape crisis and community activist educators were forced to accept the non-negotiable demand that they “tone down” their presentations. As all “controversial” material was removed; what was left became useless or nearly so. I am reminded of the true story of a town in Wyoming that hired an AIDS educator and then summarily fired them for discussing sex! Without the permission to discuss sex openly, what else is left, scolding and threatening and lying to students?
If you work with or interact with high school or college students and it seems to you that they possess less sex education knowledge in the past decade, you are correct. You do have more remedial teaching to do. From the point of view of its practitioners, abstinence-only sex education has succeeded brilliantly to that extent. Students remain as needful of and are less prepared for any honest, substantive rape prevention and sexuality education material you present.
Other necessary topics removed from or made less likely to be added to curricula due to the degeneration of sex education into abstinence-only sex education include unbiased discussions about: sexual orientation; how survivors can recover from incest or other sexual assault; how to increase the likelihood of safety in heterosexual relationships; how to increase the likelihood of safety in gay relationships; how boys and girls are affected by growing up as witnesses or secondary survivors of domestic violence; how pernicious racist stereotypes distort our perceptions about sex and sexual assault; what someone can do to help support a friend, relative or lover who is a survivor of incest or other sexual assault; how to communicate with a partner about sex; how to make sense of (and survive) gender-role expectations; embracing a more expansive and kind definition of gender as a spectrum to include transgender, intersex and gender variant folks as valid humans too; the slut vs. stud sexual double standard; how to form and sustain and, if necessary, end relationships non-violently; male responsibility-taking for their contribution to spreading Sexually Transmitted Infections, making babies and helping raise children; teaching a loving, mutually-pleasurable, consensual sexuality that bears no resemblance to sexual assault; and how to eventually teach their children about sex in a more humane and honest way than they were educated, among many other topics.
The omission of these topics and refusal to allow any discussion about sex even to teach about how good sex can strengthen a long-term, committed relationship is why sex education and especially abstinence-only sex education is of little value to students. And yes, you’re right. Sex education curricula before abstinence-only sex education didn’t include more than a hint of these crucial topics either. But all curricula should and won’t as long as so many adults lack the courage to speak out and take a stand against abstinence-only sex education and for much more honest, thorough sex education than the compromised mess (abstinence-only or its predecessors) which schools have long offered.
The following questions are representative of the thousands of questions submitted to me at my rape prevention presentations in middle schools and high schools across the U.S. and Canada. I will answer questions asked me aloud in sessions, but to encourage students to protect themselves emotionally, I encourage them to write their question on a piece of paper and pass it to me to read aloud and answer. This respects their anonymity. Every one of these questions has been asked of me five or more (often many more) times in different locales and decades.
Girls asked the first thirty-five questions;
I have separated their questions from the boys’ questions.
- If someone much older than you tells you he “loves you,” how do you know for sure if they’re sincere or not?
- If a girl said she wanted to have sex with a boy but she started to drink and said she no longer wanted to have sex with the boy and he still had sex with her anyways what should she do?
- When does an interaction become rape? What is the line? Can girls change their mind?
- Is a girl who has been raped still a virgin? Explain.
- Why do boys always want sex? Why do they have so many gross ways to ask for sex?
- So if a boy eats a girls pussy and she didn’t want him to, it’s not called rape is it?
- Why do guys always act so immature when it comes to “sex” topics?
- Is anal sex normal? Does it always hurt? Do all girls bleed after anal sex?
- If a girl doesn’t get wet while someone is having sex with her, what does that mean?
- When a female doesn’t have an orgasm does it mean the sex wasn’t good?
- Can girls in high school even have an orgasm?
- Why can girls control themselves in situations involving sex more than guys?
- Okay, so I had intercourse. Is that all there is?
- Why do boys beg girls to have sex with them until they say yeah and when they do have sex, the boys always comment like “I didn’t have sex with that bitch!”
- Why would boys stick their fingers in a girls vagina but they got a problem with sticking their tongue in a girls vagina?
- Why do guys call girls cunts and why is that such a strong word?
- Why do so many boys like porn off the Internet?
- Why don’t boys treat girls like they’re people?
- Does sex hurt?
- When I was younger I was sexually abused for about 2 years by my father, a minister. I have had sex before, I want to again, but I feel like my body is nasty and dirty. People say that my body is nice but I don’t see it. How can I overcome my insecurity?
- Is it our responsibility to let boys know that we don’t think the same thing (about sex)?
- On a scale of 0 to 10, how many boys are nice and will listen to her if she says “no?”
- What is incest?
- Is fingering or eating out someone considered sex?
- What are some constructive ways to “cool” sexual feelings? How about when you’re with someone else?
- How would you tell if a man is abusive if you just met him and he gives a good impression?
- Why is it that some men the first thing they ask you is “Are you a virgin?” (Sixth-grade girls and seventh-grade girls have asked me this!)
- How should a girl react to a catcall?
- What if you tell a guy you will, then you change your mind, is that wrong?
- While my mom never talked to me about sex she just told me “you better not get pregnant!” Sex is something I thought was real important to talk about. Why do you think my mom is afraid?
- What advice do you give a girl who finally gave in and now the guy really wants nothing to do with her? Does he think it was a game and he wins?
- How terribly horrible is “Blue Balls?” 1 is least painful, 10 is most painful.
- Why can’t people believe in true love?
- What is the normal age to have sex?
- What is the key to keeping a loving relationship with someone going?
Over the years, boys have asked some of the same questions that the girls did above. Boys asked these following questions.
- What exactly is oral sex?
- Can you give examples of how to talk about sex with a partner?
- What if a girl is passed out at a party and guys go into the room and have sex with her? Could that be rape?
- You keep mentioning the female orgasm. Do they really do that?
- If a guy saw his father beat up his mother, that means he will do that to women too?
- How old were you when you first had sex? Did you feel good about it? Do you now?
- Do men who get raped or sexually assaulted as a child have a higher chance of raping or sexually assaulting someone else?
- What if we both are drunk? Can I charge her with rape?
- How do you last longer?
- You mean if I grab a girl’s crotch, that could be rape? That’s not fair.
- Where do you find the hole at? How do you have sex?
- Is an erection consent?
- I’ve done what you are talking about (rape). What should I say to the girl now?
- How can you get through to friend who you are afraid guys might take advantage of but won’t listen to ANYONE?
- What age do most people have sex?
- When girls orgasm, why is it so much?
- I just heard about prostitutes. It’s cool that they will do whatever you want. Is that true? Why do they do that?
- You mean if a lady has sex with a boy—that could be rape?
- You talk a lot about men who know that they are sexually harassing women. Do you feel that punishment should be as harsh for men who make the mistake of misreading emotions from their partner? Especially when there is no class or program in how to handle these social situations?
- A girl put her finger in my butt and I liked it kinda. Does that mean I’m gay? I mean, she isn’t a guy or anything.
- In pornos lesbians are sucking men’s penises. Is that what lesbians do?
These touching and hopefully shocking questions and the ignorance, pain, fear, loneliness, and hopelessness they reveal, should illuminate the extent of the problems facing today’s kids. Most of these same questions would have been asked by teens and pre-teens twenty years ago, fifty years ago and one hundred fifty years ago if they had had the chance to ask. Few educators then would have answered them either. When will educators and parents stop availing themselves of the excuse, “No one talked to us honestly?”
Like the kids of previous generations, today’s kids (and tomorrow’s?) will eventually stop even hoping that their questions will be answered and come to accept that the idea of sex they assume to be normal is how it should be and need not and cannot change. Their dissatisfaction with sex, their yearning for something better will be their “neurotic” problem. They will be unlikely to see that the male-defined and controlled, too frequently dishonest, coercive and just plain bad sex they have inherited is the problem, not them. They will come to believe that their desires for better sex and great relationships are “unrealistic” and “immature.” Maybe if they lowered their expectations and settled for even less, they think, at least then they wouldn’t be so disappointed.
These are all our children. Honest answers to their questions would serve as the foundation of an excellent curriculum for students, reassuring them and helping them imagine and eventually be prepared to engage in sex which was much safer, more conscious, more ethical, more honest and more pleasurable for both participants. If you have responded honestly to these or other questions, I applaud you and consider whomever you spoke to, your students or your children, to be lucky. If you haven’t, I understand that few of your parents talked to you well about sex and that you are not spitefully withholding from your kids all the useful, inspirational, non-judgmental information your parents imparted to you. Think about what you would need to be better able to answer these questions in the future. Think about what today’s kids would need so they will be better equipped to answer their kids’ questions.
These are your children’s questions. Since they have had no other opportunity to ask their burning questions, they grab at the chance to get their needs met in my rape prevention sessions. Few males provided a model for kids of their embracing of the vulnerability that accompanies sexual interactions instead of the familiar, futile male attempts to separate the emotional vulnerability of sex from the physicality of sex. In our efforts to “protect” ourselves from emotional vulnerability, most males fear that vulnerability as weakness. Lied to by parents, preachers and pontiffs they will rely on peers and porn for substantive information and support. They will not be helped, and will become disappointed, bitter and cynical as kids of previous generations became. Then, as they age they will replicate the misinformation process, inflicting their ignorance and discomfort on the next generation.
Avoiding these questions (and reviling those who would raise them) is outrageous and won’t make the problems faced by your kids disappear or become less urgent. It is unconscionable to continue to refuse to validate and address the issues revealed by student questions in comprehensive sexuality education curricula and infinitely more unconscionable to inflict abstinence-only sex education upon one more child. Abstinence-only sex education is a blessing for caring, intelligent people. It should be such an easy and well-deserved target that standing publicly against this farcical charade and more importantly in vocal favor of comprehensive sexuality education should be simple. Despite the poor training you received from parents and other adults, some of you have discovered better sex. Some of you have unlearned the lies and learned anew despite the unhelpful adult refusal to discuss anything of substance that you grew up with. Where is your leadership in creating and staffing a movement to stand up to and sweep aside abstinence-only and other shame-based sex miseducation curricula?
© JOSEPH WEINBERG & ASSOCIATES 1998, 2019