Historically, female power was feared by male-dominant power systems. These systems attempted to control and suppress female sexuality as one way of subverting women’s autonomy. The false and unfair dichotomies of Madonna/whore or good girl/bad girl define the only officially-sanctioned models of allowable female sexuality. In a workshop I presented years ago, a high school girl responded that she was “screwed” either way—if she said “yes” to sex she was called a slut and if she said “no” to sex she was called frigid. This pernicious double-standard has existed for many generations.
Female sexuality was (and, too often, continues to be) misrepresented by male “experts.” For example, Sigmund Freud pontificated about the superiority of the “mature” vaginal orgasm (as opposed to the “immature” clitoral orgasm). By inventing an artificial separation of female orgasms between vaginal and clitoral, while elevating his favored orgasm to “mature” status, he helped create another burden for women and caring men. He gave scientific credence to a myth about female sexuality that he created.
A powerful method that has been used to misrepresent and constrain girls and women is the language used to describe female sexuality. To this day, there are no existent positive words or phrases in men’s language to describe a sexually-active female. Try to think of one. I have asked the question “What are the positive words for a sexually-active female?” to hundreds of groups of boys and men. Many realize immediately that there are no positive words or phrases. Some of their answers can be seen as a attempt to find any even slightly positive designation. The answers of group after group include: “prostitute,” “slut,” “promiscuous,” “nymphomaniac,” “wife,” “mother,” “generous” etc.”
When they cite “prostitute,” “slut,” “promiscuous” and “nymphomaniac” as positive, I suggest that these in truth are very negative designations. These are the most common words associated with sexually-active females. It is not so much that all of these boys and men are so stupid as to think that slut or prostitute are actually positive, but they have never before examined how the double-standard constrains women. As they grasp for any positive word or phrase, they can begin to see how much hate and fear of women they have internalized (consciously or not).
“Wife” and “mother” are positive descriptors, but it is unfair to limit “acceptable” sexual behavior only to these two female identities. No male has ever referred to a female as a “wife” to laud her sexual prowess. The only female identities where sexual behavior is even tolerated are those in which a woman’s identity is defined by the fact of her relationship to a man. And no one has ever suggested “husband” or “father” as positive words to describe a sexually-active male. Men’s language simply does not either celebrate all women’s inherent sexuality or the fact that an individual woman gives spirited expression to her sexuality except under controlled circumstances. For example, boys and men invariably ask: “Does she have one partner or many?” This is not a distinction that has ever in history been made aboutany male.
What about “generous”? [WARNING: You are about to enter the minds of high school boys. Wear appropriate protective gear.] The word “generous” as it is used by many adolescent males, makes it sound as if a sexually-active female is really “performing a charitable act.” In perfect boy illogic, the highest value of female sexuality is that she is doing a “favor” for him. Her pleasure and desires are irrelevant to most boys’ notion of good sex.
Historically, rape was considered exclusively a women’s issue. Girls were taught that the responsibility for setting limits on males’ behavior rested exclusively upon females. The number of assaults committed against females made warnings necessary. But even assuming most of the motivation to be well-intentioned, the warnings and injunctions to females were, in many ways, misleading. They wrongly overstated the danger presented by strangers, while understating the fact that over 85% of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim (such as date, marital, acquaintance rapes and incest). These warnings made it completely the responsibility of females to avoid becoming victims of rape. Any information directed at preventing rape was delivered solely to girls and women. Most of this information focused on changing the behavior of potential victims. Girls and women were told to watch what they wear, watch where they go and with whom, to avoid giving mixed messages, drink less, to watch their body language. All of these were held to be signals to males which clearly communicated women’s sexual interest and readiness.
Like other so-called women’s issues, rape was seen as trivial, not worthy of real examination, nothing for men to know or care about. And so, to this day, many educators perpetuate victim-blaming attitudes by focusing exclusively on changing female behavior, as if that were the main problem. Women can modify their behavior to some extent, but on a certain profound level that has nothing to do with ending sexual assault. The victim’s behavior does not cause sexual assault; the perpetrator’s behavior causes sexual assault.
A male who assaults may have based his choice on specious or poor information, but he is nonetheless still responsible for the assault he commits. Whether his “excuse” is that he was acting out a rape fantasy or that he felt entitled, or that he “just didn’t know what he was doing,” he is still responsible. His motivation does not invalidate his victim’s feelings of having been assaulted. Too many males espouse too many rape-supportive attitudes. These must be changed if we are to end sexual assault.
Historically, rape was seen as an outgrowth of unstoppable, “natural” male drives. The behavior and motivation of perpetrators of rape was only passingly examined. Most males never received education about what rape really was and that they should not do it. As a result of historical unwillingness to discuss sex and rape, the two have become enmeshed. The sex taught in our rape culture often isn’t much different than sexual assault. Attitudes about sex, men and women held by male high school students and college students who I’ve addressed are too often similar to those of sex offenders I’ve addressed in prison. At most, in the past, males heard that rape was bad. Nor were they given information to help them avoid being victimized themselves. Males were discouraged from thinking that they could do anything to change other males’ behavior.
The adage “boys will be boys” excuses much abusive and violent behavior.Today, most students have heard some variety of “no means no.” While this message is important, (a vast improvement over what their parents’ generation heard), it still assigns all responsibility to females to set limits on males. This allows males to continue to believe that silence constitutes consent, and also does not contradict other cultural messages that create and reinforce assaultive behavior in males. Instead of being the centerpiece of a reformation of how women and men interact, “no means no” can be reduced too easily to an empty slogan.Historically, parents, teachers and religious leaders haven’t been good at teaching about sex. The sex they had was based on myth, guilt, pain, dissatisfaction and fear. How do we teach the unlearning of this sex-hate? If we only leave students, children with negativity we reinforce the dominant paradigm. If we don’t offer the possibility of ecstasy, we teach hopelessness and cynicism, the hallmarks of rape culture. Teaching students to define what sex is to distinguish it from sexual assault, can keep sex from being assaultive. Teaching a vibrant, conscious, unembarrassed sexuality will help end sexual assault.One excuse stated to justify not exposing students to discussions designed to help them avoid becoming victims or perpetrators of sexual assault has been that “we are trying to teach students to remain abstinent.” I can only respond that I too am encouraging students to abstain from sexual assault for their entire lives! Will giving students tools to protect themselves from sexual assault result in an epidemic of loving, caring consentual sex? Which epidemic frightens us more?
If we’re going to teach about healthy, consensual sex, don’t we all need to figure out what that would look like? Think about the phrases we learned growing up to describe masturbation. Many of my female friends report not having any language, while men’s slang sounds like it’s all about doing violence to oneself (yanking, jerking, beating, spanking, etc.) Since most children first experience sexual pleasure through masturbation, mightn’t they interpret our reluctance to talk about it as a sign of hypocrisy, that we don’t really want to address what’s real to them? If we’re too squeamish to talk about giving ourselves pleasure, how can we teach kids that sex can be for anything besides reproduction?
Many textbooks used for high school sex education do not even include the clitoris and labia in diagrams of female anatomy. They justify this omission by claiming that they only intend to cover reproduction. Yes, strictly speaking, the clitoris and labia are not organs of reproduction, but these books must lack an “organs of pleasure” plastic overlay page. As many surveys have shown, over seventy percent of women never, or rarely, experience orgasm from intercourse alone, while male sexual pleasure is reduced to inchoate thrusting and a thirty-second burst of enthusiasm followed immediately by sleep. Boys are taught to view their nipples as embarrassing atavisms, and most males only learn about their prostates from a thick-fingered urologist. I think we all deserve better.
Why would we want to help mislead yet another generation confused and misinformed about sexuality, devoid of discussion of human relatedness—that which gives sex joy and reverence? If we want to, we can move beyond “sex is bad” incorporate “sex should be non-abusive” to “sex can be glorious, delightful, ambrosial, scrumptious, festive.” To thrive, we all need ecstasy and connection and intimacy and love.