Rejoice! The NYT Finally Published a Pretty Good Article About Sexuality

The New York Times has an article about the effects of pornography on teenagers, and it’s actually such a well-written piece that I got really excited and wanted to share it with you. This happens very rarely with the NYT‘s reporting on sexuality.

The article is mostly about research on teens and porn and includes lots of quotes from actual researchers. Amazingly, there are no quotes from fearmongering religious leaders or politicians to provide “balance.” (I will be very very happy if that particular proud journalistic tradition is finally going the way of independent print media [ugh]).

Since it’s presumably written for the lay public, the article could be a little clearer about the correlation-vs-causation problem, but this paragraph sums up the problems with this type of research pretty well:

After sifting through those papers, the report found a link between exposure to pornography and engagement in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or sex at a young age. But little could be said about that link. Most important, “causal relationships” between pornography and risky behavior “could not be established,” the report concluded. Given the ease with which teenagers can find Internet pornography, it’s no surprise that those engaging in risky behavior have viewed pornography online. Just about every teenager has. So blaming X-rated images for risky behavior may be like concluding that cars are a leading cause of arson, because so many arsonists drive.

This, I think, is actually not entirely fair. A better analogy would be if a study found that arsonists drive at a significantly higher rate than non-arsonists, which still wouldn’t be enough to show that cars cause arson. An alternate explanation could be that people who commit arson have a greater need than other people to be able to get around quickly on their own, perhaps in order to escape a crime scene, so they are more likely to have cars and to drive.

When it comes to sex and porn, it’s more likely that a particular type of teen (say, one who has a high sex drive or is just really curious about sex) is more likely to both watch porn and to engage in risky sexual behavior, not that watching porn causes the risky sexual behavior.

This study also demonstrates the same issue:

Among the most prolific and revered researchers to examine teenagers and pornography is a duo in the Netherlands, Jochen Peter and Patti M. Valkenburg. The pair has been publishing studies about this issue for nearly a decade, most of it based on surveys of teenagers.

They found, as Mr. Peter put it in a recent telephone interview, that “when teens watch more porn they tend to be more dissatisfied with their sexual lives. This effect is not really a strong effect, though. And teens with more sexual experience didn’t show this effect at all.”

This correlation is not at all surprising. People who are dissatisfied with their sex lives (whether because they’re not having sex or because the sex they’re having isn’t great) are probably more likely to watch porn because it’s a way to vicariously experience what they don’t have the opportunity to experience. Whereas people who are sexually experienced may be more satisfied with their sex lives, and those of them who watch porn may be doing it for other reasons.

However, some of the studies discussed in the article seem flawed enough so as to actually show very little:

If academia can’t shed a great deal of light on this issue, perhaps teenagers can. Miranda Horvath, one of the lead researchers behind the Children’s Commissioner report, says that the most revealing part of the research came during an improvised debate, where a group of teenagers — ages 16 to 18, both girls and boys — were divided into two camps. One was instructed to argue that pornography had an impact on them, the other that pornography did not.

The pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder.

“They said it had an impact on their body image, on what young people think sex should be like, what they could expect from sex,” says Ms. Horvath, a professor of psychology at Middlesex University in London. “They talked about how if you see things in pornography, you might think it’s something you should be doing and go and do it.”

The no-impact camp could not fill up its allotted 15 minutes. There were more giggles than arguments. After a couple of minutes, the person chosen to speak turned to the rest of the team and asked, “What else should I say?”

Of course “the pro-impact camp did not lack for fodder,” as these sorts of messages about the effects of pornography are so pervasive and emotional in the media that it’s no wonder teens would pick them up and parrot them. It could even be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy; you’re told porn will damage your body image, and so it does. But that’s not to discount the possibility that it really does; that’s just to say that this study is a rather poor way of demonstrating that.

It’s also important to note that these teens were told what to argue, and that it’s basically impossible to argue that something hasn’t affected you. All you can really say is “Well uh it hasn’t affected me.” To argue that something has affected you, you just have to list all the ways, hypothetical or otherwise.

This part of the article stuck out to me as a little odd:

“I have a son,” says Professor Reid of U.C.L.A., “and I don’t want him getting his information about human sexuality from Internet porn because the vast majority of such material contains fraudulent messages about sex — that all women have insatiable sexual appetites, for example.”

I think it’s fair and reasonable not to want your children to learn about sex through porn, but Reid’s specific concern seems strange. If anything, mainstream porn probably suggests that women are less interested in sex than they really are, or that their “insatiable sexual appetites” are limited to specific sexual acts that straight men happen to enjoy. I would actually much rather a teenage boy believe that women generally like sex than believe the common cultural script, which is that women don’t really like sex and need to be cajoled and coerced into it, or they do it to entrap men into relationships.

The article also notes the difficulty of operationalizing variables when it comes to research on pornography. What exactly is porn? What is harm? And here’s where we run into some issues.

American research on teenage sexuality tends to define a number of things as “bad”: starting to have sex at a young age, having sex a lot, having sex with many different partners, having sex casually, having unprotected sex. These are the sorts of factors researchers tend to look at when they examine things like the efficacy of sex education and the effects of porn on teenagers. While the latter item is something we should rightfully be concerned about because it directly leads to negative health consequences, the other ones are more a reflection of how our culture views teenage sexuality (and sexuality in general) than anything else.

In general, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum tend to believe that it’s best to start having sex later rather than sooner, to be less sexually active rather than more so, to have fewer partners rather than more, and to have sex in more “serious” relationships rather than more “casual” ones. So when someone conducts a study that purports to show that teens who watch porn have more sexual partners or have more sex in general, that’s only supposed to be “troubling” because our culture has constructed it that way.

What is hardly ever talked about when we talk about “negative sexual consequences” of this or that? Being in an abusive relationship. Violating someone else’s consent. Not being aware of what consent even is. Not feeling comfortable talking about sex with one’s partners. Having judgmental and shaming attitudes about others’ sexual choices. Feeling judged or shamed for your own sexual preferences or gender identity. Believing that some types of people exist for your sexual gratification and objectification. Believing that there are things that others can do to “deserve” abuse.

If watching porn increases the likelihood that teens experience or believe these things, I want to know, because that’s a lot more concerning to me than someone losing their virginity (itself a mostly-bullshit concept) at 16 rather than 17.

“Porn,” too, is a vast category of films and videos that encompasses everything from homemade tapes by couples looking to make some cash or get off on being watched, to huge professional productions that employ well-known actors and make a profit. I’d have to, er, go deep into the methods sections of these papers to see what they mean by “porn” (if they bother to define it), but a lot of this research begins from the premise that things like multiple simultaneous orgasms, 8-inch dicks, and inhuman flexibility are necessarily features of porn. Of some porn, sure. Maybe not of the porn most teens watch. Who knows, unless we actually research it?

My favorite part of the article is the end:

“One of our recommendations is that children should be taught about relationships and sex at a young age,” Professor Horvath continued. “If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.”

At a minimum, researchers believe a parent-teenager conversation about sexuality and pornography is a good idea, as unnerving to both sides as that may sound. The alternative is worse, according to Professor Reid. Putting a computer in a kid’s room without any limits on what can be viewed, he said, is a bit like tossing a teenager the keys to a car and saying: “Go learn how to drive. Have fun.”

Something that’s always struck me about discussions of porn and teens is the hypocrisy of adults complaining that teens are learning about sex through porn…while not suggesting any better ways for them to learn about sex. The common solution seems to be “ignore the problem and hope it goes away” or “pretend that if teens don’t know much about sex they will not have sex until they get married at which point they will magically immediately have a pleasurable, fulfilling, mutually consensual sex life.”

Of course teens seek out porn to learn about sex. Their sex ed programs either yell at them that they’ll get pregnant and die if they have sex, or they awkwardly have them learn to use condoms and name all the parts of the reproductive system, all without any mention of the central reason humans have sex to begin with: pleasure. They are discouraged from learning how to masturbate if they don’t already know how, so even that avenue to sexual pleasure is closed off to many teens, or else filled with shame and fear. Porn, for all its faults, is a wonderful way to see for yourself what sex might be like.

If porn is a bad way to teach teens about sex, then they need a better way. And that way must include discussion of the positives of sex as well as the negatives.

How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I have a post up at Secular Woman for their sex ed series! Here’s a preview.

Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education is usually framed as a remedy for the usual culprits: STI transmission, teenage pregnancy, having sex “too early” or with “too many” different partners, and so on. Although this sex-positive feminist bristles at the fact that one of the goals of comprehensive sex ed is to delay sexual initiation and reduce teens’ number of sexual partners, overall these programs are extremely important to promote, and they are effective at reducing STIs and pregnancy in teens—unlike abstinence-only sex ed.

However, I would argue that the goals of secular, scientific sex education should not end there. I believe that we have the responsibility to teach young people sexual ethics and to use education to challenge a culture that too often excuses or even promotes sexual violence.

How do we accomplish such a monumental task? The same way as we teach kids to do school projects: by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.

Rape culture is an ideology that consists of a number of interrelated but distinct beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence. These beliefs are spread and enforced by just about every source of information that a child interacts with: parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, news stories (on TV, in magazines and newspapers, online), music, advertising, laws, etc..

Traditional, abstinence-only sex education promotes a number of these beliefs in various ways. Here are a few messages that these programs send to teens either implicitly or explicitly, along with how these messages support rape culture:

1. It is a woman’s job to prevent sex from happening.

Abstinence-only sex ed is full of religious ideology, and one example is the idea that women are “clean” and “pure” and must safeguard their own chastity before men can strip them of it. This idea suggests to women that 1) men who keep pushing them for sex are not doing anything wrong, and 2) if they eventually get pressured into having sex, that’s not rape—that’s just the woman not being strong-willed enough.

2. Men always want sex.

A corollary to the previous message, the “men always want sex” meme implies that men who use coercion and/or violence to get sex are only doing what’s natural for them. It also erases male victims of sexual assault, because if men want sex all the time, how could they possibly be raped?

Here’s the rest.

The Importance of Centering Consent in Sexual Ethics

[Content note: sexual assault]

A week and a half ago I gave a talk about sex education at the Secular Student Alliance annual conference. In the section on creating a better sex education program, I mentioned that we need to center consent in the way we teach healthy sexuality to kids and teens. Rather than defining “right” and “wrong” in terms of what your religion accepts and what it does not, or what social norms approve and what they do not, we should define right and wrong in terms of what hurts other people and what does not, to put it simplistically. Sexual assault is wrong, then, because it means doing something sexual to someone else without their consent. By this definition, then, homosexuality or premarital sex or polyamory cannot be wrong by default (as long as they are consensual).

It’s become really apparent to me that when most people talk about the ethics of sex, they do not talk about consent.

For instance, premarital sex is wrong because sex is for marriage. Homosexuality is wrong because sex is for straight couples. Polyamory is wrong because sex and relationships should only involve two people.

Even things that are considered unethical from a consent-based point of view, such as pedophilia and bestiality, are often talked about as being wrong because people “shouldn’t” be attracted to children or animals, not because children or animals cannot give consent. The “sick” part of it is that someone could’ve wanted to do that, not that someone disregarded a child’s or an animal’s inability to consent.

To illustrate what I mean, consider one common argument against same-sex marriage: the slippery-slope fallacy that it’ll lead to people marrying and/or having sex with animals. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for instance, recently hinted at this. He claimed that if we start allowing same-sex marriage, then “marriage can be anything.”

No, it can’t.

People like Paul seem to think of sex as one person “taking” something else, that may or may not belong to them. A person of the opposite sex? Sure. A person of the same sex? No. An animal? Hell no. Laws concerning sex and relationships exist to prevent people from “taking” what they’re not supposed to have, based on moral standards we have set as a society.

If Paul switched to a consent-based sexual ethic, then he would realize that there’s absolutely no reason legalized homosexuality would lead to legalized bestiality. Another adult of the same sex is capable of consenting to sex; an animal is not. And that’s that.

Likewise, the conversation around Anthony Weiner’s sexting habits has largely revolved around whether or not it’s “appropriate” for someone in an elected position to be doing such things. Should a politician be sending dirty photos to women? Can we trust a man who cheats on his wife?

At least one of the times that Weiner sexted in the past, the woman did not solicit the photos. They were unsolicited. It was a nonconsensual encounter. That means that Weiner committed sexual harassment.

Accordingly, the problem with what Weiner did is not–or not primarily–that it’s “stupid” for a politician to send dirty photos or that what kind of a perv would even do that. It’s that he imposed himself sexually on someone else without their consent.

And while his latest dalliance appears to have been consensual, the fact that he sexually harassed someone in the past was not something for which he was ever truly held accountable.

Another example. Polyamorous people and/or people in open relationships or marriages are often accused of cheating despite the fact that what they’re doing is not defined as such under the parameters of their own relationships. Recently, the Frisky wrote a story about Brooklyn Nets player Andrei Kirilenko, who has an open marriage with his wife. However, the story framed this as “being allowed to cheat on his wife.”

First of all, that’s nonsensical. If you’re being allowed to cheat, then you’re by definition not cheating. Second, as long as Kirilenko is following the terms that he has set together with his wife and not keeping anything from her that she has requested to know, then he can’t be cheating.

The fact that people so often persist in viewing consensual non-monogamy as “cheating” suggests that they do not center consent. To them, certain things are verboten in relationships no matter what the people in the relationship have and have not consented to. The point, to them, is not that people in relationships should mutually agree on boundaries that work for them; it’s that people in relationships should just not do certain things because those things are wrong for people in relationships to do–such as sleeping with other people.

One final example: BDSM. Although BDSM can be used as a mechanism for abuse, and abusers obviously exist in the BDSM community as they do in any other, there are also plenty of practitioners of consensual, risk-aware BDSM who are happy and healthy through their choices. Yet some people, from sex-negative conservatives to certain feminists, insist on referring to all BDSM collectively as sexual assault, or at least as unhealthy, dangerous, and abusive.

They claim that because BDSM can resemble “real” violence, therefore it is violence and it must be ethically wrong, because hurting another person is wrong. But they divorce the content of a BDSM encounter from its context–a conversation about desires and boundaries, the setting of a safeword, the aftercare that takes place, well, after.

Interestingly, they often restrict this literal interpretation of things to sexual matters only; many people understand that while walking up to a stranger and tackling them is not okay, playing a game of football and tackling an opposing player is okay. They understand that while choking the crap out of a random person is wrong, practicing judo with a fellow judoka is not wrong. The difference is, of course, consent. A football player consents to being tackled; a judo student who shows up to class consents to practicing judo*.

But with sex, for some reason, this ethic falls apart, and many still believe that BDSM is, if not morally wrong, at least a sign of mental sickness or brokenness. (It’s not.) The fact that the participants consent to it, create mechanisms to withdraw consent if necessary, and make sure that everyone feels safe and satisfied afterward seems not to matter.

Failing to center consent in one’s own thinking about sexual ethics is a problem for several reasons. First of all, it conveniently allows for bias, stigma, and discrimination against queer, poly, kinky, and otherwise sexually non-conforming people. It allows people to dismiss others’ lived experiences by naming them something other than the participants themselves wanted it named. Consensual BDSM becomes sexual violence, consensual nonmonogamy becomes cheating, and so on, despite the protests of the people actually doing these things.

Second, painting any sex other than heterosexual monogamous (perhaps married) sex as Bad blurs the lines between consensual and nonconsensual sex and makes it easier for abusers and assaulters to get away with abusing and assaulting. For instance, if teens are taught that all sex before (heterosexual monogamous) marriage is wrong, they have little reason to be suspicious if their first partner manipulates or coerces them, because they know that Sex Before Marriage Is Bad and this must just be the price they have to pay. If people think that having sex with someone other than your spouse is Bad, they may not realize that it’s unreasonable and abusive for their partner to adamantly refuse to tell them anything their other partners, including their STI status.

There are, of course, issues with consent, too. Consent can be coerced or otherwise given non-freely. Viewing all consensual sex as Completely Good obscures the fact that even consensual sex can perpetuate systems of sexism, racism, and so on, no matter how much its participants enjoy it. Consensual sex can, of course, be risky health-wise, and while people are free to choose to contract STIs if that’s what they for whatever reason want to do, their other partners and their children do not always have that choice.

However, consent can be a great framework for sorting out what is definitely ethically wrong, and what is not. Consensual sex may not be flawless, but nonconsensual sex is absolutely not okay. The examples I provided–of bestiality, of sexting, of open marriages, and of BDSM–show that basing sexual ethics on consent works better than basing it on oughts and shoulds.

~~~

* The sports examples here are also good examples of the limitations of consent that I mentioned. A judo student who feels pressured to engage in exercises they’re not comfortable with isn’t really consenting. A football player who isn’t informed of the traumatic and permanent physical consequences that football can have on the body isn’t really consenting either. Sports, like sex, can promote racism, homophobia, and all sorts of other crappy things.

[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke are doing this cool thing called Forward Thinking where people blog about values. This week’s question is, what would you tell teenagers about sex?

I have a lot of perspectives on this. As a teenager, I wasn’t really told anything about sex–good or bad. A few things, sure. I picked up a lot from the surrounding culture but by that point in my life I’d learned to be extremely skeptical of anything I see on TV or hear from a classmate.

The beginning of what I would tell teenagers about sex would actually be to teach them from early childhood to practice that sort of skepticism. It saved me from what I can only imagine would’ve been years of either feeling shame about my sexuality, getting into sexual situations I didn’t really want, or both.

But skepticism only gets you so far, and sometimes it can take you much too far–as soon as you start questioning people’s lived experiences and demanding to see proof, you should know you’ve wandered into hyperskepticism.

Besides that, it’s unreasonable to expect teens to seek out everything they need to know all about sex on their own. If I’m ever in charge of any teens, there are things I’d want them to know right off the bat. So, here–starting with the most obvious and then wandering into what’s probably less obvious–is what I would tell teenagers about sex.

Ask first. Consent is hot, assault is not.

Credit: The New School

1. Basic health and safety stuff.

How to use condoms, dental dams, and Plan B. How to obtain and use hormonal birth control. What IUDs are. How pregnancy works and what options you have if you become pregnant. What STIs are, how they are transmitted, and how to tell if you have one. What sorts of medical exams you need to get, and how often. How to find a gyno.

(This is where most non-abstinence-only sex ed seems to end.)

2. Sexual ethics.

A lot of things fit into this, starting with consent. Teens should know how to ask for consent and tell whether or not it has been given. They should also know how to communicate their own consent. They should understand that coercion is wrong; if someone doesn’t want to do something with you, stop asking. They should know how to discuss sexual and relational preferences, as well as STIs and other factors that affect sexual decision-making. They should know that cheating is wrong, but seeing multiple people with the consent of everyone involved is just fine.

3. Sexual harassment and assault.

As unpleasant and scary it will be for teens to hear about this, it’s something they need to understand. Sadly, there’s a good chance they do already, either from personal experience or hearing about it in the media. Teens should know what harassment and assault are, that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender upon anyone of any gender, that there’s nothing you can do to cause sexual assault except sexually assaulting someone, and what options and resources there are for someone who’s been assaulted. They should also know about the cultural factors (victim-blaming, alcohol, gender roles, etc.) that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault and what they can do to help reduce them. They should know when and how to safely intervene if they think someone is about to violate someone’s else’s boundaries.

4. You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy.

Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t.

Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.

4. Sexual/gender diversity.

I think it’s important for kids to know and understand the different ways in which humans experience gender and sexuality. Although it’s obviously impossible to be exhaustive with this, I would talk to young teens about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual; being trans*; being asexual; being intersex. Once they’re older, I would talk to them about kink and polyamory. Giving names to what might be their own desires will help them come to terms with their own experience and find like-minded people, but even if they turn out to be the most straight, cis, vanilla, monogamous people ever, it will help them accept others and support queer/otherwise nonconforming friends.

5. Masturbation.

It’s a great way to learn about your own sexual needs and preferences. It’s definitely not something you have to stop doing just because you’re hooking up with/seeing someone regularly. Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re “lonely” or “pathetic”; it just means you enjoy experiencing sexuality independently.

6. Finding more information.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of parents or teachers to tell teens everything they will ever need to know about sex. They should know about some of the well-known and trusted resources that exist, such as Scarleteen, The Guide to Getting It On, and What You Really Really Want. They should also know how to tell whether a resource is trustworthy or not (really, that’s an essential skill for skeptical teens in general).

I would also remind teens that if they need help or have questions, there are adults they can ask. I’d be one of them, but there are certainly others. Don’t be discouraged if you ask an adult for help and they judge you or refuse to answer. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone right.

7. As long as you’re being ethical and safe, there’s no wrong way to be sexual.

Despite what others–even other adults–will tell you, it’s nobody’s business what you do with consenting partners. It’s also completely okay if you don’t want to do anything with anyone at all. There’s no “order” that sexual acts are supposed to progress in, and the bases analogy is crap. It’s also total crap that you have to be a certain way sexually just because of your gender. (Or race, or anything else, really.)

8. Related: sex serves different purposes for different people.

For some, it’s something you do to express love for a significant other. For others, it’s something fun to do with friends. Some don’t attach any “meaning” to sex at all. Sexual relationships tend to work best between people who are both looking for the same thing, so that’s something to consider when planning to get involved with someone.

9. Sexuality isn’t separate from society.

Sexuality is affected–and affects in turn–everything from media and pop culture to law and foreign policy. It’s also important for understanding systems like beauty standards, sexism, racism, and poverty. Although it wouldn’t necessarily be my job as a parent or teacher of teenagers to explain to them exactly how all of these things work (who even understands that in its entirety?!), I would hope to at least make them curious about it. I would want them to start thinking about how different types of people are viewed sexually, and how political institutions determine what is sexually permissible in a given society.

10. Porn and sex work.

Two complicated subjects that most adults would rather keep teens sheltered from, to be sure. But we all know that doesn’t work. I would want to talk to teens about the ways in which porn and sex work misrepresent sexuality, and the ways in which capitalism, sexism, and other systems have created a society in which porn and sex work can be deeply exploitative and dangerous. If you’re going to participate in either, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing so as ethically as possible.

11. Virginity.

It doesn’t really exist. Really! I’d love to get teenagers to read Hanne Blank’s brilliant history of virginity, but since that’s probably impossible, I’d just tell them that what we call “virginity” has changed so much over the centuries that it really doesn’t even matter. Consequently, your “first time” doesn’t have to include candles and rose petals; it might be awesome or it might suck or it might be anything in between, and that doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your sexual future. If someone has a problem with you “being a virgin” or “not being a virgin,” the problem is with them, not you.

12. Question everything.

Question your desires: might they be influenced by the surrounding society?

Question what you see in the media about sex.

Question what your friends tell you.

Question what adults tell you.

Question what I’m telling you.

Question research studies.

Question laws and policies.

Question tropes about sexuality: that asking for consent “ruins the moment,” that you “need” alcohol to hook up, that sex is something “special” and “sacred,” that having casual sex means you don’t “respect yourself,” that only penis-in-vagina is “real sex,” that being a virgin makes you a “loser,” that saying “no” is always easy, that men can’t “control themselves,” that if someone’s nice to you and wants sex, you should give it to them.

Questioning everything doesn’t mean discarding everything. It means understanding that sexuality is subjective, that desires and attitudes are always influenced by external factors. Just because the way you want to be sexual was probably influenced by your culture doesn’t mean that it’s invalid or that you should try to change it, but it’s good to be aware of how malleable human sexuality is.

Some people would probably claim that teenagers are too young (their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough) for this type of thinking, but I strongly disagree. We sell teenagers short all the time. The fact that people don’t encounter this type of thinking until college (if they even go, and if they even encounter it there) doesn’t mean teens can’t do it. They just need to be encouraged to.

I also think that kids and teens can benefit greatly from being told things that they may not fully understand yet. It encourages them to view knowledge and learning as a process rather than an achievement, and reminds them not to get too cocky about what they know.

Sex is much too important a subject not to think critically about.

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

A Texas Republican (Who Else?) Thinks Schools Need Mandatory Bible Reading

Hey, you know what will help teens avoid pregnancy? Comprehensive sex education, right?

Nah.

Here’s Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican in the Texas state house:

What I think is that that’s unconstitutional. Apparently many other readers of Rep. Riddle’s Facebook page thought so too, and told her in no uncertain terms, because she followed up with this:

OK, enough already. My friend Mary – a teacher – not as conservative as I am – has mentioned how many of her students have no foundation of faith and are having babies at 15 – plus so many more problems. She has stated that with no foundation of faith these kids are a drift [sic]. Knowing how sensative [sic] folks are about prayer and ect. [sic] I thought a simple reading of Proverbs – a book of wisdom – would be helpful. I certainly did not intend to offend – I was just throwing out an idea.

She then waxes Jeremiac (I made that word up) about “the level of disrespect in today’s world” (as opposed to yesterday’s world, when rather than posting a mean comment on someone’s Facebook, you challenged them to a duel and possibly killed them) and the importance of “open discussion” (except, apparently, when people disagree with you).

Several things.

1. Apparently you don’t have to understand basic grammar, spelling, and writing style in order to be elected to public office. Seriously, I know this is a nitpicky point compared to the rest of what I’m about to cover, but most of us learned to spell “sensitive” in elementary school.

And to think that Riddle wants to take time out of every school day to read Proverbs. Clearly, there are more pressing problems with Texas education.

2. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Republicans seem to only focus on the second part of that inconvenient part of the First Amendment: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But that first part is pretty damn important. Our Supreme Court has determined that forcing children to observe religion in public schools violates the establishment clause. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), school-mandated prayer was struck down; in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), school-mandated Bible reading was struck down as well.

So, although Riddle has now had nearly 40 years to get used to the latter ruling, she apparently has failed to do so. And no, school prayer was not “tossed” because it’s not “politically correct,” but because it violates our Constitution. There’s a difference.

3. Jesus does not prevent teen pregnancy. Comprehensive sex ed does. It also does a lot of other cool stuff, like help prevent STI transmission and sexual assault, but that’s besides the point.

Here’s another interesting thing. According to Gallup, the most religious state in the U.S. is Mississippi. According to the CDC, the state with the highest teenage birthrate is…Mississippi.

Awkward.

Even supposing that this is a fluke, it’s a well-known fact that other states with high levels of religiosity tend to have high rates of teenage pregnancy and birth, as well. Of course, this is all correlation and not causation–except for the fact that religious states tend to have abstinence-only sex ed, which does not work.

Now, Rep. Riddle’s friend Mary, who is of course a credible source because she is “not as  conservative” than Riddle (and because this isn’t anecdotal at all) claims that it’s specifically the godless heathens who are getting themselves pregnant. Leaving aside the question of how Mary manages to divine the religious beliefs and observance level of her students–and avoid confirmation bias–the information I have just presented about teenage birthrates in religious states seems to refute her point. Why would nonreligious teens only get pregnant en masse in religious states, but not in nonreligious states? And if they do, what does that say about the environment these states create?

4. The United States was not “built on Christian and Jewish values.” While most of the Founding Fathers identified at least nominally with Christianity, that does not mean that they based the entire nation upon it. Many of them were either deists or anti-clerical Christians, so it’s hard to imagine them supporting state-mandated religious observance. Historian Gregg L. Frazer, meanwhile, argues that the Founding Fathers subscribed to a belief system he calls “theistic rationalism,” which combines religion with reason (a feature mostly lacking in Christian fundamentalism).

Interestingly enough, despite our nation’s supposed “Christian foundation,” the Constitution contains not one mention of the words “God” or “Christianity.” The only time it uses the word “religion” is in the First Amendment, which provides for freedom of–and from–it.

On a side note, can we stop lumping Judaism in with Christianity? These two religions are really quite different. And to suggest that anyone had the Jews in mind when establishing the United States is simply laughable, given how long it took for institutionalized antisemitism to find its way out of our country.

5. Proverbs is hardly the harmless book of “wisdom” Riddle thinks it is. Here are some quotations:

  • “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.” (Proverbs 20:30)
  • “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” (Proverbs 23:13-14)
  • “Give beer to those who are perishing and wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” (Proverbs 31:6-7)

The first two certainly make sense given the Texas GOP platform‘s ringing endorsement of corporal punishment. As for the latter, I was under the impression that religious Republicans think that people who drink alcohol when they’re under 21 are sinners too.

Overall, an admittedly cursory reading of Proverbs reveals it to be mostly gibberish. I can think of many better things to require schoolchildren to read if you want to teach them about wisdom and morality. I’m personally a huge fan of Nietzsche. But you’re free to disagree.

Also, the idea of Nietzsche ever being taught in a Texas public school is sadly unlikely.

Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist

In case it’s not obvious, MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING for this entire post and all outgoing links. Even if you’re not a survivor, you’re going to find a lot of this extremely uncomfortable and upsetting so please take care of yourself.

r/AskReddit, a section of Reddit in which people can ask each other questions, recently had a post with this title: “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?

Reddit has what I would call, bluntly, a woman problem. Reddit’s users are 74% male, first of all–the highest percentage of all the well-known social networks. Many of its subreddits, such as r/MensRights, r/Atheism, and, of course, r/AskReddit, are notorious for general misogyny, rape apologism, and, at times, even tacit (or not-so-tacit) approval of violence against women, pedophilia, child pornography.

So, nobody familiar with Reddit will be surprised at the kinds of stories and comments that this AskReddit thread has attracted. However, it’s worth talking about for several reasons, which I’ll explain later.

The thread has nearly 13,000 comments as of this writing, so I couldn’t possibly read them all. (I’m pretty sure I’d lose my mind long before I finished, anyway.) However, there’s one particular comment that I want to examine:

First off, I must say, I was at a dark and horrible place in my life, that I’ve since grown from. I’m ashamed of the person I was, if the people who I’m close to now knew who I was, I would be ruined. I’m known for being a great guy, friendly and easy to get along with, a community/political activist, a fervent volunteer in the community, and a person who rises through the ranks quickly due to successes at work. That was my mask, and I was good at it, so good that maybe I convinced myself along the line that was who I could really be, and that may of helped me change, and stop doing what I did.

I’m somewhat remorseful for what I did to those girls, but I don’t think I could ever face them to apologize. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that brought me to do what I did. I didn’t know how to stop, and just when I thought maybe I could, I’d find myself back in my pattern, back on the hunt.

Several things immediately jump out at me. First of all–and this will be a common theme throughout the post–this person seems very invested in his positive self-image, despite his supposed remorse. He makes sure that we know that he’s known as a “great guy,” that he’s friendly and easy to get along with, etc. Second, although he says he’s ashamed of who he was back then, the rest of this suggests that that’s mostly because he wouldn’t want to be found out. The creepiest part is definitely this: “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that bought me to do what I did.”

The post continues:

I’m a good looking guy, and I can get girls pretty easily. I’m currently married to a beautiful woman that I met during this time of my life (not someone I raped, but someone who knew my mask during this time). So, anyways, after a while it became boring to go after the sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you. I wanted the thrill of the chase, and that’s what led me to forcing myself on girls. I would find attractive girls that were self-conscious about their looks….Hopefully a girl who was a bit damaged, had a shitty ex-boyfriend, or family issues, came from a small shut in town, that sort of thing. So, when I showed interest in them they’d be completely enamored, they’d almost be shocked that a popular, good-looking, and well liked guy would be talking to them.

Note that, once again, he mentions his good looks and that it’s easy for him to “get girls” (present tense). His misogyny becomes apparent in his language here (“sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you”).

The man then describes how he would meet these girls and invite them over to watch a movie. His need to have total control over the situation is very apparent: “They would come over, and I’d always make sure it was real cold in the room, cold enough so that when we started watching the movie I’d say something about being chilly, and grab a big fleece blanket for the both of us.”

After kissing and putting his hands under their clothes (without consent, obviously):

It was then that I could turn around and get on top of her. The girls usually didn’t know how to respond. Some of them were into it, and those nights were usually consensual and boring sex, sometimes followed up by a few more nightly visits before getting the boot. However, the great nights were the ones who squirmed, ones who didn’t want to give in. I’d have to shush them down, and try to work on them slowly enough so they didn’t know what was going on until it was pretty much already happening. I’m a muscular guy, over 6′ around 200 lbs. and most of these girls may have been 125-130, really tiny and easy to pin down. To be honest, even remembering it now, the squirming always made it better, they didn’t want it to happen, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Most girls don’t say no either. They think you’re a good guy, and should pick up on the hints, they don’t want to have to say “no” and admit to themselves what’s happening.

[…]Some girls left after about 15 minutes after. Some girls would stay until the morning and then leave. A few tried to call back, maybe blaming themselves for what happened or something. I never worried too much about being caught. Everyone knew me, and I worked with the police a lot, with administrators, and campus officials. I was on first name basis with the Chancellor and the President of Student Affairs, so if anything came down to a he/she-said I figured I’d be in the clear.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is rape culture: the fact that this man knew he was unlikely to be brought to justice because he was so respected and popular at school, the fact that he admits that some of the women probably blamed themselves, the fact that he knows that they don’t say no out of fear and not because they consent.

The man later edited the post to explain that he had answered questions posed by commenters and that he was deleting this account (it had been made only for this purpose, though, anyway). He also added this:

Let me leave you with this message, you never know who someone truly is, so be careful. I’m going back to my main account to do normal reddit looking at cats and posting pictures of bacon, and I think it’s kind of funny that no one will ever know if the person they’re talking to on reddit, or someone who moderates their subreddit, is me on my main account… just food for thought.

Most of the comments to his post were very angry, and many were basically homicidal. One person said, “You are why my daughter will be armed, to deal with filth like you.” The man responded, “Teach your daughter to be a strong willed, independent woman, and hopefully she’ll never attract the type of filth I was at that point in my life.” In other words, even though he claimed to be “remorseful,” he admits that he sought out “weak” women and seems to believe that it’s women’s responsibility to be “strong willed” enough for men like him to leave them alone.

In the midst of the angry comments, though, there were many that seemed steeped in admiration–or, at least, respect. References to the OP’s “bravery” were common. Here’s one: “Thank you for sharing. This is what I came to this thread for. You are brave to talk about it. Here is an actual look into how the predator feels.” Here’s another: “I just wanna say, thank you for posting this. It seems that every other guy in this thread is trying to guilt shame you but I’m pretty sure a total of none of them could possibly empathize with you.” And another: “I admit you are a really smart guy. I bet you know it yourself and probably are ashamed of it since you used it to do this. You are also really brave for sharing this story and being here to take the generic ‘fuck you’ from the mass.”

There seems to be some confusion on the part of these commenters about what “brave” means. What’s brave is getting up the next morning after you’ve been raped, and getting up every day after that. What’s brave is telling people about your sexual assault, knowing full well that they might ask you what you were wearing and if you’d been drinking. What’s brave is trusting another person sexually after an experience like that. Using a temporary, anonymous account to tell some people on the internet about what a Big Manly Man you are is not “brave.”

As a survivor of something much less horrific than what these young women went through, but scarring all the same, I can’t see the telling of this story as “brave.” Perhaps that’s just my bias talking.

Also disturbing is the fact that many of the commenters refuse to believe the story. One even asked the OP if he’s “a female IRL trying to make a point with this.” Others laugh it off. Their disbelief reveals their privilege. Most women will tell you that there is nothing unrealistic about this story, because they have either been victimized by men like this, escaped them narrowly (as I did), or have friends who did.

Finally, and unsurprisingly, several commenters jumped to the man’s defense, explaining how “difficult” it is to be a man and to interpret women’s signals and to get women to sleep with you, period. One comment:

This isn’t rape. This is the story of a guy who studied and played the game well. He went after certain girls and worked those angles to get laid. Some people will feel this is underhanded, sleezy, wrong. Others will praise him.

[…]These girls aren’t victims. OP’s behavior may be considered unethical, immoral, and wrong but that’s only moral constructs perceived by others looking at OP. I’m not a player these days but those of you blasting him for rape need to read some player’s books and websites. He did exactly why most players do.

[…]Overall OP isn’t a rapist, he’s a player who feels bad about how good he was at the game.

Another: “What the hell. You’re NOT A RAPIST! The didn’t say no. They wanted it. You’re a player. Actually, they should thank you because that’s probably the only sex those girls will get. You gave them a life experience and you should be proud about it.” And this: “I’ve been told this by female friends – girls purposely put up a bit of a fight before sex to not seem easy, even if they want sex, and they enjoy the back and forth and having the guy ‘try’.”

And one more:

Not defending his actions, but nearly every 19 year old college kid with a dick and a heartbeat is trying to get laid, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM has some sort of game plan they employ to coerce women into advantageous situations that their female counterpart might not want to be in, or otherwise find themselves in. Whether its through physical force or mental manipulation, some game plans fail miserably and some work every time. Some guys are obviously better than others at getting what they want, and some of course cross the line.

There’s many, many more where all of these came from. There was also the comments from rape survivors, to one of which the OP responded with some explanation followed by, “Anyways, fuck off you twit.” (How about that remorse?)

I should point out that this particular man’s post, and the responses to it, are unusual for several reasons. Most of the other people who disclosed having committed sexual assault (including some women) were more remorseful and generally did it only once. Some told stories of having nearly done it but stopped themselves. And the comments on those posts are much less condemnatory, and more full of apologism and praises of the rapists’ “bravery.”

Jezebel has a post about the thread and why we should listen to the rapists’ explanations. The article makes a good point in that the thread shows many of the reasons why rape happens and goes unpunished, and the cognitive fallacies that rapists subscribe to.

However, the article fails to note the negative consequences of sharing these stories on a site like Reddit. As I mentioned, Reddit users have a tendency for rape apologism. Many of the people who confessed having committed or attempted sexual assault said that they felt terrible for what they did, but commenters told them not to feel bad. The stories of backing off rather than raping elicited lots of “Congrats, you didn’t rape her!” comments–as if that’s something worthy of a gold star. One comment to such a story reads, “Shitty situation, man. Good on you for realizing what was up and pulling yourself out of that.” Another: “You aren’t a rapist, or close really, don’t beat yourself up about it.”

In other words, men (they were almost all men) who come to this thread with genuine remorse receive dozens of comments patting them on the back for not going ahead and sticking their penis into an unwilling woman–all the other nonconsensual stuff they did leading up to that, apparently, doesn’t really matter. (Although some of these commenters insist that the women couldn’t possibly have been hurt that much by it because they weren’t “actually” raped, I can speak from experience and say that attempted rape (or rape threats, or sexual harassment) can be traumatizing too.)

Furthermore, some of the apologism is directed at men who did actually commit sexual assault, and it really scares me that these men are getting the message that what they did was “not rape.”

It’s taken me a while to write about this because it’s been difficult to come up with any takeaway other than aisfa;ifja;sdfjas;df. However, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I think there are a few things to glean from this.

  1. Rapists usually know what they’re doing. Although there’s a pervasive myth that rape is caused by “miscommunication” (generally, women not being “clear” enough about not giving consent), this thread and this fascinating study show that this is completely false. They know what they’re doing, most of the time. But they don’t really care. They think they “can’t stop” because having a penis just “makes” you do these things. They convince themselves that the woman would say no (or say it louder) if she really didn’t want to do it. And so on.
  2. Rapists aren’t necessarily identifiable. None of the men in this thread seem like your stereotypical stranger in a dark alley type. Many of them have the ability to be very personable and likable, and they use this ability to their advantage. (This is, by the way, a symptom of psychopathy.) So, not only is the standard victim-blamey advice for women to avoid revealing clothing, bars, parties, etc. wrong, but it’s also ludicrous to suggest that women can avoid sexual assault by avoiding “certain types” of guys. Some victimizers (of any gender) certainly do give off a creepy vibe, but not all do.
  3. Sexual assault prevention is a very, very complicated thing, and I don’t think it’s as simple as “telling rapists not to rape.” As boys and young men grow up, they learn a series of messages about gender and sexuality, just like women do. If you’re interested in this, I’d recommend reading Brad Perry’s piece in the fantastic book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. The piece is called “Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn ) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved.” (Holy shit that’s a long title.) You can read it here. The piece focuses on teaching sexuality to boys in a way that prevents rape and promotes a healthy approach to women, dating, and sex. Unfortunately, right now our country is still besieged by abstinence-only sex education, which promotes rape culture in a million ways that I don’t have room to discuss here.
  4. Despite all the comments that “well everyone knows rape is bad” and therefore we should stop shaming rapists, it’s clear that there’s a sort of doublethink going on here. Yes, almost all people, except the most psychopathic perhaps, know that rape is “bad.” But many convince themselves that things that are definitely rape are not. Cognitive dissonance does scary things to people sometimes–they want what they want at all costs, but they don’t want to believe that they’re Bad People (i.e. rapists). Nope, they’re just “playing the game,” or the victim “should’ve said no (louder),” or “she wanted it anyway.”

So no. Even decades after the start of the modern women’s movement, not everyone knows what rape is. And that’s how we know that our work is not yet done.

All I know is that we need real sex education, and we need it now. We need to start it early. We need to stop believing that teaching kids about safe and healthy sex will “make” them do it. We need to stop teaching them gender roles that put women into the role of sexual gatekeepers, always needing to push their male partners off rather than being asked for consent first, and men into the role of aggressors, always needing to coerce their female partners or face losing their masculinity.

Mostly, though, we need to teach empathy in general. Because that’s lacking in our society in every possible way.

And this needs to happen now.

Note: This has been really difficult to write for many reasons, but I felt that I needed to do it. There will be extra comment moderation. Anyone who comes on here to explain to me how I “don’t understand” these men and their actions will be sent on their merry way. Thank you.

[Guest Post] What is Sensible Drug Policy?

It’s another guest post! In this one, my friend and fellow activist Frances discusses the parallels between good sex education and sensible drug policy, and why we need more of both.

Ever since you’re young, you’re taught that sex and drugs are just plain “bad.” Many high school health classes teach you that if you engage in these activities before (or even after) a certain age or point in your life, you are a weak, scumbag failure who will die with a spoiled reputation.

But where the hell is the other side of the story? Why don’t people ever seriously talk about sex and pleasure? Or drugs and fun? Why is it okay for the media to wave it in our face but crazy for our own parents and teachers to give us a healthy dose of balanced information? Our goal is to teach adolescents to “be responsible,” but they’re learning from irresponsible educators.

I founded SSDP (Students for Sensible Drug Policy) and joined SHAPE (Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators) my first year at Northwestern University to try to get a more holistic view of these taboo topics. Sex and drugs both share intense politicization, widespread ignorance, and unforgiving stigma, but you know what I eventually learned?

Sex and drugs, in and of themselves, are NOT bad! A certain amount of irresponsibility is necessary to turn sex and drugs bad.

Before you start freaking out because you think I’m promoting sexual activity and drug use, let’s get this straight. There are certain “objective ideals” that we, as a society have created based on common sense and cold hard facts. Ideally, teenagers wouldn’t engage in sexual activity before the age of consent (16-18 in the U.S.), due to the fact that becoming sexually active requires a whole lot of responsibility, healthy communication, self-awareness, and maturity—characteristics that a lot of adolescents under the age of 18 haven’t acquired yet. And objectively, the best drug use is no drug use, given that every drug—whether legalized, criminalized, or medicinal—has the power to cause some sort of negative physical, mental, emotional, or developmental effect. Responsibility is key.

However, just because abstinence from sex and drugs is the “objective ideal” in many cases, does not mean that abstinence only is the objectively ideal way to educate people about sex and drugs. “Abstinence only” or “Just Say No” education is bad and irresponsible, because when we say BAD! or NO!, we never teach kids to think for themselves, or give them the proper tools to deal with these situations should they ever arise. Instead, when teens have questions like, “Can I get STIs from oral sex?” or “If Tommy can drink 9 shots in an hour, it should be fine for me, right?” their friends will answer, “I don’t know.”

Irresponsible sex education is what leads to the spread of STIs, unplanned pregnancies, sexual assault, teen-dating violence, unhealthy communication and our slut-shaming, victim-blaming, homophobic, rape culture. An adequate sex education is more than just about putting on a condom and getting tested. It’s about teaching teens to love their bodies, moving past stigma and encouraging an honest discussion so that we can reduce the possible harms of sexual activity. Simply labeling sexual activity as the root cause of all sex-related problems is too simple an approach with such a complex issue.

The same can be said for drugs. We have GOT to stop blaming drugs for drug addiction, DUIs, overdose deaths, academic failure, gang violence, rape, teenage drug dealers, and violent illegal drug trafficking. A “Just Say No” drug education based on scare tactics is too simple an approach with such a complex issue. The more extreme the scare tactics, the less likely it is that teens will respect what the words of their health teacher. The nastier the words we use to label and stigmatize drug users and abusers, less likely it is that people will proactively seek treatment. Alcohol itself is not hurting people, but people who use alcohol irresponsibly and decide to drive? That’s what destroys lives. Heroin itself is not responsible for overdose deaths, but a lack of education and respect for the powerful effects of the drug are fatal. A drug education that eliminates the stigma of drug use, emphasizes moderation and responsibility, offers a balanced “pros and cons” list on recreational drugs, and is truthful about the social norms of drug use is what will actually reduce the overall cost of drug use to society. This is known as “harm reduction,” the idea that with any harmful activity, there are necessary precautions we can take to make it “safer” and reduce harm, like fastening your seat belts before a drive!

Education rather than blame is crucial to changing risky behaviors and the policies that facilitate risky behaviors. Sex and drug education and sex and drug policies have a reciprocal relationship. Sex education that teaches women to “protect themselves from rape” makes it harder for rape victims to achieve justice in the court of law, because women learn to take on the burden of avoiding rape, while men are alleviated from the burden to not rape. As our gay rights policies slowly change, the movement will very likely go on to influence sex education surrounding LGBT issues. Our laws change our attitudes, and our attitudes change the way we educate. With drugs, it’s even more obvious. Drug education promoting the idea that drugs are “just plain bad” reinforces the public belief that drugs should be illegal forever. The criminalization of drugs creates the violent drug market that sucks adolescents into drug addiction and the criminal justice system. And when adolescents are addicted to drugs, engaging in violence, barred from higher education, unable to find treatment, and ultimately a way out of this lifestyle? We teach that drugs are bad.

I became the Drug Policy Dealer on YouTube to serve as the bridge between drug education and drug policy activism, integrating the skills of a peer sex educator, the lessons from countless articles I’ve read regarding drugs and drug policy, and just plain common sense. Northwestern University’s SSDP Chapter and The Drug Policy Dealer will be unique in that the main message we send is that sensible drug policy relies on the assumption that the majority of people will be sensible with their drug use. Like I said, it is irresponsible to only preach the negatives of drug use, without accounting for the fact that safe, responsible drug use does occur everyday. By the same logic, it is irresponsible to advocate for drug legalization without fighting for a more well-rounded, all-inclusive of drug and drug policy education as well.

Stay Sensible!

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