Coerced to Say No

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s a lot of necessary and important conversation going on surrounding the ways our society coerces people into sex they don’t want.  Dismantling dominance culture and realizing the ways that rape culture solicits us to participate in a system of oppression and abuse is one of the most important works facing new wave feminism.  I want to flip the coin a bit and talk about the side of coercion not usually focused on, societal pressure to not have sex even when consent is present for everyone involved.  Just as people will express consent when the consequences of not doing so create too much risk, we will also refrain from expressing or acting on consent to sex when the environment and consequences are too high risk. It short, just as much as you can be forced into sex you don’t want, you can be forced to deny sex you do want.  I see both as sexual coercion and as traumatic experiences.

My youth was shaped much more by this experience and my relationship to my own consent more damaged and suppressed by it than sex I was forced to have.  I know many of my friends, especially in high school, and sexual partners since then have had similar experiences, especially those raised in environments shaped by conservative religion.  I think a lot of people have.

I grew up in a small, rural town in the Midwest, where there was a church and a liquor store adjacent on every corner.  There was an atmosphere of poverty and despair, an enormous amount of meth production that went unaddressed.  It fit the bill for everything that is wrong with the commonplace hypocrisy of the system often attempted to describe by the inadequate phrase “conservative Christianity.”

The first place I went to as a young person looking for ways to ground my sexuality in a love ethic was the Christian church and Christian writing available to me.  No one else was talking about ethics, and no one else was talking about sex, at least not outside of jokes and secret discussion with other teenagers I knew.  The shortage of information and resources available would shock most New Englanders, indeed I have shocked many a friend with my description of “sex ed” in my school, which was showing us horrid pictures of STI’s and one graphic birth video.  No one talked about the relationship elements, except Christians.

I went to youth group.  I studied the Bible.  I read books like those by Eric and Leslie Ludy and Elisabeth Elliot.  And I got more and more confused.

The compromise I struck with my conscience resulted in an almost complete suppression of my sexuality.  I was uneasy and disturbed by the marriage-focused dating lit I found.  I stopped thinking “sexual” thoughts and stopped masturbating.  I focused on my energies on other things, mostly good ones that served me well, mainly on genuine love bonds in friendships and on the education that got me out of my town and my family of origin once I graduated high school.

When I fell in love with one of my close friends my junior year, I felt a new round of turmoil.  All of a sudden, my sexuality, which I’d mostly buried rather than evolving, was all I had to work with in negotiating my first really passionate romantic bond.  I had a great relationship with Tom.  He was an artistic, high status, attractive boy who played in a metal band and had long hair was new to the area.  He moved between clichés and was one of those rare high school students of high status who is socially generous and disrupts bullying.  He was the sort of guy that parents and teachers dub a bad boy and other teenagers consider really nice and a good guy.  Tom had been moved around all his life and had negligent parents who were largely hands off.  He’d had lots of sex and had lots of guilt mixed in with it.  By the time we broke up, a year and a half later, we’d done a lot of making out and both done a lot of freaking out about ourselves and our bond, which was mostly unconstructive.  The main theme of those freak outs was whether or not our bond was ethical, whether or not we were treating each other with genuine love and respect.

I think now, we weren’t, but not because we didn’t want to, but because we were unresourced, unsupported, unskilled, and not yet free to go and find those things for ourselves.  I can see now how many factors were at play in frustrating our connection to each other, which was inclined to involve a deeply passionate sexual bond:  lack of safer sex information to allow us to talk out our risks and evolve sexual practices we were both comfortable with, lack of parental support and instead threats and shaming, a complete lack of privacy in both our homes, sex negativity in our culture and school, intense teen negativity, unconscious assumptions about what having sex meant about us and about our bond, unprocessed family trauma, and ingrained sexist beliefs about gender, and the intensely sex negative, body negative, fear-based conservative sexual ethics our Christian (he was raised Catholic) religious backgrounds imprinted into us.  It is very hard to make any sex, much less beautiful, consensual, fulfilling sex happen in the midst of an environment that hostile.

There was a general impression I took, particularly from the youth group culture I experienced, that the goal of adults was to keep teenagers from engaging in wild, reckless, foolish, catastrophically damaging sex they thought they wanted to have.  Yet all around me, I saw young people confusedly trying to sort how to make real connections with each other and treat each other well and survive the utter misery of being teenagers.  Namely, I saw a lot of young people willing to love and desperate to find out how to be loving in their romantic relationships and sex lives meeting not with support and education but instead being met with the sort of vague, hostile disapproval that crushes self-esteem and creativity of soul and a general imposition of fear about their sexuality and their sexual choices.  The assumptions seemed to be that teens were bad, sex was bad, and that control was necessary, and that fear was an instrument of love.

From the way we treated each other in our bond as it did exist, I think Tom I could have experienced a lot of good with each other if we’d had sex.  A partner who respects your rights and consent is bare minimum.   A partner who resonates with the deepest core of you and wants to know as much of your real self as possible and to participate in and witness the journey as you coax that true self further and further out into the world – that’s where the best sex is had, and what I experienced in my relationships later in life.  The inability to create that sexual bond and loss of one of those rare, intense soulmate sexual partners was an experience I was not able to name, but that mingled grief and despair into my sexuality that took me years to process and move past.

Why is sex not being had a problem?  Because it is also a part of system of oppression, dominance, and control.  And it alienates us from our own desires and consent and rights.  It blurs the line between consent and coercion, between sex and abuse.  Without clear definitions and practices along those simple lines, we will never see a world free from abuse and full of great sex.

In this culture, there is a complex web of consent confusion.  Women don’t have sex for fear of pregnancy, slut-shaming, family abuse and rejection, and other punishments.  Men don’t have sex because they’ve imbibed a belief that they have to be “masculine” to get sexual partners or because they’ve internalized a belief that their sexuality is inherently dominant and violating and a harm to their female partners.  People of all kinds don’t have sex with people of the same gender because of internalized homophobia and fear of harm.  People in relationships don’t have sex with anyone but their single partners for fear of societal punishments, loss of the relationship, and an inability to imagine or create healthy, safe, loving bonds free of the romantic myth, which most often translates in practice into a life of jarring serial monogamy.  Christians don’t have sex because they believe it is wrong.  People who don’t fit the image of physical beauty imposed on us all by an exploitative culture and media don’t have sex because they believe they are of less worth and less deserving of loving, passionate sex partners than others.

Enabling people to say no to sex they do not want and yes to sex they do want, and even maybe to sex they haven’t decided on yet is my vision for the world.  Many seem to think chaos and more abuse would ensue.  I think sorting sex from abuse, choice from coercion, free will from submission to dominant culture, love from fear will only create of more truth and more love.   And yes, more sex.  

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