Consent in Everyday Life: Parents and Sex Ed (beginning at TV)

February 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

I was recently on my favorite blog Yes Means Yes and read a post by Jaclyn Friedman on the sexual politics of the show Glee.  Towards the end of the article was this section outlining a marvelous confluence of coercion in everyday life:

“Not so for the Parents Television Council, who have launched a ferocious campaign against the show, saying, ‘The fact that Glee intends to not only broadcast, but celebrate children having sex is reprehensible.’

That the Parents Television Council considers seniors in high school ‘children’ tells you nearly everything you need to know. The rest you need is about their willful denial of the importance of context. They seem to believe that any depiction of teen sexuality — including depictions of teens negotiating safer sex, and an early Glee episode (which gave me false hope for the show) that saw a lead character unapologetically informing her peers that girls have their own sexual desires, and another one challenged by male performance anxiety — is a danger to ‘our children.’ In order to believe this, you must also believe that all teenagers are a) too dumb to tell the difference between the vapid, ornamental bunnies on the deservedly cancelled Playboy Club and, say, the smart, abrasive, complicated and proudly sexual Britta on Community, and b) would be completely asexual if they could only avoid the sexy grip of Evil Television Shows. These are far more childish beliefs about sexuality than any held by most of the teenagers I’ve met.

Over here in reality, we know that many teens explore sex. It’s true that television can influence how they think about sex, which is why erasing all sexuality from the airwaves is never the answer. Sex is a part of human life, one that many teens are working hard to understand for the first time. Silencing the media’s conversation about sexuality just drives the subject underground. That leaves young people less equipped to negotiate safer sex and contraception, and to articulate needs and boundaries. Instead, we should be working toward a media that prioritizes the quality of its sexual messages over the quantity of them. Much like all of us would do well to do with sex itself.”

In broad strokes, both the parents and the feminist in question wan these children to grow into a healthy, mature sexuality.  But the tactic is totally in contrast.  It is not what is being taught that these parents are reacting against.  The priority of these parents is not to protect their children from coercion and teach them to protect themselves.  Though they confusingly and bizarrely cast the television show Glee as coercing teenagers – cough, cough, excuse me – children into having sex.  But coercion is not truly their enemy, sex is, and anyone who is not them threatens to provide information or influence causes them to react because these parents want the power to control knowledge about sex and to coerce their children to say no to sex or yes within a tightly controlled set of parameters and don’t want anything to threaten that power. 

Essentially, they have the legal right to do so.  Their children are their property, there is essentially no transition of rights into adulthood, cultural or legal.  You hit eighteen and you belong to yourself.  Before that, you’re theirs.  There are many parents who do not want to relinquish control over their children, and are merely forced to by the passing of time and their children’s’ uncontrollable encroaching autonomy.  (Though, in my view, there are some children too demoralized and controlled to ever truly get out, who do not survive in one way or another.)

Benevolent patriarchy is a term I learned from bell hooks (who taught me just about everything I thought I should’ve learned in college) that describes the behavior of those who hold power for the supposed good of others.  In the nineteenth century on women’s rights, it was common to hear the idea that men wanted to protect women from rights to choose for themselves for benevolent reasons, to protect them.  Patriarchy has at least two manifestations, especially outlined in the Second Wave movement, the domination of men over women and the domination of men (and women, which is often understated) over children.

I am challenging a pseudo-sacred cultural assumption here.  A lot of loving people have children.  But a lot of people have children.  It is untrue to claim that all, and perhaps even that most, parents love their children.  It is true to claim that all parents have substantial power over their children.  Unlike the once considered “natural” domination of men over women, children are inherently helpless and subject to parents.  And history has proven time and again that without substantial checks and balances human beings do not use power well, that is they use power for their own seeming gain typically to the detriment of those under them.  There is more mitigation of that power now than ever before, but the work is not nearly done.

The nuclear family is perhaps the most unchecked, private sphere of domination in our society.  We all begin as children, and it is there that most of us cut our teeth on oppressive systems, starting with helplessness in the face of almost total control by parents.  There are laws against physical cruelty (historically recent laws beginning only past a certain point) and yet no laws regarding psychological cruelty or domination committed by parents against their children.  If you were not abused as a child, you are in the fortunate minority – fortune here meaning merely that you were privileged with what ought to be extended to every human being and as yet has not.

Why so many parents are terrified of their children having sex or merely knowledge about sex may seem like a mystery.  But parents were once children, too, and it is very hard for people not to pass down trauma.  And many institutions of power are also invested in controlling human sexuality. Abstinence only education is an attempt to maintain control over human sexuality rather than to place power where it belongs, in the hands of the individual.  Parents hate all sex ed because it threatens their control.  Religious groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control.  Political groups hate sex ed because it threatens their control.

As Shulamith Firestone said, “Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle.”  Quality sex education would give rise to the powerful and dreaded monster informed consent.  It threatens to put the knowledge necessary for young adults (notice the avoidance of that phrase by the Parents Television Council) to claim ownership over their own bodies, their own sexualities, their evolving right to choose.

Yes it is complicated to teach young people about sex.  Yes to do so responsibly it will take more resources than we commit now.  But will it honestly be more risky?  Is anyone noticing how rampant child sex abuse, unacknowledged rape, unintentional pregnancy, and other unchecked pain and untended suffering surrounding sex exists in our current culture?  In my view, the sex negative generation has had their time.  A long, long, long time.  They have proven incompetent at creating a healthy, sane, or safe world or cultivating ethical and happy sexualities in people.  This may seem like a low blow on my part, but since the Catholic sex abuse scandals, I feel anyone touting sex negative messages and appealing to benevolent patriarchy as deserving our trust hasn’t got a leg to stand on.  It is time to try something new.  And, honestly, I’d be shocked and amazed if we could mess it up any worse than it already is.

Parental ownership of children needs to be challenged on every societal level.  Parents need to rethink their role.  As a parent, you are raising a human being who belongs inarguably and only to their own individual self.  They can and will choose for themselves (eventually) and you have no right ethically (albeit still legally, but times, they change) to dominate and control them.  It is your appropriate role only to support and equip them to make the best choices they can once they are able and ready.  Our broader society does not seem to know what rape is.  And it certainly does not know what child abuse is either.   I’d like to ask those Parents Television Council folks, why don’t you ask young adults – er, I mean children – how they experience the show… or yourselves.  Sound scary?  Cause if it does, you should do some thinking.

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§ 3 Responses to Consent in Everyday Life: Parents and Sex Ed (beginning at TV)

  • E says:

    This post is awesome. I have nothing intelligent to say at the moment, so I’ll just say HOLLA!

  • Rairun says:

    I recently wrote a long post in which, among other things, I tried to trace the origins of my feminism and polyamory (both are intrinsically linked in my mind). It kept bringing me back to my mother. It actually surprised me a little, because she didn’t participate in any of the events that I usually consider influential in my life.

    Looking back, I was very fortunate that she was my mother. She was open about things that most would consider unmotherly–like her feelings of regret about getting married and having children–and yet the result was not trauma. She treated me as an individual and expected to be seen as one too. We were not extremely close, but she didn’t expect to be my best friend. Sex was not taboo (not even as a 6 year old child, much less as a young adult), but she respected my boundaries.

    So yeah, I do agree that what passes as love, including parental love, is violence. And I was lucky not to be subject to that.

    As for calling teenagers children, that’s something that has always baffled me. I think it’s specific to American culture too. Growing up in Brazil in the 90s, unless your family was Evangelical Christian (a minority, particularly among the middle classes), it was definitely assumed that you knew about and/or engaged in sexual activities as a teenager. I still remember being taught about contraception when I was 10 and handling a condom in class when I was 13, and I went to a Catholic school. I’m not saying there was no sexual control. For example, slut shaming–not for having sex, but for having it “too quickly”, or “too young” (say, 13), or with multiple partners–was alive and well. But teenagers were definitely not expected to be ignorant of sexuality.

  • V. Bright says:

    Two things that this made me think of:

    1: In my extended family (full of loving people committed to their families, but with this love filtered through a worldview that I’m not thrilled about), I remember hearing this joke tossed around: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it!” (At least I never heard anyone say this seriously, though I am sure there are folks out there who have.) Not only does this joke reveal a lot about underlying cultural assumptions, it actually doesn’t even make sense (If you’ll excuse the morbidity while I unpack this un-self-awarely morbid joke: is the implication that parents can rightly kill their children without condemnation or punishment? Not really true. Is the implications that parents can kill children, but children cannot kill parents? Also not true.)

    Anyway, I was delighted when I recently heard this trope flipped on its head from a New Orleanian describing her awesome feminist mom with admiration. Apparently, her mom frequently reminded her children that, “You don’t owe me a thing just because I’m your mother. You didn’t ask to come here; you didn’t *ask* to be born. You’re here because *I* wanted *you*, so you don’t owe me a thing.”

    2: from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet:
    “Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
    which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them,
    but seek not to make them like you.”

    Here’s an excellent musical version of this text, from Sweet Honey in the Rock (which I learned from an also excellent children’s compilation called Peace is the World Smiling):

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