The On Being Project

This Isn’t About Bad Apples; It’s About Our Broken Sexual Culture

It seems that another man in power gets called out every single day for sexual harassment or assault charges these days. Harvey Weinstein may have been the first to make our collective jaws drop with his ritualistic and repeated attacks, but he has since been joined by a football team’s worth of predators.

But this is not about bad apples. This is about a root system that is insufficient to grow healthy sexual humans. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I have been reading Jaclyn Friedman’s insanely timely book, Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. If you have any hankering to understand the story behind and underneath the story that has been hogging our headlines lately, it’s worth a read.

The basis of Jaclyn’s argument is that we have been living through an “era of fauxpowerment” — “a time when shiny pictures of individual women wielding some symbol of sexual power are used to distract us from our still mostly retrograde and misogynist status quo.”

Think Kerry Washington in her sexy outfits tromping all over D.C. to fix what’s broken. Think Kim Kardashian posting naked pictures of herself and calling it feminist. Think Melania Trump, who was a model before she was first lady, making money off of her sex appeal was a direct path to the White House.

In our neoliberal capitalistic society, sexual power has been advertised as something that you can purchase — whether it’s high-end, like exorbitantly expensive, non-toxic make-up endorsed by GOOP, or populist, like Victoria’s Secret underwear designed to make teenage girls in the heartland feel like the porn stars their boyfriends are watching endlessly and at no cost online.

Which brings us to the next infuriating area of American sexual dysfunction: our sexual education strategy (or total lack thereof). Currently, only 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education. But even in those states, districts interpret what “sex education” means widely and inadequately.

What’s even crazier is that kids today — the same ones with easy access to porn and all the other warped, degrading messages about sex available on the Internet — are getting less sex education than previous generations! A recent study published by the Guttmacher Institute found that today’s teens are less likely to be educated on important and timely topics than were their parents. In 2011–2013, 43 percent of adolescent females and 57 percent of adolescent males did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time.

So while it’s beyond time to expose predatory men in power and talk about sexual harassment and assault policies in every institution in America, our work isn’t done there. This is also about addressing a much broader brokenness. It’s about admitting that we raise girls to feel like their power is their sexuality, and therefore they have to either hoard it and benefit from being seen as pure, or dole it out in strategic ways that will help them get ahead (their own pleasure or preference is irrelevant in either terrible choice). It’s about admitting that we raise boys to see sex as something they are entitled to, as something transactional, as something that men seek out and women either resist or give in to. And it’s about the continued attempt to control women’s bodies, particularly their reproduction.

In other words, this is an exciting, emperors-have-no-clothes moment, but what we must really be after is tearing down the masters’ houses and rebuilding them entirely. We have to remake this country — starting with sex education and working our way up and out — to reflect the actual complexity and broad range of how human sexuality gets expressed and must be honored.

Friedman points out an incredibly powerful detail in her book. When the Steubenville rape took place, one of the bystanders — an American boy — said that he didn’t intervene because he didn’t recognize what he was seeing as rape. The unconscious victim wasn’t fighting back. She was little more than a passive receptacle, which fit with the way he’d seen sex — not rape — depicted on television. When Brock Turner was raping a young woman on Stanford’s campus, two bystanders riding by on bikes saw something happening in the dark shadows and intervened. They happened to be young men educated and socialized in Sweden, a place that integrates sex education starting in kindergarten. Those young men knew, in a split second, that what they were seeing was wrong, a violation of basic human rights, and they honored their instincts to stop it.

This is not a story about a coward and two heroes. It’s a story about a country that treats sex like a necessary vice, power play, and business opportunity, and its teenagers like perverts who must be kept in the dark, and another that prioritizes health, sexuality, and human dignity across the lifespan.

I know which one my children deserve. What about you?

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