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

Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 4:30 pm

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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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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  • Louis Schmier

    In all my first year history classes, beginning in 1995 until I retired in 2012, all work was done in what we called “communities.” It was a shortening of “Communities of Mutual Respect, Support and Encouragement.” In the syllabus, I explained how the students were to form their own communities, and why I required the format:
    “You will create your own communities according to three rules:
    1. Each person must be a stranger to each other
    2. Each community will be racially mixed
    3. Each community will be gender mixed

    So, why do I require that you create the communities this way? Well, there are three reasons. First, there is more to an education than getting information, developing skills, and receiving professional credentials. There is a vital social element to an education. We rarely give you the opportunity to learn people and communication skills. You will always be dependent on others for you success; you will always be working with others. To say that you don’t want to depend on anyone for your grade or you don’t like group work, will not serve you well. Second, this ole civil rights worker who registered voters way back in the ‘60s, wants to confront prevailing racism by getting you to work together, rely on each other, and learn, as one of my heroes said, to judge a person on the content of her/his character and not by the color of her/his skin. And finally, I want both you young men and women to understand that a penis dangling between someone’s legs does not determine that males are superior and females are inferior, that you will respect each other and treat each other with respect, and learn that each of you, young men and young women alike, is a sacred, noble, and unique human being with untold potential.”

    The results were magical.

  • John Watson

    Well written.

  • Anita Bower

    Thank you for pointing out how our culture teaches and promotes unhealthy sexual roles.

  • On point, and lays out the foundation of why we have been pushing for serious changes to our sex ed curriculum in our school district.

  • I am curious too about a culture that treats sex, or more specifically, hyper-aggrandized male sexual power, as a “necessary vice.” I find myself asking if it has always been this emboldened in our culture or if perhaps (as it real as it was 50 years ago), there wasn’t more shame attached to it back then. My mother is 70 years old and has often told me about harassment in the workplace, but none of it is anything like what we’re hearing and seeing in the media today — which is sort of a fully unlocked male hyper-aggression.

    Behavior like that when she was young woman was certainly around, but she seemed to believe that men were less likely to get away with it because — kind of like you mention in the article — other people recognized it as victimization and scorned it publically. For example, when Trump boasts of the way he misused women on that now famous audio tape, my mother’s generation seems to think that any man speaking that way 50-60 years ago would have been shamed or ostracized from public life in the community. And yet somehow in today’s world it is exactly as you describe, a seemingly “necessary vice” that a man can behave or speak without honor, and in despicable fashion too, and yet still become the President or hold onto a place of power.

    Glad this is changing for the better. There’s a reckoning coming.. already here even. Thank you for this article. It has me thinking.

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