Chris Bransdon · Sexuality

We need to talk about sex the way we talk about rape*

I can’t really recall when my parents sat me down for ‘the talk’. Not because it didn’t happen, but probably because I have pushed the event to the furthest corners of my memory. What I could probably guess though, if I managed to move past my youthful mortification at being approached by one of my parentals to discuss s-e-x, is that the discussion did not involve an explanation of what it means to be raped.

Rape was a word I rarely heard as a child, or even as a teenager. It was reserved for discussion only when absolutely necessary. Now as a young woman with a left-leaning appetite for news and blogs it has become familiar, an acceptable topic of conversation.

It is one thing for mainstream media to offer commentary on rape culture, but it is, in my opinion, another thing entirely for parents to be encouraged to sit down with their teens to discuss ‘how not to rape’ or ‘how not to be raped’ or to put it concisely – how to understand sexual consent. I don’t think I realised just how little innocence remained in the world until I read that article. What constitutes ‘awkward’ conversation for today’s teenager would have been unthinkable, total overkill, only ten years ago.

The basic script for the new ‘awkward conversation’ goes like this:

Rape is rape is rape. There is no such thing as ‘legitimate rape’.
Yes means yes – it should be expressed in a non-ambiguous vocal manner, perhaps accompanied by a vigorous head nod.
We need to discourage, even shun men who perpetrate, brag about, or support violence against women.

As I read these pointers, my heart sank. All I could think was, is that it? That’s the best you can do?

I tried to read wider. A quick Google of recent news stories around rape culture advise the same strategy, albeit with different variations. If you’re in university, try this one: a ‘traffic light’ approach to understanding sexual consent.

Red means stop: you’re drunk, asleep, or passed out, or one person doesn’t want to have sex
Yellow is pause: mixed signals
Green: a mutual decision has been made about how far to go and “all partners are excited and enthusiastic!’

“The ‘traffic light’ system is beneficial as it gives people a vocabulary for having what can be an ‘awkward conversation’ in a congenial way”

And if a traffic light poster doesn’t work? Well, then, there’s an app for that.

Rape instills fear in me as a woman. There is no other act of violation that can come close. Why? Why does rape induce so much fear and damage not just physically but mentally and emotionally? It is now well documented that men and women alike are systematically raped by combatants during armed conflict. Why is it such an effective means of psychological warfare?

It’s not just an invasion of space. It is much, much more degrading and damaging than being physically beaten. It is more than pain. It is more than a violation of rights. It is hard to articulate why it is, exactly, that rape can bring a person so low.

Emma Sulkowicz is a student at Columbia University, a prestigious Ivy League institution in the U.S. At present she is staging a rape protest on campus which has drawn worldwide attention, most recently in this piece in New York Magazine. Sulkowicz brought charges of rape against one of her fellow students and was dismissed by the university’s administration. Faced with the prospect that her rapist would get away scot free, Sulkowicz became the ‘mattress girl’. For the best part of September 2014 she has been carrying a dorm mattress around her campus to demonstrate the weight of the burden that she carries having been raped – not only due to the horror of experiencing it, but of having been left without any support by the university. It is an extremely powerful and effective illustration of what rape survivors (please, do not use the word victim) have to live with and I found myself moved to hear of how other students assist her to carry this mattress, knowing that they too have a part to play in helping her to heal and in bringing her rapist to justice.

Emma Sulkowicz

If this is true, if rape is honestly as unthinkable as we all agree it to be, then I cannot for the life of me understand why the inverse does not also hold true. If rape has the power to damage and destroy – then why do we refuse to talk about sex as though it has any real value?

Every article I read on the prevention of rape could say only this: learn to say yes and say it unambiguously. This is how we will prevent rape.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing to instruct you to value sex, or treat it as though it were worth something. This society lives totally inconsistently with its own assessment of sex: if sex is so meaningless, if it is nothing more than an ‘act’ and only requires ‘consent’ then why is rape so damning? It is utterly disproportionate. If we gave the same weight and meaning to sex as we did the horror of rape, the tone of the ‘awkward conversation’ would change completely.

This world is constantly trying to untangle itself from its sexual dysfunction, Sulkowicz’s protest is just one example. It’s such a powerful one. I tried to think of an illustration that might match it to demonstrate the value of sex. I thought of one. Marriage. It doesn’t seem to have the same effect it once did.

The total inability, or refusal of the media to discuss sex before it discusses rape is completely unsurprising. The moment you remove any religious framework from the dialogue sex is just sex and we’re animals (animals that need to learn to speak, but animals nonetheless). But the hurt, the fear, the shame, and the brokenness that accompanies rape bears witness to the poverty of this understanding of sex.

So what will I be teaching my children in the next ten, twenty years? I will teach them what the Lord Jesus has to say about sex and gender and relationships. I will teach them that sex is a gift and an expression of the divinity of the God we worship. I will teach them that their sexuality is natural and good, that they are capable of controlling it and it is for the one person whom they will love and cherish in marriage – such is the value of this extraordinary ‘act’ of intimacy. I will teach this to both my son and my daughter.

If they accept this truth, if they allow it to wrap itself around their hearts, then they won’t have to be afraid. They won’t have to be confused. They will have a strong framework for understanding this world, a sexual ethic that will remain intact and ground them as society continues to push its boundaries, or remove them altogether. Christianity was born into a world in which pedophilia and incest were practised without question and everyone did as they saw fit. I find it ironic that our society is convinced that it is becoming more and more ‘progressive’. Every time we cheer at throwing off the ‘shackles of monogamy’ and call for ‘sexual liberation’ we just take one more step back in time, to when we didn’t know there was anything better.

*Let me clarify. This article does not suggest that rape, or discussion of rape should ever be taken lightly. This article is not suggesting that encouraging partners to discuss consent is in any way bad or unhelpful. I fully support that discussion. The point of this article is to draw our attention to the fact that if rape is considered, without question, to be so significant, then it is worth questioning why sex itself is not attributed with the same significance.

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