- Consent. Except for that first kiss, Grey checks in with Ana before they have sex. Sometimes he does it by telling her exactly what he plans on doing. Sometimes he simply asks, “Trust me?” His words and actions clearly demonstrate that he cares whether or not he has her enthusiastic consent to be sexual with her. And when she says no, he stops.
- Safewords. Used in kink, safewords can be helpful to all kinds of sexual partners for the maintenance of sexual consent. Grey suggests two safewords: yellow (“I’m reaching my limit”) and red (“I need you to stop now no questions asked”). By using these safewords, Ana can effectively withdraw her consent, and Grey will stop. The implementation of safewords demonstrates that consent is an ongoing process. Even if a person consents to sex at the beginning of a sexual encounter, that person ALWAYS has a right to withdraw consent at any time.
- Toys. All kinds of sexual toys and props can be found to enhance all kinds of sexual pleasure. Check out some feminist toy stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland. While they used toys within a BDSM framework, toys can add pleasure and fun to lots of sexual scenarios.
- Protection. They talk about preventing unwanted pregnancy, and they also talk about avoiding the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. All sexual partners should discuss these issues (when relevant). I wish that television and movies gave more of their precious screen time to modeling different ways to navigate and negotiate protection.
- Power. I particularly appreciate that the book was originally developed as Twilight fan fiction. In Twilight, we see a man with exceptional power (for example, he’s a super-rich vampire and has lived for over a century). He falls for a clumsy, quiet teenage girl and overpowers her. In contrast, Grey is much closer in age to Ana (27 and 22, respectively) although he has similar “stalker tendencies” (as Ana dubs them) and is also extremely wealthy. Here’s the key difference: Grey knows he has these advantages over Ana. He cannot get rid of them and does not want to. But he writes up a contract, explains specifically what he wants, and asks Ana for her feedback. Then, he acknowledges that his responsibility is to attend to what she wants. He is not perfect. He does not do it perfectly. But the fact that Grey and Ana are directly negotiating power is important. Other couples with complex power dynamics may find other ways to negotiate that power and maintain a healthy relationship. The key lesson is the need to acknowledge the potential for abuse of power and to follow through with a plan regarding how to manage the power dynamics.
- Honesty. As Grey says, “This isn’t going to work unless we are honest with each other.” And he doesn’t just say it, either. He actively prioritizes honest and open communication. He pays attention to what helps Ana be the most honest and what does not. And Ana, in turn, pushes him to be more honest with her, as well. They hold each other accountable.
- Relationship diversity. What’s the difference between a friend, a girlfriend, and a sex slave? No, that’s not a setup for a bad joke (sounds pretty offensive, if it is). But it is a question that gets raised by this book. Sexual and romantic relationships are more diverse than we can give them credit for if we’re just trying to figure out whether someone is a girlfriend or a boyfriend or not. In this book, we get to see Grey and Ana exploring the terms of their relationship, both what it means between the two of them and what they communicate to others.
- Emotions. Ugh, so messy. No matter what the relationship label, when two people are involved with each other sexually and/or romantically, their emotions matter. While Grey demonstrates attentiveness and responsiveness to Ana’s feelings, he falls short of consistently communicating his own feelings. Ana senses that his moods impact their interactions. If Grey could check in about his own emotional state, Ana wouldn’t be left guessing, and it could feel better and be safer for both of them.
- Female sexual desire. Ana wants him. The substance of her desire has physical, genital, mental, and emotional components. She wants kisses. She wants touch. She wants sex. There are other people who want her, but she doesn’t want them, so she turns them down. But she wants sex with Grey, and she knows it, and she’s not afraid to show it.
- Female sexual pleasure. I wonder how many people are reading this book and learning about their own capacity for pleasure in a new way. The explicit sex scenes include many different ways of stimulating the female body—nipples, clitoris, vagina—different ways to please her, to make her “wet” and thus more physically prepared for penetration, different ways for her to climax, to orgasm. Vivid descriptions of her inner experience while being aroused, stimulated, while climaxing. The emotions and exhaustion that flows through her after her orgasms. More, please! More popular fiction that shows different ways for females to experience different kinds of sexual pleasure. And more diverse depictions, please!
“How do we have men and women working together on preventing men’s violence against women without recreating the sexism we are trying to end?”
—Jackson Katz, at the Mentors in Violence Prevention Bystander Intervention Conference at Northeastern University, May 31, 2012
Dear Jackson Katz,
Here’s my short answer: Currently, you are indeed recreating the sexism you are trying to end.
Here’s my long answer: Thank you for having the wherewithal to recognize the complexity and challenge in being a person with privilege taking leadership on issues of systemic oppression and violence. Thank you for your leadership, thank you for your decades of work, and thank you for continuing to ask yourself how you can be a better ally.
What I say in this blog post may be read as a criticism, and I want you to know that I am criticizing you because we are on the same team. We have the same mission. As we work towards this mutual goal, I believe I have a perspective that you need to hear. So, let’s get coffee (or the internet equivalent, if you’re back in Cali by now).
Yesterday I was at the MVP Bystander Intervention Conference, and I’ve also participated in the MVP Institute training program as well as taught several workshops myself in the (distant) past. I have a lot of respect and affection for the work done by MVP. I personally have gained so much from your organization, including some of my favorite workshop activities addressing gender and systemic violence, and that’s why I am so invested in seeing it do good work now and in the future.
For my readers: Jackson Katz founded MVP in 1993, to recruit male student athletes as leaders in ending men’s violence against women. Yes, just men’s violence against women. Not all sexual violence, not all gender-based violence. That’s fine. No one can do everything, maybe. The MVP approach is to address men as potential active bystanders—to talk to men about why stand up as a bystander, and possible ways to intervene in sexist and violent behavior. Calling other men to understand men’s violence against women as a fundamental social justice issue (see The Macho Paradox), Katz and MVP have brought their work to sports teams, fraternities, and the military.
Back to Dr. Katz: I’m grateful that you recognize the role that masculine role models can play in reshaping masculinity and addressing men’s violence. I can’t walk into hockey team locker rooms and talk to them about sexual assault. The NFL isn’t inviting me to speak with their players about rape. You are getting into those spaces and opening up conversation, and I’m impressed and grateful.
That said, Bystander Intervention training is NOT a comprehensive sexual violence prevention program. Bystander Intervention should NOT be promoted in mainstream spaces as a priority over actual skill-building that addresses actual people of all genders as people with bodies, people with intimate relationships, people with the capacity for sex and for love. Where are those people in Bystander Intervention training? I understand the importance of getting your foot in the door by addressing everyone as potential Bystanders so participants aren’t as defensive. But your approach is actively silencing those people in the room who may be more than potential bystanders—they may be victims and survivors of sexual or relational violence. Where are those people able to express their lived experiences in your workshops?
Furthermore, when you split up the participants into groups of “men/boys” and “women/girls,” to talk specifically about “men’s” violence against “women,” you are erasing the existence of trans* and genderqueer people. Erasing them. There is not room for people with non-binary gendered experiences and identities within the curriculum you use. What are you going to do about that? That is a major problem. It’s a problem that is the Achilles heel of your intervention. You cannot expand so much. You cannot be everyone’s solution.
When MVP comes to “mainstream” spaces and coed spaces—spaces that are not these hyper-masculine communities that were the original location of this Bystander Intervention—then you recreate the sexism you are trying to end by silencing the voice of survivors and by rendering invisible those living outside the gender binary.
What are you going to do about that?
From your ally,
Yesterday was the first day of classes! I am taking a seminar in resilience, which opened with ten minutes of free writing about what we think the concept of resilience entails. I love free writing as an educational technique, so I was thrilled. I also found it quite useful to take the time to frame my interest in resilience in terms of my mission of promoting positive adolescent sexual development:
Resilience is the process of getting through difficulty with continued strength and positive development. I think of resilience as a dynamic aspect of person and context that helps to foster positive development even through negative occurrences such as violence, trauma, illness, oppression, or other normal and abnormal challenges.
I believe resilience to be an important concept in the study of adolescent sexual development because adolescents must demonstrate resilient functioning in order to resist negative stereotypes and achieve personal agency within our sexist and sex negative culture. What characteristics of individual adolescents and of the contexts in which they live will contribute to their resilience and thus to their positive sexual development? How does resilience manifest in girls, boys, and transgendered youth? What kind of resilience do girls need in order to access positive feelings about their bodies and their sexuality?
We can ask questions such as the ones above in order to seek different approaches to promoting resilience within the realm of sexual development, and we can ask questions from a different angle. We might find that sex positive educators and activists are already engaged in promoting adolescent resilience in a variety of life contexts. How can sex education and, in particular, sex positive education, contribute to adolescent resilience overall? How can the knowledge, skills, and attitudes taught in a sex positive classroom or youth group help youth demonstrate resilience in a variety of situations in the realm of sexuality as well as in other aspects of their lives?
These two approaches to forming questions about the relationship between adolescent resilience and adolescent sexual development reflect the double meaning I intend in the title of this blog, “Sex Ed Transforms.” Through the reading, thinking and writing that I do in the process of blogging and in my other work on sex ed, I hope to transform the approaches we take to sex ed and our conceptions of what sex ed can entail. In addition, I believe that through reading, thinking, writing, and educating others and ourselves about issues of sexuality and sex education, we can transform our communities, our world, and ourselves. I am looking forward to discovering how the study of resilience can play an important role in both of these processes.
After I posted in November about rape culture on college campuses, a curious reader asked me a seriously of strikingly simple and stunningly intelligent questions: “Are men in college inherently complicit in rape culture? Are college men complicit in rape culture simply because they want to sleep with college women? Does rape culture overshadow every joke college men make about sex?”
First, what is rape culture? This blog post is really long, but it’s one of the most popular depictions of what this concept, “rape culture,” means. For an act to be complicit in and to promote rape culture, it does not need to include an act of rape, necessarily.
Rape culture does not necessarily overshadow every joke college men make about sex, but it likely overshadows most of them. Not every college party is necessarily complicit in rape culture, but it’s likely that most of them are. Not all college men are by definition complicit in rape culture, but if they do not want to be complicit in rape culture then they must actively educate themselves and pursue justice. And the same goes for women — for all of us.
Rape culture is tied into many other systems of power and privilege in our society. Most obviously, it is wrapped up in sexism (the power of men over women) and heterosexism (systemic structures of heterosexuality and the assumptions about what it should look like when men and women get together, i.e., he asks her out and not the other way around).
Like other systems of oppression, words and actions that are complicit in rape culture are the norm. They are invisible, unnoticed, because they are dominant. Yes, extreme examples get called out– but the less extreme examples seem normal. Furthermore, the less extreme examples are so similar to most other things we experience in our lives that it is so difficult to call them out as wrong. We see them as just parts of life. By identifying rape culture within the dominant culture of America, we gain the power to name these aspects of the “norm” as hurtful and harmful.
Rape culture can be promoted in multiple layers and in multiple ways. For example, to advertise a college party, one could design a poster to make it clear that all people attending the party will be encouraged to exercise sexual agency. However, what music will be played at that party? Rape culture is rampant in rap music and other popular party tunes. So, there are layers.
In order to throw a party that is not complicity in rape culture, the thrower of said party is going to need to work at it, to be obvious about it, because the assumption, our norm, is rape culture. I’m thinking of a birthday party I attended last year in which a number of things were made explicit, such as, the aspect of the theme you chose for your outfit did not have to be based on your gender. In addition, giving and getting consent was made explicit during the party games. However, the music thing was/is still an issue…
So it’s not an “in or out” kind of thing—is something part of rape culture or is it not… Here’s a parallel: We can be anti-racist—we can work against racism in our daily lives and in our society—but we can’t be non-racist, we can’t claim to be colorblind because that is nonsensical given the prejudices of the society in which we live.
This week I had the honor of attending the 2010 Teen Pregnancy Institute: Expecting Success For Youth And Young Families, hosted by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. I spent the day learning with other educators, counselors, researchers and advocates invested in improving the sexual health and well-being of teenagers in our state.
When we came together in one space, I really did start to feel like there are a whole lot of us – people who work with teenagers and care about them and have the courage to talk to them about sex. No, not just the courage, it’s more than that. The ganas. The instinct. The drive.
I wish I could take each one of the attendees out to dinner and hear their stories.
My day started in Consuela’s workshop on the importance of giving teenagers access to words, concepts, and images with which to imagine, assess, and ask for healthy relationships. She challenged us to discuss how healthy relationships look similar and different for teenagers than they do for adults. What are the components of a good date? What does a healthy first month of dating look like?
When I learned to play tennis at summer camp, the counselor assured us that she would tell us when she saw us swinging our racket correctly, so we could learn what the correct swing felt like.
Have you ever told a teenager that you thought something was healthy and positive about their dating relationship?
In my second session, I learned about specific ways to teach sexuality through a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) framework from Liz of Planned Parenthood. When her coworker Mindy took over to introduce the parent engagement component of their curriculum, Get Real, I was captivated by the overlap between our fears as sexuality educators and the fears that parents have when their children enter our classes. The tools that Get Real provides for parents are really just conversation starters. A simple question like, “Are there any kids at your school you don’t like?” appears not to be about sexuality in all, but it can clear the way for exploring relevant emotions and communicating core values.
In the afternoon, Kelly from the Cambridge Health Alliance launched a conversation about what a sex-positive national culture might look like, using slides from this Slate article. What would it take for American teens to start hormonal contraception before ever having sex? What would it take for American teens to carry a condom with them on a regular basis? And, how can we get from here to a place where American teens have an open conversation with their parents about what they want to do sexually and who they want to do it with before they actually start having sex.
Can such a world exist?
It can in the Netherlands. (Watch the Slate slideshow. Really.)
To end the day, everyone gathered together to watch The Gloucester 18, a story about teen parents who made national news. I have so much to learn about the lives of pregnant and parenting teens. See this film, then help push back on the stereotypes.
Thank you so much to the Massachusetts Alliance On Teen Pregnancy for putting together this incredible day of learning and community-building. Thank you to each of the presenters for sharing your passions, and to everyone I met or reconnected with for showing up and stepping up.
How do we define risky or inappropriate behavior? I think that sometimes we cast these categories too broadly. To explore this question, I will return to the issue of hooking up that I previously addressed through my comments on the work of Shannon Boodram and Nancy Bauer.
In responding to the chapter in Boodram’s book about “Hookups that Fell Down,” I expressed my feeling that many of the experiences described in this chapter include evidence that suggests they were sexual assaults, not simply bad hookups. Although I could defend this statement further using the examples in the book, I’ve actually chosen not to explicate these stories on my blog at this point because it is not my desire to place labels on someone else’s experience.
More specifically, I’d like to refer to the disagreement as an example of what I see as the need to be more specific about the boundary of the categories that we’re using to discuss sexuality. The title of the chapter blurs the line between hookups and assaults, including many assaults under the category of a bad hookup. I think this is dangerous because it fails to recognize the role of human agency in our sexuality. Having a sexual experience that “falls down,” or that one later regrets, necessitates having made a choice initially to engage in sexual activity. On the other hand, when a person is pushed, pressured, tricked, or otherwise made to engage in un-consensual sexual activity, that is sexual assault.
In Bauer’s work, I find the opposite tension. She critiqued all hookups as objectifying and violent—no hookup, it seems, could then be entered out of one’s own agency. I fear that clumping all hookups together as inherently unhealthy and inevitably unhappy experiences makes it so much harder to differentiate between hookups and sexual assaults. Furthermore, if we state ahead of time that all hookups are objectifying, then we are laying the groundwork for victim-blaming when someone does in fact experience sexual violence during the course of pursuing a hookup.
Unhealthy, unhappy and nonconsensual after all too often come hand-in-hand. Furthermore, we justify blaming the victim by lowering expectations below the line of respectable, consensual treatment.
Assault, objectification and manipulation come in all shapes and sizes. What we label every hookups as negative, and when we dismiss nonconsensual hookups as normative, we blur our vision and sacrifice our ability to identify violence, on the one hand, and strive for consensual pleasure, on the other.
Maybe no two people on earth have ever successfully had a healthy, positive, safe hookup together that both of them still, to this day, remember with a joyful smile. Maybe such a hookup has never happened. I think it has happened and does happen, but even if it has not, we need to believe it to be possible. We need to believe in this high standard because without this high standard, we blind ourselves. If we set this high standard, we broaden the spectrum on which we can understand hookups and we increase the number of ways in which we can describe hookups, acknowledging them to have either been amazing, pleasing, fun, sweet, mediocre, a bummer, a regret, inappropriate, not consensual, traumatizing, violent . . .
I want a way to talk about different hookup experiences not just in terms of the stereotypes we’ve used so far, but in terms of a vast range of real experiences and a fabulous image of safe, consensual joy. I’m frustrated by what feels to me like a lack of differentiation and a turning away from the challenge of enthusiastic consent.