1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 8. Sex Ed... Sexual Violence Prevention... and Gender Justice

Introducing “The Debrief”

Great news!

I’ve been asked by JewishBoston.com to write a weekly column, “ four years ago. Thank you to all of you who have read, shared, and commented on my posts. Words can’t express how much your support means to me. I hope you continue to enjoy the archives of my journey thus far.
And look out for a new column of The Debrief every Wednesday!
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships

Unconventional sex ed lessons from 50 Shades of Grey


In August, I entered the Feministing.com “So You Think You Can Blog” contest. Two blog posts were required for the first round: I submitted a queer identity, and I wrote the post below on 50 Shades of Grey. Enjoy!
When I read 50 Shades of Grey last week, I expected to be disappointed and dismayed. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I found the book to be quite a welcome interruption of the dominant script for sex and romance that I see in the media: boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy gets girl to have sex with him without ever discussing sex as an activity or checking for her enthusiastic verbal consent. There are many reasons this dominant script is problematic.
I like 50 Shades of Grey because they actually talk about sex. They talk about sex before, during, and after they have sex. As a sex educator, when I sit with a group of teenagers and encourage them to talk before, during, and after sexual activity, they protest. Why? Maybe because that’s not how they see it happening in the media. Ever. So, thank you E.L. James for providing us with this opportunity to explore these all-too-unconventional sex ed lessons:
Spoiler alert: I will speak specifically about the sexual and romantic relationship between Ana and Grey as portrayed in the first book, but I will not give away any major plot details.
  1. 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.
  2. Safewords. Used in kinksafewords 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!
I don’t think this book shows a perfect model of sexual health, by any means. And I don’t mean to suggest as such. I could write another list of ten moments or themes I found totally problematic from a feminist perspective. However, I think it’s valuable, in this cultural moment, to start a conversation about what we can learn from this book. Ask your friend what they thought about Grey and Ana’s communication. Share with your friend how Ana’s description of sexual desire and sexual pleasure relates or fails to relate to your own experience. Ask teenager in your life if they’ve heard of safewords before. And then go search for more novels and other media that show positive examples of sexuality and relationships, and let me know what you find!
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 8. Sex Ed... Sexual Violence Prevention... and Gender Justice

Transformative Sex Ed in Action: The Ethical Sexuality Retreat

The Sex Ed Team at the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline, MA had our first ever (first annual?) team retreat ten day ago. We wanted to spend a whole day talking together about sex, sexuality, and relationships in our lives and in our communities so that we could create a safe space in which to really dive into the trickier, stickier, more complex questions that came up during our workshops this past year.
We had 18 people in attendance, including people who had been integrally involved in the team for the past year or more as well as people for whom the retreat was their first team event. Many people wanted to join us but couldn’t make it, so I thought I’d provide here a little taste of the questions we asked each other:
*How does your Judaism [religion, spirituality] impact your sexuality? How does your sexuality impact your Judaism [religion, spirituality]?
*What happens when I don’t fit into the question you’re asking?
*What are the two most salient pieces of your identity? How do these identities make you feel powerful, powerless, or both at different times throughout your life?
*Do your sexual ethics change in different relationships?
*What personal needs does sex ed meet for you? What personal needs could sex ed meet for you in the future?
*How can we broaden and deepen our impact on the world through sex ed?
We also had three small groups break out for an hour in the afternoon. Their discussions focused on three different themes: jealousy, asexuality, and body image.
By the end of the day, I could feel that the people in the room were very excited and ready to take on leadership of the team in the coming year and get some great work done. We want to do a thorough revision of our six-part curriculum, paying special attention to issues of power, privilege, and identity in framing the activities and informing the discussions, as well as working to integrate Judaism and Jewish learning in a variety of ways. We will also continue to make space for structured and unstructured conversations in our community about relevant topics related to sex, sexuality, and relationships. In addition, we will explore the process of building power so that we can engage in outreach work, take action, and have an impact on the world at large.
If you want to hear more about our work or maybe get involved, feel free to contact me directly or email our team leaders at EthicalSexuality (at) kavodhouse (dot) com.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Jackson Katz responded to my email (and here’s what I wrote back)


Hi Dr. Katz,
I deeply appreciate your taking the time to respond to my email. I am going to take another opportunity to express my concerns with more detail and clarity, in response to the issues you raised in our personal correspondence.
In terms of not serving queer folk:
I agree that MVP does great work to address harassment that targets sexual minority and gender variant individuals. As I want to emphasize, I think MVP is in a very powerful position to impact violence perpetrated by and through heteronormative masculinity. In contrast, one of my major concerns, as I will explain further in a moment, is about the experiences of transgender and gender variant folks who might actually be in the room during an MVP workshop. Another major concern is that people who have or will have same-sex relationships will not realize in MVP that sexual and relationship violence can happen between two women or between two men, as well. Such work may not be within the goals of MVP as a program, but I do think there are steps that MVP can take to address and support these needs.
In terms of silencing survivors in the room:
This point is tricky. As a sex educator myself, I struggle with the ability to provide a space in which survivors can receive strong support without identifying themselves, and, in addition, to make space in which survivors can choose to identify themselves and use the power of identification to push back against the silencing and shaming cultural norms in our society. It’s about actively structuring my teaching based on the assumption that in any given group, there will be people in the room who are survivors of various forms of violence. Addressing people who are survivors only as potential bystanders can be guilt-inducing and embarrassing. To be a male ally to women who have experienced sexual violence requires a trauma-informed curriculum and approach.
In terms of reinforcing the gender binary:
I completely agree with you that gender neutrality is counter-productive. To talk about sexual violence, we need to analyze gendered power dynamics in history, society, and in our lives. And I appreciate that the MVP policy is to allow people to self-identify, as in, if someone identifies as a man, he can go to the men-only break-out group, and if someone identifies as a woman, she can go to the woman-only breakout group. But I’m wondering, what about someone who doesn’t identify as either a man or a woman? Or someone who identifies as both? Such people exist, and they matter. But I do not see them within the MVP curriculum, and that scares me. I don’t know what to do about it, either. I have a lot of ideas, and I also recognize the complexity. So at this point I am working to name what I’m seeing. To render visible what is now invisible.
In terms of the need for more comprehensive sexual violence prevention:
Here is my question for you: What does MVP do to “set the stage” for an expansion of comprehensive programs? I can see all the fabulous ways in which MVP is a strong program to start the conversation, to address the most resistant leaders and to start building social norms that would facilitate further sexual violence prevention work. However, in reality, I picture schools and colleges saying “well, we do MVP, that’s our sexual violence thing.” Thus, in practice, MVP could very well be the sole source of sexual violence education in many communities. That’s why I’m voicing my concerns. My question is, what can MVP do to be a better ally? When MVP does work with mixed-gender groups, the people in the room who aren’t the hetero/masculine men (who were the original target group of MVP) are not being prioritized in the conversation. Interestingly, these are the very same people (women, queer folk, gender variant folk) who are not being prioritized in society at large. So what is MVP as an organization doing to directly link schools and campuses with programs that will address the needs of women, people who have same-sex relationships, and people who are transgender or gender variant?
The broader question I’m getting at is: What does it take to be an ally? What is the imperative on those of us with power to truly open spaces in which we can directly hand over power to those who need more of it in order to be safe, in order to speak up, and in order to exist? How can I be a better ally to others? How can I ask you to be a better ally to me?
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

How do we prevent men’s violence against women without recreating the sexism we are trying to end?

“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,

Great question.

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,
Mimi Arbeit

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Boston Teens Speak up for Sex Ed

This afternoon, Boston City Council’s Committee on Women and Healthy Communities held a public hearing on a proposal to bring sexual health education and condom availability to Boston Public High Schools. Committee Chair Ayanna Pressley presided with eloquence and insight over the hearing this afternoon.
While I am happy to express the depth and breadth of my support for sexuality education and condom availability in the Boston public schools in future posts, for this post I will focus on what I experienced as the most powerful part of this afternoon’s proceedings: the testimony from the teenagers themselves.
The Boston teens who spoke today totally stole the show, and rightly so. The teen activists from the Hyde Square Task Force have been leading this work all year. “Sexuality is a part of our lives,” said one teen, insisting that young people want to make responsible decisions but need the tools that will help them on the path. The teens advocated not just for condom availability but also for access to broadly comprehensive sex education. The teens named issues such as health, relationships, identity, power, and control.
Two teenagers from the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence also spoke. One said that sex education has the potential to help each student learn how to become a better person and a better partner. The other said that her last relationship had been unhealthy, but she did not know it until she had the opportunity to learn about healthy relationships through her involvement in this task force. Her story illustrates the importance of making this education available to all teens.
A representative from the Boston Student Advisory Council said that without sexuality education, students feel confused, and they feel they are not receiving the support they need from their school. She wants teenagers to learn about both the emotional and physical risks of sexual activity.
Two teens spoke for Massachusetts Asian and Pacific Islanders for Health (MAP for Health). The first teen scrolled through his Blackberry, reading aloud that students need an environment in which they can ask questions without judgment. When he finished, he reached across to pass the Blackberry to his fellow speaker. Lovely laughter flowed through the room. I felt it was a very sweet and humbling moment… The next teen was a bit flustered, but soon he started speaking and spoke eloquently. He emphasized that teachers need appropriate training in order to feel comfortable addressing issues of sexuality in the classroom. Therefore, he argued, Boston should invest in getting more teachers trained and certified to teach sexuality education. Both teens also made a plea for sexuality education that is fully inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth.
Many adults who work in various capacities to address the health and wellbeing of Boston youth also spoke with poise and insight, as did the Chair herself. But tonight, I am prioritizing the voices of the teens themselves, the people whose lives and whose friends’ lives can be changed for the better through the passage of this bill. Let’s listen to the voices of the teenagers, who organize their peers, educate themselves and others, and have the courage to speak at City Hall and ask that their right to education be fulfilled. These youth really want to be educated and equipped and responsible and healthy—we, the adults in power, now need to give them what they want.
1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

Educated, Empowered and Resilient

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.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships

What is Rape Culture? An exploration of terms.

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.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships, 6. Youth Development & Education

The 2010 Teen Pregnancy Institute

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.

1. Sex, Dating, & Relationships

Agency, Objectivity, and a Vision of Sexual Justice: Part Two, on Hookups

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.