As a society we have been sick for a long time when it comes to healthy sexuality. Seeing so many men being held accountable for sexual harassment is a sign that we are ready to address this issue. Many women are feeling hopeful for the first time that we might someday be able to live free from fear of unwanted sexual attention.
While I too would like to see major social change, I am concerned that the current climate of blame is counterproductive to true healing.
My son came home from school the other day and described a class discussion he had that day on the difference between sexual harassment and flirting. His class concluded that the only interaction that can be considered flirting would be saying something positive like giving a compliment...and even that could be considered sexual harassment if you gave too many compliments or the wrong kind of compliments.
While I think that it is huge progress that the subject of sexual harassment is being discussed in high school, I'm also concerned. My son is fourteen and afraid to talk to anyone of the opposite sex for fear that it will be considered sexual harassment, and this breaks my heart. I want my son to understand respect and consent, but I don't want him to think that being nice to someone of the opposite sex is the same as sexual harassment.
The entire topic has been on my mind a lot lately, and I know I'm not alone.
Recently the #metoo social media campaign filled my feeds with women sharing their upsetting experiences of sexual harassment or assault.
This triggered a tidal wave of anger and accusations, and it seems now that every day there is a new revelation of a man in the spotlight who at some point harassed or assaulted someone.
I feel terrible. I feel sad for these women who experienced this and now have to relive it in some way by coming forward with their stories.
I've been on both sides of the equation. And while I don't condone the behavior described in these stories, I do have sympathy for these men because I once had a terrible incident where I was the one on the wrong side of a sexual harassment accusation.
I was mingling at a friend’s wedding reception so I sat and talked with a couple of teenage boys sitting at a table by themselves. They were interesting conversationalists and I enjoyed chatting with them. I invited them to walk around and check out the property with me because it was a lovely place with a view.
After a few minutes I excused myself and moved on to talk to other people at the party. Suddenly out of nowhere the mother of the groom came up to me and shouted “You should be ashamed of yourself!” I was stunned, and asked what she meant. “You know what you did.” She replied, and stomped off in a rage.
I had no idea what she was talking about, but it upset me very much. I cried and went home shortly after.
Later a mutual friend told me that this woman thought that I had been coming on to the teenage boys. What really hurt was that my friend whose wedding it was didn’t defend me, and hasn’t spoken to me since.
The entire experience left me feeling ashamed and defenseless in a way I had never felt before. I was a mother with a son not much younger than these boys, and it had never occurred to me that merely talking to teenagers at a party could be misconstrued as inappropriate sexual behavior. I wracked my brain and the only thing I could come up with that would have warranted this accusation was that I had been friendly and was wearing a low cut dress that showed some cleavage.
The truth is that our society still has serious sexual hangups. I am fortunate that I’m a woman. I can only imagine how much worse it might have been for me if I had been a man accused of flirting with teenage girls.
Because of this experience I no longer automatically assume that every person accused of sexual harassment is a perverted monster.
I am not suggesting that the men currently in the spotlight have done nothing wrong or that we absolve them of their actions, but I would like to suggest that we take into consideration the larger picture.
At the same time that we are being told that sex is wrong, we are being pummeled with sexual imagery and messages from every direction because sex sells and we live in a capitalist society.
To further confuse the issue we have rigid societal rules about gender roles. Before a child is even born we find out their sex so that we can inflict these rules upon them from the moment of their birth.
Girls are pink princesses, They are tender, soft and sweet. Girls should always be pretty and stay virgins until they are married. Women should all be sexy or they are worthless, but they shouldn’t like sex or they are sluts.
Boys are blue warriors. They are strong, active and assertive. As soon as they are teenagers they should have lots of sex until they find the right virgin and get married. Men should always want sex and be super assertive about it, but only towards the women who like it or they are perverts and creeps.
To further confuse the issue, our social mores are never to communicate directly about sex. Being straightforward and talking about sex to someone we are interested in is heavily discouraged. Instead we are supposed to intuit based on body language and subtle cues whether or not someone likes us.
If we are female, we are supposed to wait and let the male come to us based on these subtle cues. If we are male we are supposed to read these subtle cues and respond by pursuing the female.
This bizarre courting ritual only works if everyone properly reads the cues. The punishment for improperly reading cues is harsh. It varies from the light discomfort of personal rejection to the extreme punishment of public humiliation.
The truth is, much of the same behavior that is considered sexual harassment is considered typical courting behavior if the person is someone we are attracted to. This is incredibly confusing and can lead to less than desirable outcomes for obvious reasons.
It is upsetting how sexually sick our society is as a whole. The reason these sexual harassment accusations aren't isolated incidents isn't because there is something wrong with a few twisted men, it's because there's a greater societal issue that needs to be addressed. We all need to work together to heal.
Personally what's helped me develop a healthier attitude towards my own sexuality is being open and talking about it.
I believe the same is true for our society as a whole. If we truly want to stop sexual harassment and aggression we need to open up and start talking about sex.
Here are some of the social messages about sex that I wish my son was getting instead of the old broken ones:
- Your sexuality is okay. It’s okay to think about sex, to want sex and to have sex with a willing partner. It’s also okay to not think about sex, to not want sex and to abstain from having it. Either way, you're okay.
- If you are attracted to someone it’s okay to ask them if they are interested as long as they are in a position to answer freely. If they are too young, too intoxicated or you are in a position of power over them like you are their teacher or boss, for example, then it's not okay to pursue it. If you are interested and they're available it is better to ask than to make assumptions.
- There is a possibility that you may be interested in someone who isn’t interested in you. It is important that you respect their feelings even though it may be disappointing and hurt. Someday you may be on the receiving end of this as well, and that’s okay too. Being honest and being open to honesty is the best way to approach this initial step in finding a partner.
- As you explore sexuality with a partner keep talking about it. Your feelings may change, and so may theirs. That's okay. Just keep checking in.
- Other people may have different ideas or preferences about sex. As long as everyone is respectful, communicates and honors others feelings, that's okay.
Most of all I just want my son to know that talking to someone of the opposite sex in a friendly way is okay. Right now it's a little scary for me to talk about this topic at all. It feels that the entire internet is an angry mob with pitchforks waiting to attack anyone who may have views differing from their own.
For the sake of my sons however, I cannot stay quiet. I do not agree with a world where boys are afraid to be nice to girls for fear of being accused of sexual harassment. I believe that we can do better. I believe we we can heal our broken ideas about sex and evolve together into a more harmonious, sex positive society.