Could Educating About Sexual Pleasure Prevent Sexual Assault?
Why does so much sexual assault prevention focus on defining sexual assault? As May’s Sexual Assault Prevention Month draws to a close it’s worth asking whether the conversations our community has about sexual violence are as effective as possible. They might not be.
Over the years I’ve led conversations about sexual violence and healthy relationships with groups in middle schools, high schools, post secondary institutions, and at Partner Assault Response groups. When the conversation turns to consent and the importance of sobriety, the majority of these groups produce a question along the lines of “how drunk is too drunk?” or “how can I hook up without being accused of assaulting someone?”. Questions like these show that we’re having questions about sexual violence without properly defining sex.
Essentially those questions ask “what can we get away with” and that sets a person up for a dangerously low expectation of their sex life. It reminds me of students who want to do the minimum that’s required for a passing mark instead of approaching projects with the goal of doing something exciting and making something that they’re proud of. It shows that they want to get what they need out of the experience but put as little effort into it as possible. It’s a lazy perspective but sexual relationships have too much at stake for people to be lazy. Respect and consent require effort. You have to ask; you have to listen; you have to respond and make compromises. Short cuts around consent lead to sexual assault. So how can we make sure that people clearly understand that taking a short cut around consent makes the difference between sex and sexual violence?
It comes down to how we think about sex. When we teach people – especially men—that sex is something that we ‘get’ from other people, we teach them that sex is for personal gain. So much of our language describes sex like that: get laid, get pussy, bang women, etc. If a person thinks that sex is just for them, then they won’t think about their partners’ experiences. They’ll be blind to potential discomfort, disinterest, resistance, and fear. Instead we need to raise the bar and provide relationship and sexual health education that puts an emphasis on mutual pleasure.
If we teach that sex is only sex when everyone is enjoying it, then people will develop the skills to recognize interest and pleasure in their partners. They will learn that disinterest and hesitation are red flags in a sexual encounter and will refuse to accept anything less than enthusiastic and continuing consent.
When I was growing up, sex-ed in public school was all about anatomy and disease. I don’t remember any conversations about consent, let alone pleasure. Most of our parents weren’t up for that kind of discussion either. Instead, my peers had to learn from each other and from the internet. I got the sense that adults were afraid that any suggestion that sex could be fun or enjoyable would be a direct endorsement of teen pregnancy. People had sex anyway but we learned implicitly that sexual pleasure should not be discussed or worried about. It wasn’t clear that sex was supposed to feel good. Whole generations have learned to think of sex this way and have had to unlearn it in adulthood.
It’s a ridiculous situation. Imagine if driver’s-ed taught all about mechanical functions and gas tanks but not about speed limits or how to stay on your side of the road. There would be a lot more accidents; too many accidents. Just like there is too much sexual violence and too many people who don’t know the differences between sex and sexual assault.
Sexual violence is preventable but prevention requires work. We’ll need to get past our collective discomfort about discussing sex and sexual pleasure. We’ll have to challenge our friends and family members when they describe sex in dehumanizing and selfish ways. We’ll have to check in and to keep checking in with the people we want to have sex with to make sure that what and how we want is the same. We’ll have to learn to be okay with rejection and with compromise. And we’ll have to teach young people the skills they need to do the same.
It will be hard work but the result will be clearer communication, greater safety, and better sex. In the end, sex promotion might be more effective at sexual assault prevention than just raising awareness about sexual assault. That’s an outcome I’m willing to explore if you are.
Jon Farmer on behalf of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce