As a survivor of sexual assault, it has been important for me to use my unique voice when attempting to influence the prevalence of sexual assault. I always make sure to come at my conversation with students and professionals alike from a human perspective, candidly and honestly. From my work on campuses, one of the biggest disconnects I see with many prevention programs is this lack of humanization. We talk about prevention tactics, we are cautious (as we should be) of survivors, and we share statistics on the issue. In telling stories about sexual assault, we forget a vital element:
The disconnect comes when we are afraid to talk about sex from the human perspective.
Many prevention programs forget students are engaging in sexual relationships where assault is the furthest thing from their mind. Many of our students are engaging in relationships where they might still be negotiating their identity or exploring different types of sex, or as we know from colleges, not just because it is cliche, they are experimenting with their sexuality. But often across prevention programs, the language and education don’t empower students to take ownership over their sexual experiences. Instead of ever talking positively about healthy sex, most prevention tells students what not to do and how not to act causing participants to immediately check out.
Students need to be taught more about positive sex; education many of us never received.
In the best states, our students are trained how to have safe sex. In many states, they are taught that abstinence is the only option, which is okay if that is their choice, but doesn’t educate those who decide otherwise. For most of us, myself included, our parents taught us about sex.
I still remember my sex talk with my mother. It was awkward. It was slightly uncomfortable. But it was enlightening.
You see my mom is a self-described feminist. For our talk, her perspective was that she wanted me to respect my partner, to engage in healthy sex, and to focus on consent as from her perspective “you can only have splendid sex when you talk about it.”
For me, this conversation was more meaningful than any prevention training I ever attended. It was effective because it met me where I was and treated me like a human when addressing a human issue.
Our students are humans, and we need to connect with them as humans to empower them. We start this by not only training on prevention but also by teaching them how to have great sex.
You might be wondering, how does the talking with your students about positive sex stop sexual assault? Well, aside from prevention-based training and awareness campaigns, here are some reasons why talking about positive sex matters.
Creating a Sex Positive Culture
First, what is a sex positive culture? Well, a sex-positive culture is one where individuals are comfortable talking openly about sex. It is one where sex is not taboo but recognized as a standard practice most people engage in. It is environments where everyone is free to make their sexual choices and engage in the consensual behaviors they prefer. A sex-positive culture is positive because it removes the silence around sex.
Right now, we are largely afraid to talk about sex except with people we consider close. Strangers? Almost never. Even with casual acquaintances and friends we fail to have meaningful conversations about sex.
A sex positive culture doesn’t mean we are just educating on or praising those who want to have sex. It means we are creating a space for people to be comfortable with whatever their sexuality might be. This includes those who are navigating new identities. It includes those who want to abstain from sex. A sex-positive culture is an understanding one that welcomes dialogues on sex. I know it is lofty to expect everyone is going to be sex positive, but until we start shifting micro-cultures, we are not going to begin even moving the larger needle.
And how exactly does a sex-positive culture end assault? First, it helps train on why consent is vital and how talking to your partner openly about the sex they enjoy is a wonderful thing. It gets people more comfortable addressing sex and shows them how to do this.
Second, it helps create an environment where people understand assault is not a survivor making a decision but instead, a perpetrator committing a violent crime. It shifts how we address the action and in turn, shifts how people are comfortable talking about it.
Last, it leads to places where we are more likely to not only talk about sex with people we know but in more public arenas. Including intervening in risky situations with our friends and acquaintances. Why? Because bringing up things like consent and drunk sex are not lame or clinical, just normal parts of life.
Challenging Gender Norms & Toxic Notions
I am well aware of how identity and privilege impact sex and how deep these issues are ingrained with how people perceive sex and how these perceptions have created toxic environments for both women and men. Toxic notions of femininity and masculinity eclipse our entire society.
These cannot be ignored, but we should address them and the journey to change them, well it starts with some steps. How do we make these steps then?
Here is how.
We talk about them. We challenge them. We challenge each other.
I call out people who make rape jokes every time I hear them. I have a bit of ease in this because I can say I am offended as a survivor. From my role, I am comfortable talking to anyone about sex.
But it cannot just be me saying this. We need to get more people to talk about these types of things. And we need our students to challenge their peers.
This is where we loop back, because how can we expect our students and campuses to challenge toxic notions of sex if we never get them talking about sex in the first place. By educating our students and empowering them to talk about healthy sexuality and a sex-positive culture, we then give them the power to challenge each other.
Change comes from inside social circles, rarely can we force it on them from the outside. By creating, discussing, and providing spaces for sex-positive cultures in existing social system, we lead to small changes. Those changes build up over time, however.
Our students have to be the ones driving these changes.
Positive Always Beats Negative
Often, prevention education is extremely negative. It focuses on telling people how they are messing up and not to hurt other people, using fear, anger, and negative options to drive change. The problem is we know people do not react to negative campaigns.
When you are negatively conditioned to a behavior, you respond for a little bit but eventually, when the immediate fear/anger/rage is removed, people stop responding as the prevention efforts wane.
Negative messaging (do not, cannot, you’re at fault for X behavior) only works until group norms kick in or people stop caring about the message for their self-benefit. This is different with sex-positive training. It doesn’t shy away from the negative repercussions of assault and sexual violence. But for many of our students, it provides them a reason to engage and actively participate.
Sex positive training stops students from feeling like they are yelled at for their behaviors and instead empowered to make active and healthy choices. By focusing on a positive aspect, we catch students with proverbial honey over vinegar.
We Need Mixed Training: Prevention and Positivity
Here is what I will acknowledge. Sex positive cultures and training are not going to prevent all assault or rape. Sadly, nothing will. To be blunt, I was incapacitated and aggressively assaulted. No amount of sex positive culture was going to stop my perpetrator. Potentially, it could have made people around me more comfortable defusing the situation happening in public.
It can help in situations of bystander intervention because it makes talking about sex less awkward.
It can help people potentially stop from engaging in situations of gray consent because they know better about what leads to good sex, not because we lectured them into not to. And it can change how we approach survivors by removing the blame from them and the shame associated with it.
Sex positive culture is not the only answer. But it is one we often fail to explore in the arena of prevention and one we need to talk about a little more openly.
There is nothing wrong with good and healthy sex.
The key lies in teaching our students how to have these types of sex instead of always providing them messages of what they are doing wrong. Our collective story is we want to end sexual assault. We can all get behind that. In telling this story, we need to partner with our students as adults in creating an enduring impact on this issue, not just preventing them from engaging in this behavior for the time they are on our campus.
By changing how we tell the story about sex as a collective, a lofty goal I know, we can begin changing how our culture treats this issue.
I know this is one part of a bigger puzzle, but it is one we have to start talking about now before it is too late. Yes, we still need prevention training. We never should forget proactive and empowering training as well. Both are essential to our bigger puzzle.
And, hey, talking about sex is fun, if only we get more comfortable making it so.