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Just Because I'm Drinking, It Doesn't Mean I Want to Have Sex With You

Sep. 23, 2010
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Last week, I took part in a sexual assault prevention program for new college freshmen. While these types of educational events have become standard at many campuses across the country, which shows some progress in the way our society perceives sexual assault, the opinions expressed by many students during the program made me think that we were still living in Victorian times.

Both male and female freshmen confidently stated that if a woman kisses a man, she has consented to have sex with him; if a woman goes back to someone's room or apartment, she has consented to have sex with that person; and that once a man starts to have some kind of sexual contact, he is unable to stop, even if his partner wants him to. While some of these answers can be attributed to the fact that, developmentally, 17- and 18-year-old students are still very much in a stage of black-and-white, non-nuanced thinking (which we hope they will grow out of during their time in college), I find it to be a sad and striking commentary about sexual communication in our society.

Forty years after the second wave of feminism, we still seem to view male sexuality as an uncontrollable force that must be kept in check by female gatekeepers. These young men and women believe that women who put themselves in any kind of sexual situation are "asking for it" and that women are the ones who must firmly establish sexual boundaries with men who are, apparently, wild animals unable to understand tools of modern communication like words and body language. These tired stereotypes do a disservice to both men and women by putting them both in tiny boxes that allow for only a very narrow, highly policed range of sexual expression.

What's even more interesting to me is how we are still unable to talk directly and clearly about sex. Our young people have been taught to do a carefully choreographed but ultimately confusing dance to communicate sexual intentions. If a woman drinks alcohol, it means she wants to get laid (or it could just mean that she had a stressful week and wants to blow off steam). If a woman flirts, it means she wants sex (or it could mean that she wants some external validation of her attractiveness). If a woman dresses sexily, it means she's looking for action (or she could have gotten dressed up with a big group of her girlfriends who are all in the mood to primp). If a woman kisses someone, she wants to have sex with that person right now (or it could mean that she's potentially interested in the person, and wants to let him or her know she's interested, but isn't sure about the sex part yet).

Sometimes we drink, dress up, flirt and make out just to have fun, not as a prelude to any kind of sexual activity. Sometimes we do these things because we do want to have sex. But because we have no language to talk about sex, no role modeling for telling someone that we find them attractive and directly asking what they might like to do with us sexually, we are left to interpret these vague actions as invitations to sex, whether they really are or not. Even worse, predatory people can take advantage of this ambiguity to commit sexual assault and then blame the women or men who were assaulted for "bringing it on" with their own behavior.

For decades, we have tried sexual assault cases by asking victims, "When did you say no?" We need to turn this around by asking accused assailants, "When did you hear yes?" The responsibility for getting clear consent for any kind of sexual activity should be placed on the person who's initiating that activity. It's not enough to assume that a particular action indicates consent. Men should be free to say "no" to sexual activity without having their masculinity called into question, and women should be free to enthusiastically say "yes" to sex without being slut-shamed. When we make it OK to talk directly about sex, we will be freed from the burden of constantly policing our own behavior, and rapists will not be able to hide behind victim-blaming attitudes.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.


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