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More on Affirmative Consent

Historical context.

October 26, 2014

I have mentioned this here before: when I was growing up (I was born in 1952), nice girls didn't talk about sex. We weren't even supposed to think about it.

Sex was for after marriage, and then only for procreation — women who enjoyed it were nymphomaniacs, pathetic, unfeminine creatures, objects of pity and contempt.

We were taught that it was our responsibility to stop boys from going out of control. Their "urges" were powerful, whereas we would never be carried away in the moment. So anything that happened, from rape to consensual sex, was our fault. And of course boys (and the friends they bragged to, and anyone else who heard about it) would no longer respect us if we let it happen.

Girls who "got caught" (i.e., became pregnant) tended to disappear for a few months and then return to school looking ill and chastened. The "nice girls" shunned them; boys often sniffed around them. This seemed normal at the time.

At the same time, we were expected to be attractive and flirtatious enough to keep boys interested, just not to be "teases." Girls who dressed conservatively, or boyishly, or who were overweight or skinny, and/or who didn't flirt, were considered grinds and losers, and often bullied or teased. Girls who were too attractive or seductive were considered sluts.

Life felt like a tightrope with no net, all day, every day.

This also seemed normal.

Everything changed in the late 60s. People like to point to one event or phenomenon as pivotal — the availability of the Pill, the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the civil rights and antiwar movements sparking reexamination of everything we had been taught — but experientially, it was as if the world just flipped over one day in 1968, and all the rules inverted.

Sex was suddenly fun and cool, even for girls. Or at least, it was supposed to be. Miniskirts were de rigueur. Group sex, fueled by hallucinogens, was presented as excitingly mind altering.

If the pill failed and you did get pregnant, somebody always knew someone who could get you fixed up. And if you were still a virgin in your twenties, you didn't tell anyone.

Yet we still had no language to describe nonconsensual, not-physically-forced sex; we still believed that having sex we didn't want was our fault; we still felt frightened and ashamed when we were faced with a situation we didn't know how to get out of.

I graduated from college 40 years ago. I'm pretty old now, but historically speaking, the so-called sexual revolution was recent. It doesn't surprise me that there is still a lot of awkwardness and misunderstanding around sex.

That is what programs like this one seek to address.

I was only half joking a few weeks ago when I posted a link to Molly Bloom's soliloquy as an example of enthusiastic consent. I think it is one of the sexiest passages in the English language. But we aren't all poets, and we aren't always sure of what we want or need in the moment, and this is especially true of teenagers and young adults.

It is easy to make fun of earnestness and "political correctness." But it seems to me that the alternative to this sort of awkward fumbling for ways to communicate about desire and fear is to continue not talking. I don't think anyone but a rapist would want that.


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Susan O'Doherty

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