Research released this year has shown that instances of sexual coercion among teens are disturbingly high. What was ground-breaking about this study is that it focused on self reports of perpetration. It asked questions about sexual coercion- verbally intimidating, pressuring, using guilt, getting someone drunk, or harassing behaviors- as well as forced sexual contact. Teenagers were asked if they “had tried to make someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”, or “made someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”. And based on their own responses – nearly 10% of teens have been sexually coercive. Also disturbing are patterns around personal responsibility. Fully 50% of the perpetrators said that the victim was completely responsible for what happened. And by the way, by the age of 18 perpetrators were equally boys and girls.
A 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy looked at teens’ behaviors around sharing sexual content online. They found that 25% of girl and 33% of boys reported that they had been shown naked pictures intended to have been sent privately to someone else. Add this to what we have seen in the news about patterns of sexual harassment and bullying among teens and children.
I have believed for a long time that we should to be providing better and more comprehensive sexual education. Now it is clear to me that not only do we need to talk about sexual health and safety, but we need to be talking about sexual respect. It is time to define polite sexual conduct. And to erase once and for all the insidious idea that if someone is behaving sexually, they no longer deserve respect.
If kids are learning just by observing what is going on around them, then I can understand how they would be confused about how to treat others respectfully. In this era of decreased privacy and people’s personal lives as public entertainment, it is critical to teach about personal privacy and choice. Maybe the ever- intensifying ramp up from afternoon talks shows featuring humiliations, have numbed us to other people’s shame and turned us into virtual perpetrators, invited to laugh at someone falling down drunk and flashing their underwear. Humiliation has become entertainment. In this environment, how do we talk to kids about vulnerability? How do we help them to separate how we relate to the “real lives” on TV from how we relate to real people in our lives? How, in a world of selfies and sex tapes, do we talk about the fact that many people want their sex life to be private and that beginning a sexual relationship with someone can be a tender, trusting act? We need to explain why it is ok to laugh at the sexual behavior of “Carlos Danger” but not at the girl in your class who sent a topless pic to the person she has a crush on. And while we are at it, we need to talk about handling frustration and that you will not get to satisfy every desire you have the moment you have it, regardless of what the constant availability of nearly everything else may imply.
Maybe we can tell ourselves that as adults we that we are clear on where to draw the line between harmless amusement at other’s expense and actual harm, or who has abdicated their right to sexual choice or privacy. But it is time to admit that kids aren’t clear about that.
You sit with friends at a café, everyone joking about sex and their partners, and you think, “there is no way I am telling them how I really feel”. You are lying next to your partner, relaxed after a slow morning in bed together, when you have a memory from a past sexual experience but decide not to share it. You are around a dinner table with your family and your mom makes an assumption about your sex life that is not true, but you don’t feel safe correcting her. You are passionately petting with a new partner, who gasps, “we don’t need to use protection, don’t worry”. Nagging thoughts about the risky sexual behaviors in your past stay with you, but you keep quiet.
Our sexual stories often contain both secrets and privacy and the need to make decisions about both. What is the difference between something you want to keep private and a secret you are keeping? How do you decide when to keep information to yourself and what is important to share? Is it ok to keep sexual information to yourself? How much do you need to share with partners?
Secrets often feel bad. We usually keep secrets about information that we are ashamed of or feel could still hurt us in some way. Secrets sometimes have the quality of withholding information that may be relevant to another person, and so they can feel hard to keep and dangerous. Secrets feel like a burden; they hold us back and weigh us down.
Privacy, on the other hand, can feel empowering . It can apply to information about yourself that is new or vulnerable and that you are still learning about, so it is not ready to be shared. Privacy feels like a choice. Things that you choose to keep private may cause you to smile to yourself. Privacy relates to things that you may feel you could share, but is just no one’s business but your own. Privacy is space you give yourself.
So how do you decide if this information is something you should share? Decide if it is currently relevant to the person you might share it with – will it impact the decisions they may make? Will not knowing this put them at risk in any way? Then decide how it is impacting your ability to feel intimate with this person. By not telling, do you feel like you are hiding a significant part of yourself, do you feel you are constantly holding yourself back? Are you thinking about it a lot, distracted by it? If no, then maybe this is something that you choose to keep private. It is not bad to have memories, fantasies, curiosities, that are just for you. Maybe someday you will share but if for now you feel happy holding this inside, let it feed the way you are with your partner and in the world, privately.