- Don't walk in a dangerous neighborhood alone at night.
- When you park your car, don't leave valuables on the front seat, and don't leave your car unlocked.
- When you ride the bus or subway, keep your backpack or purse in front of you where you can see it. When you travel by airplane, wash your hands multiple times and use hand sanitizer.
- When you drive on the freeway and someone is weaving unpredictably, change lanes to get away from them.
- When you walk through an airport, don't wear a t-shirt with Osama Bin Laden's picture on it.
Seven pieces of good advice, wouldn't you say?
You might even give this good advice to a loved one. If you did, would she or he complain that you were giving them too much responsibility for their safety? Would he or she say that you were blaming the victim by suggesting they limit their potentially risky behavior?
Of course not.
And yet when anyone suggests similarly good advice about dating or partying—"young women should not get drunk with people they barely know," or "young women should not drink so much in public that they become incapacitated," some people criticize that good advice as "blaming the victim."
Such good advice is NOT a statement that "if you get drunk you deserve to be raped," nor "if you get drunk and get raped it's your own fault." No, no, no. The advice to not get drunk simply reflects a cause-and-effect observation, now validated by science: young women who get drunk in public are more likely to get raped than young women who don't get drunk in public. There's a fact. Make your decision accordingly.
Of course we should be continually saying to all men, "don't rape anyone, don't exploit anyone who's drunk, don't get anyone drunk in order to have sex with them." The number of young men who seem to enjoy sex with women who are drunk or even incapacitated is truly disturbing. These men lack empathy. And clearly these are men who have never had profoundly enjoyable sex, so they settle for a pathetic imitation of the real thing.
Fortunately, we are now educating young generations of males to be more respectful (and self-respectful), and more conscious of the deep hurt they inflict by non-consensual sex. We are demanding that young men discourage each other from cowardly acts of sexual violence, and that they interrupt such acts when they see them.
While we are doing this important work and anticipating its impact on the larger culture, we still must ask young women to take more responsibility for their own safety. This is not demeaning, not blame-shifting, not man-excusing, and certainly not any sort of rape-apology.
This is expecting young women to deal with the world the way it is. It is expecting young women to act like adults and forego the dubious pleasure of getting hammered with near-strangers, because that is what adults do—they balance the desire to act autonomously with the assessment of risk in the real world. We do this when selecting the clothes we wear to work, the language we use with our customers, judging when to drive over the speed limit, and deciding whether or not to wear a helmet when we bicycle.
The fact is, American college women get meticulously drunk far more often than their European peers. We should be asking them why. We mostly don't.
Part of the reason is cultural: Americans don't teach their kids how to sip alcohol when they're young, so when they can finally drink, they gulp it. Drinking in America is seen as something adults do, so when teens can drink, they binge. Alcohol is marketed to teens far more aggressively in America than elsewhere, so it has the patina of cool. And American teens yearn for the tangible props of autonomy—cars, privacy, alcohol, spending money—more than their non-American cousins.
But there's a troubling psychological reason that young women binge drink: they're anxious. They're self-conscious. They're uncomfortable with the sexual expectations they face (or think they face) in party situations. They expect themselves to participate in sexual activities they may not want to do—or that they can't admit to themselves that they want to do. Either way, alcohol strips young women of inhibitions that can feel quite inconvenient.
And so they drink so much that they become vulnerable. Unable to assess risk accurately. Unable to intervene in situations when they want to. Unable to say "I want X," unable to say "I don't want Y." These disabilities are the logical climax of deliberately disabling their inhibitions—all so they can cope with their ambivalence, inability to communicate, and self-enforced isolation about sexuality.
If our young women find sex so simultaneously desirable yet unnerving that they have to get semi-conscious to give themselves permission to participate, there's a serious problem we should be addressing. This is NOT anyone's license to rape them; being anxious and drinking to cope with anxiety does NOT mean you deserve to be raped.
But a little self-honesty would go a long way here.
The question we face—we feminists, policy-makers, social commentators, public intellectuals, college administrators, conference organizers, concerned parents, and indeed concerned students (both male and female)—is, do we want to do everything we can to reduce sexual assault, or do we want to continue to give women no responsibility for their own safety in order to prove a political point?
I would tell my college-bound daughter that no one has the right to touch her without her clear permission, and that if she's raped, it cannot possibly be her fault. But I would also say let's discuss what can make you safer, what can make rape less likely, and most of all, how can you explore your sexuality as intelligently as possible? If you're adult enough to have partner sex, you're adult enough to be thoughtful about balancing risk and responsibility in sexual interactions.
That starts with self-honesty. And it continues with the belief that taking responsibility for your choices is not onerous or victim-blaming, it's a glorious privilege you've spent your whole life preparing for.
Those who want to help young women become strong, self-aware, and confident should be in favor of this.
The New York Times Magazine has a great opinion piece this week about how "natural" doesn't have a specific legal meaning.
We now live in a world in which "natural Cheetos" and "100% all-natural chicken nuggets" are for sale. The anti-vaccination nuts deride medicines that are "unnatural," forgetting that the goal of all medicine is to defeat nature. Anti-gay folks talk about "natural [i.e., heterosexual] marriage," as if marriage isn't an artificial institution like baseball—and, like baseball, is played differently in different places and subject to periodic rule changes (insert favorite rant about the Designated Hitter or former laws against interracial marriage).
One of the top questions about sex people bring to therapy relates to what's "natural." There are two different aspects to this.
The first is about the ecology of sexual interactions: making time for sex, the process of initiating, discussing preferences, feeling adequate, and negotiating contraception.
People want sex to be "natural." Men and women concerned about this generally mean that they don't want to make dates for sex, want sex to mysteriously happen without anyone actually initiating, don't want to communicate what they like and don't like, want to believe that their partner is deeply satisfied without actually asking or noticing, and want the need for contraception to just go away.
In other words, people who insist that sex be "natural" want it to be like it was during high school or college, when no one had a clue about what was going on. You may recall that that sex often came with physical discomfort, pregnancy scares, self-doubt, and feeling isolated or confused. What a blessing that ten or twenty or forty years later, most people forget about that.
Sex in adulthood isn't going to be like it was in high school or college.
Of course, some adults try hard to reproduce the carefree sex of their youth. So we see some middle-aged people getting drunk to have sex, not a pretty sight. Or adult women who insist that initiating sex is "a man's job," or adult men who say birth control is "up to the woman." In both cases, people seem unaware about how such demands distort relationships. Ditto for the naïve ideas of men who expect their penis to get hard without being touched, and women who expect that men will know what they like sexually without being told or shown.
That's not how sex works. We may have an excuse for these such ideas when we're 18, but not when we're 40. And without making a date for it, most grownup couples don't usually find themselves suddenly tumbling into bed together for sex—especially if they have kids.
So if your definition of "natural" sex is that it just happens, no one talks, there are no problems, and birth control just disappears—you know, a 1938 black-and-white film with Cary Grant or a modern romance with Scarlett Johansson—"natural sex" is going to be hard to create. And if you can create it, you probably won't enjoy it.
The second concern about "natural" sex equates it with "normal." As in "Doc, is it natural to…
…want sex three days in a row?"
…be too tired on your wedding night to have sex?"
…fantasize about threesomes—and neither guy is my husband?"
…think so much about my small penis that I have trouble enjoying sex?"
…want to be slapped the second before I orgasm?"
…fantasize about sex with the babysitter—she's practically a kid herself!"
…like getting oral sex, but I don't like to give it?"
…have a bigger orgasm from oral sex than from intercourse?"
…like women with really big butts?"
I think the most helpful answer is "no, these things are NOT normal—because there is no normal when it comes to sex. There are things that are statistically more common than others, but that doesn't make them superior. Besides, with a global population of five billion adults, something done by only a tiny minority can involve a huge number of people.
Sexual medicine physician Charles Moser says human beings are kinkier than any one of us can possibly imagine. Sex researcher Mickey Diamond says that nature loves diversity; but unfortunately, society hates it. I'd add that society fears it, especially if the diversity involves sex.
My goal has never been to help people have sex that's "natural," referring to either the first or second meaning. My goal is to help people let go of the need to be sexually natural or normal, trusting themselves and their partner to simply create experiences that are enjoyable to the two (or more) parties involved. It's a challenge grownups should embrace, not fear.
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking at NECSS—the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism. I was surrounded by world-class scientists, including Yale Med School neurologist Steve Novella, Stanford physicist Deborah Berebichez, Oxford neuroscientist Heather Berlin, and even Bill Nye The Science Guy.
It was glorious—no explaining why science is important to everything we do or touch or think. Every one of the 600 attendees "believes" in gravity, evolution, and the Scientific Method.
I started each of the conference's three days in a wonderful bubble. But each day, news from the outside world was an ugly intruder—which, in a way, was why I was asked to speak there. My talk was on religion's successful challenge to democracy and public policy—which is particularly visible in the realm of sexuality.
My opening presentation was pretty straightforward:
- Organized religion has successfully marketed itself as Morality Experts
- Organized religion has persuaded many people that sex is mostly about morality—and therefore, they are society's Sex Experts
- Organized religion has persuaded many people that sexual morality is about limiting choices (as opposed to, say, ethical decision-making or transparency).
- Therefore, when organized religion gets political power, it invariably limits everyone's choices concerning sexuality.
- Organized religion is aggressive in including a huge number of human enterprises within its supervision of our sexuality.
Some American politicians (such as Michelle Bachman and Scott Walker) are devout believers, with whom the above message resonates deeply. They enthusiastically drag America down to social illiteracy with them. But many politicians (such as Chris Christie) are simply for sale, and will cynically flaunt newfound religious and erotophobic bonafides as part of fundraising and campaigning.
That's why I called my talk "The Successful Subversion of Secularism."
Here are just a few reminders of the way organized religion denies science—hard-won human knowledge and certainty—to maintain its power and enforce its mass delusions on people of faith. Professionally-executed, peer-reviewed science shows that:
* Comprehensive school sex education does not sexualize young people.
In fact, kids going through such programs are more likely to postpone first intercourse, more likely to use birth control when they do initiate intercourse, more likely to communicate with their partners about sex, and have fewer lifetime sex partners.
Shame on Congress: Year after year, Congress has refused to require American sex education programs, including those receiving federal funds, to be scientifically accurate.
* Abortion is not dangerous.
Neither surgical nor pharmaceutical abortion causes mental illness, cancer, infertility, or even deep regret. Science demonstrates that most women who get abortions are glad they had abortions. Any regret they feel is typically about the awful situation they were in that led them to choose an abortion. Ironically, those who promote the lie that abortion harms the women who get them make abortions as physically and emotionally onerous as possible, creating the result they claim they wish to avoid.
Statistically, legal abortion is safer than childbirth.
Oh, fetal pain in the first two trimesters (when almost all abortions are done)? According to the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it's physiologically impossible.
Shame on anti-choice people who rob other humans of their rights and adulthood. Shame on anti-choice people who don't reduce the amount of abortion, just its safety. Shame on anti-choice people who refuse to promote contraception, which is the single most effective way of reducing abortion. And shame on anti-choice people who call fetuses "unborn children," which make as much sense as calling food "pre-digested turds."
And for those who think God is against abortion, here's a factual reminder: God's holy Church didn't even ban it for over 1,000 years, between St. Augustine and Pope Sixtus. And the Church tolerated it again between 1591 and 1869. Apparently God's pretty flexible about abortion if you take a long enough view.
* Sexual violence on campus is not increasing.
It's common for activists and politicians to repeat that "1 in 5 women are raped in college"—which is absolutely untrue. This exuberant summary of ONE study does NOT reflect the statements of respondents; it is the judgement of researchers coding respondents' answers. They actually coded unwanted kissing and fondling as rape. That isn't science, that's propaganda. Is that your definition of rape?
Statistically, college campuses are among the safest places for young women in America and indeed, the world. Do women students get hassled, even groped a few times in four years? Yes, which is depressing. It ought to change. It isn't rape.
Shame on President Obama, New York Senator Gillibrand, Rolling Stone magazine, broadcaster Keith Olbermann, and everyone else who carelessly repeats the lie that we are in the grip of a sexual assault epidemic. And shame on the college students who are promoting this myth by inflating the category of "rape" so broadly that almost any unwanted sexual attention qualifies. That trivializes real rape.
* Condoms are effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies and STIs.
Condoms are a modern miracle, and they work better than ever. They are now thinner, stronger, and they come in various sizes for penises that are a little smaller or larger than average. They're not perfect, but statistically, they work very, very well, especially when used correctly. If your computer were as reliable as a condom, most IT consultants would be out of business.
Shame on Focus on the Family, whose internal memos have reflected their insight that unless they can persuade the public that condoms don't work, people "can argue that the only thing holding people back from free sexual expression is outdated, irrelevant religions restrictions."
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Sex and science shouldn't be adversaries, but organized religion and cynical politicians have made them so, especially when it comes to sex. The Religious Right says it wants to regulate various parts of dating, reproduction, education, entertainment, technology, the criminal justice system, and academic and medical research—all specifically in contradiction to science.
It's hard to believe that just a few decades ago, Americans valued science, and turned to it for the answers to many of life's vexing questions. Now science is considered as just another opinion, easily dismissed by even educated people. Vaccination, evolution, climate change, sex offender treatment—why bother with science, when anyone, informed or not, can have (and distribute) strong opinions?
Americans proudly say that everyone's entitled to their opinion. Unfortunately, too many people feel entitled to their own "facts" as well, especially when it comes to sex.