The national conversation, indeed the raging national debate and finger-pointing, focused on sexual abuse, assault, and rape has many layers. None of this is about sex, not real sex, joy, passion, love, between or among consenting persons—it is about the use of sex to violate another/others.
And yet, as I will argue later in this piece, our social squeamishness about sexual honesty, our phobia about talking openly about sex, is a critical element in our national failure to deal with widespread, and so often hidden, abuse and assault.
Let me examine two other aspects that also have touched me. Both involve gender roles as enforced by our culture. Both are about bodies—as I never tire of saying, justice, or the lack of it, always involves bodies.
The first is the contrast between the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasy Ford and Judge, now Justice, Kavanaugh at the final hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court. The second is an article by Monica Hesse of the Washington Post, “Dear Dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you.” I discuss this below.
I need not spend much time on the first, it having been discussed in many places by many people. But what I do want to say is how clearly the two people reflected the expected, indeed demanded, gender role of women as calm, reasonable, self-effacing, gracious, cordial, concerned about the other person, gentle, etc., and men as strong, assertive, angry when necessary (and so often necessary). not giving any quarter, not caring about others, not even acknowledging others (especially women and children).
Justice Kavanaugh raged; Dr. Ford smiled. Justice Kavanaugh sneered at Senators, especially women; Dr. Ford spoke deferentially and softly.
As many have noted, Justice Kavanaugh appeared to be coming from the place of righteous indignation, a visceral reaction to what he, and many others, perceived to be an assault on his place of honor and white male privilege as one who began with a silver spoon in his mouth and has carefully made sure it was never removed. How dare you question, undermine, my carefully constructed persona and and record!
This leads me to another, and related, set of gender roles, namely those governing the relationships among fathers and daughters (and sons, too). Monica Hesse discusses how often daughters (and sons, too) do not tell their fathers about the sexual abuse, assault, and rape they endure. They don’t even talk about the catcalls and rude whistles and comments they endure on the street or the gender-based discrimination and lack of respect and advancement in the workplace.
Some men are now asking their daughters, and maybe sons as well, if there is anything they should know, anything that their children did not tell them earlier, perhaps from shame, or fear of talking about sexual matters, or, as Hesse points out, because they fear their fathers cannot handle the pain they have endured (or are still enduring). Aside: this seems to me a deep tragedy in the current situation—it’s not just women like Dr. Ford and so many others who endured something earlier, but also the women, and men, who are currently enduring such horrors. What is the silencing and dismissals by so many authorities, e.g., President Trump, doing to them?
Hesse reviews communications she has received from many victims, and notices how many are now telling their fathers for the first time about rape and abuse, as well as how many are choosing not to tell. Those in the latter group still don’t think their fathers can handle the emotional upset, or they fear their fathers will rage like Justice Kavanaugh (but go much further by attacking their attacker and even killing him and ending up in jail), or they feel so much gratitude for all their father has done for them that they don’t want him to feel even a hint of ingratitude. One son says that he won’t tell because “manliness” is so important to his father.
And I admit to being disappointed by those who are choosing not to tell. I can’t and won’t criticize them for an intensely personal decision. Still, I hope they will stay open to the possibility of self-revelation, and self-empowerment, at some point.
I believe they will gain, their fathers (and mothers) will gain, and frankly, all of us will gain, too.
The more honest we are with each other the better our society works.
This leads me to raise an issue that regular readers of this blog may recognize from prior posts: namely the inability of our society to engage in honest conversation about sex, sexual expression, and sexuality.
As I said above, sexualized abuse, mistreatment or rape are not forms of sex. They are methods of abuse and domination and violation/violence.
But I believe part of the problem we have with being honest about violations of bodies and the people who inhabit them is our squeamishness to talk about sex in the first place. It seems clear to me that this is definitely true when it comes to raising sons.
I turn 72 on the date of publication of this post and as I read articles and books and testimonies about how we are teaching our children about sex and relationships things don’t feel all that different than when I was a pre-adolescent and teenager. In so many locales sex education focuses mainly on “just say no” and “wait until you’re married.” Actually, in my youth, we had only “wait, it’s a sin before marriage,” which did not stop many of my peers from being sexually active (and I imagine some being predatory and violent).
I read of how some parents talk to their daughters about being safe, taking precautions; they may even tell sons something similar. And of course, how “no means no,” but even more how consent is more than simply allowing something to be done by one person (or more) to another (others). Consent is an active agreement by both (all) parties. Anything short of that is non-consensual, abusive, and violative behavior. It does not appear to me that that message is getting through to boys, or many grown men either.
What is also so often missing is testimony about the power and beauty of sex and sexuality, how when engaged in with sensitivity and care for each other(s) it can enrich life, because sex is a powerful, and can be a liberating, force in our bodies and lives.
I think that can begin by teaching the beauty and power of masturbation, the safest form of sex, not only in terms of avoiding pregnancy and STDs but also in terms of not harming any person (with one caveat: using images that encourage violence and violation as a form of stimulation do cause harm).
Just think how different it could have been for Dr. Ford if Brett Kavanaugh (or whomever violated her) and other high school boys had either jerked off by themselves or engaged in a circle jerk.
I am not sure we have gotten far beyond the days when Dr. Joycelyn Elders, U.S. Surgeon General, was forced to resign by President Clinton on December 10, 1994 for responding openly, and affirmatively, to an honest question about masturbation.
Bodies are at risk in so many ways, of course not just sexually but also in terms of lack of food, healthcare, water, and exercise, not to mention war, police violence and crime—and at the most basic level of social interaction, simple respect by each of us for all the bodies with whom we come into contact as well as those we never know.
Our political climate as revealed in the past several weeks certainly is working against such respect, certainly as it involves our sexual beings. It is time to own our failings and work together to create change.