Last semester, I attended part of the Take Back the Night ceremony, an event which has quickly become a national movement and rallying call for preventing rape and keeping women safe worldwide.  The format of Take Back the Night is fairly simple- audience members, as well as scheduled speakers, are asked to come to the center of the meeting space and share their story- or the story of someone close to them- about their experiences with rape or sexual assault.

The stories are moving, daring, sometimes humorous, but more often heart-wrenching, and always carry a somber, but hopeful message for the future: if I share this, my understanding and my experiences, maybe it won’t happen to someone else.

While Take Back the Night was one of the most compelling events I attended at American University, it was also the most frustrating.  It reminded me of the total helplessness that so many women (and men!) face when confronted with violence and abuse.  It reminds me of how little our society has done to PREVENT rape.  There are so many of organizations out there which deal with the after-effects of sexual abuse: counseling, medical  attention, support groups, memorial projects, but there are so few that do anything about educating the population most likely to commit rape.  I think Scarleteen puts it best in their article How You Guys — that’s right, you GUYS — Can Prevent Rape: (which you guys should all at least skim through)

“Do you know that you shouldn’t walk home alone at night, or on unlit streets? That when walking home, you should have your house key between your fingers to poke a potential attacker in the eyes or throat? How about that if you don’t want to be raped, you need to be sure your skirt is somebody’s idea of the right length, that you don’t sway your hips when you walk, you shouldn’t be alone with new dates, alone in large groups of men, say you enjoy sex out loud where men can hear you, shouldn’t drink — not because you’ll get liver damage or become an alcoholic, but because it’ll result in you being raped? Did you know that if someone tries to force you to have sex, that you shouldn’t fight back, but should probably just try to be nice to them? How about that if you say yes to one kind of sex, you’d best be prepared to have every other kind of sex your partner wants, and that if you want to avoid being raped, you’d best say no to ANY kind of sex, even the sex you DO want?

If these things aren’t as familiar to you as the nose on your face, I can guarantee you that they are for nearly every woman you know. Women have this stuff drilled into our heads endlessly, from nearly everywhere we look, all with the aim of helping us prevent something from happening we aren’t even doing. Almost every article we see when it comes to rape prevention is aimed at women – the ones most often getting raped — not at men, who most often are the ones doing the raping.”

This is rape culture.  These are the protective ideas that our society enforces about the way women have to act to protect themselves from something that should never even happen in a dignified society.  And yet it does.  It does all the time.  So what I’m wondering is- why haven’t we, as a society so deeply concerned with the problem of rape- addressed its root causes?

This loops right back to everything I’ve been saying about sexual dialogue and openness.  As Antonio Banderas says of dance in Take the Lead- “If your son can learn to touch a girl with respect, how will he treat women throughout his life?”  The same applies here: dialogue turns into action, which turns into practices, which becomes cemented as values.  If we hush up sex like it is something bad and dirty, it becomes taboo, desirable.  If we talk about it openly, it becomes something normal, regular- something pleasant to be done with discretion and care, like driving or being in charge of your own finances.  As a society talks more, barriers break down and understanding develops.  “Oh, you mean women like sex too?  And if I’m not a bastard to them, but instead help them find their own sexual desire, then they’ll actually WANT to sleep with me?”  Go figure.

The more women feel in control of their own sexual wants and needs and the clearer those are, the more potential rapists will come to understand about their potential victims as whole groups.  More understanding = less frustration = a heck of a lot less of violent sexual crimes.  Would this eliminate all forms of sexual abuse?  No, certainly not.  But would it go a long way towards a society-wide movement away from rape and the culture of “taking” by men.

And if that wasn’t long enough for you- there’s a second segment to this whole rape culture article.  And that’s about The Gray Area- or rape that isn’t rape.

Part of the “taking” attitude I wrote about involves sexual interactions that sort of bridge the consent line.  There’s “yes, but only yes because you’ve been pressuring me for the last six months,” or “Yes, but I’m really drunk and so are you,” or even “Yes even though I’m not enjoying it.”

Again, this goes back to a societal paradigm where women often don’t “own” their sexual desires.  They feel like sex is “for the man” in their relationship. (or, in the case of same-sex partners, “for the other partner”- sorry, I know a lot of these articles assume a heterosexual relationships, although these problems occur in same-sex relations too.  Excuse my use of the gender dichotomy for ease of writing in this case.  Thanks loves!)

Thus, “the Gray Area.”  When women say ok, even though they mean, I wish you’d stop harassing me about it.  Or, sometimes, when they say ok because they want to feel desired, mature, or some other social construct attached to sex, without actually wanting SEX.  The C-spot, a literary/erotic women’s magazine, published a great article on this concept here:  For the author, the idea of being wanted, of being mature by fooling around, even though she didn’t have any real idea about sex, pushed her much farther than she wanted to go.  It’s a very relatable article for me, as I’m sure it will be for many people out there.

The prescription here is all about women taking hold of their own sexual identity, as Scarleteen writes brilliantly about it again in their article: An Immodest Proposal. Here’s the best part though:

“What we individually and collectively visualize has power and influence when it comes to what we manifest. By all means, not a one of us can somehow erase or alter all of the barriers we have right now when it comes to real sexual agency for all women. But there are no barriers beyond the limitations of our own imagination when it comes to rewriting the scripts of our sexual ideals, our individual sexual lives, and what we present to ourselves, our sisters and our daughters. We have the power to dream up and manifest something far better than a woman merely being able to say no and to say yes; something which is an entirely different animal than scenarios which are positive primarily because they have avoided the most negative consequences or results. Good sex, great sex, enriching sexuality is not just about the absence of physical or emotional pain nor only about emotional intimacy. It is about desire and the full expression of that desire.”

Guys, girls, all of you- especially if you haven’t had sex yet, or you’ve had bad sex, or had sex you didn’t really want, READ THIS.  I mean, PLEASE READ THIS.  The more we as individuals come to realize the power of our own sexual agency, the greater the ability for sex to mean something, to be something big, Powerful, and EXPLOSIVE.  And my personal hope, as a writer, as a student, as a sister, as a friend, and a queer teen, is that everyone who reads this gets an experience like the one this article describes.

Take care, queer kids.  Keep the dialogue open and the ideas flowing.

((Also, we should be having a guest collaborator or two on a sexuality and religion article soon.  Huzzah!))