Sex. It’s a part of life. Let’s face it, that’s how you all got here. So, what is sex? What does it mean to be sexually healthy? What is a healthy sexual relationship?
Sexual health, you mean condoms, right? Like avoiding STDs and unwanted pregnancy? WRONG! It’s so much more than that. The World Health Organization defines sexual health as, “a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” Notice sexual health is more than avoiding a negative; it is also about creating a positive.
Here at Boston College, a Jesuit Catholic school, we can’t really talk about sex. In fact, we aren’t even allowed to have sex out of wedlock (See Code of Student Conduct Sect. 4.6.8 Sexual Activity).
But what we are allowed to talk about at Boston College is sexual assault. I am a trainer in the Bystander Intervention program (affiliated with the Women’s Center). We give presentations to student groups around campus, talking about not only intervention strategies in potential sexual assault situations, but also talking about the culture at Boston College and its role in perpetuating sexual assault and harassment. A healthy sexual relationship, something we can’t talk about at Boston College, is void of intimate partner violence and coercion. If only we could talk about healthy sexual relationships (she says with a sigh), maybe coercive behavior and intimate partner violence would be more recognizable and perhaps less frequent.
I want to connect the two types of talk: the sex talk that we are not having and the sexual assault talk that we are having. Let me make this clear, I am 100% behind the Bystander Intervention program and everything we teach in our presentations. I am arguing, however, that we are only talking about half of the equation (as we are only allowed to). Not only is half the equation missing from our Bystander presentations, but also half of the equation is missing in all conversations on campus. We need sex positive talk. We need to question the connection between sex and morality. You are not a bad person if you have consensual sex. You are not a good person if you abstain from sex. There is no causal relationship there. We need to actively create an environment where sex can be talked about positively and substantively.
I believe if we all had a more holistic understanding of sex as something that is about open communication between sexual partners (may it be for a night or for a lifetime), giving and receiving pleasure and avoiding violence, than we could more effectively combat sexual assault. We would at least create more awareness and understanding, as sexual assault is so much a product of our culture (i.e. rape jokes, definitions of masculinity/femininity) and our lack of understanding and expectations of healthy and consensual sex.
Sex is good. Sexual assault is bad. Both of these things are happening on Boston College Campus, a lot. I am aware that these are perhaps the biggest understatements of the week. I am not here to argue that talking more openly about healthy sex will necessarily decrease sexual assault. I am not here to set up a cause and effect relationship, as this would minimize the complexity of sexual assault. But the more talk the better; about sex and sexual assault.
We must change the culture. When we talk about sex it can’t be as part a rape joke. It can’t be about weekend “conquests.” It can’t be about how “we didn’t use a condom because I was too afraid to ask,” “I didn’t tell him I wasn’t on birth control,” or “he said he didn’t like condoms.” We must communicate about sex, tell each other about how we are feeling, what sex means to us, what protection we should be using, and when something makes us uncomfortable in bed. We, as a generation, lack an understanding of what good sex is and what a healthy relationship looks like, partly because of the hookup culture and partly because of the stigma surrounding comprehensive and open sex talk. We have the power to change this. It starts with opening up our mouths and talking about the things that make us uncomfortable. My name is Bridget Manning and I want to talk about sex. Will you join me?