America has a problem when it comes to talking about sex.
Or, at the very least, we have a serious problem when it comes to how we talk about sex. From a very early age, discussions about sex are hushed, embarrassing, riddled with euphemisms. Our parents have the “birds and the bees” talk with us, a sit-down, “We’re going to talk about sex now” conversation that often leaves young people deeply uncomfortable and more than a little confused.
And that’s it! Parents dust off their hands, satisfied that their work is done, and outsource the bulk of the sexual education we receive as young people to schools, the media, and our peers.
According to the Washington Post, the U.S. has spent over $2 billion on abstinence-only sex ed programs in the past 35 years. While we are seeing a cultural shift in that, especially under the Obama administration, the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 federal budget allocates $271 million over the next four years toward “Extend[ing] Abstinence Education and Personal Responsibility Education Program[s]”.
We certainly don’t get to see healthy depictions of sexual activity in movies because the Motion Pictures Association of America slaps an R-rating on any film that exceeds outdated, Victorian notions of what’s appropriate viewing material for young people. (Murder? Sure. Drug Use? Go For It! Nudity? Not in my fucking theater.)
And yet we’re constantly bombarded by images of what we “should” look like, how we can revamp ourselves to be desirable to the other sex, how to maximize our sex appeal, and how to commodify ourselves to fit that cultural narrative.
According to a recent New York Times article, “On average, children are getting their first smartphones around age 10.” Though it’s difficult to get solid statistics on how much of the internet is dedicated to pornography (statistics range from 4 to 30 percent), pretty much anyone can attest that it’s pretty easy to find porn online if you want to. How much of what we know about sex is learned about from porn, as opposed to from interpersonal sexual encounters?
And as far as trusting our peers to guide us on healthy sexual norms, look no further than our own president, who dismissed grabbing a woman by her pussy because he was rich as “locker-room talk.” As lewd and as crass as his comment is, to a certain degree the president is right. Talking about women like that is par for the course in male groups.
Push for real change
So, to recap: our parents won’t talk to us about sex, so we have to learn what sex is from underfunded school programs, media that give us a warped, commodified view of what sex is supposed to be, and a culture which actively promotes disrespect, if not outright harassment or worse.
If you’re wondering why people use words like “rape culture,” this is why.
(Of course, the above is not in any way intended to let rapists or anyone who promotes rape culture, off the hook. As a person, you are always held responsible for your actions, regardless of the cultural influences that led to your actions.)
How, then, can we change it?
Hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUP have been taking social media by storm since accusations of sexual assault by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein blew up last October. Though hardly the first time women have spoken out about America’s culturally permissive attitude toward sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, this particular iteration of the struggle for equality has taken on a decidedly different, confessional aspect to it. Celebrities, icons, everyday people: Men and women from all walks of life have been coming forward and sharing their stories of sexual assault and the impact it’s had on their lives. Though the voices have predominately been those of women, men have spoken out as well, both on their own experiences with sexual assault and as allies, in support of the movement.
But is it enough? Can a hashtag and two simple words really change a cultural model which has been entrenched and reinforced for millennia?
No, it’s not. And, yes it can.
Reset on romance
At the #MeToo march on Jan. 20 in downtown Portland, dozens of people came forward to talk about their experiences with sexual assault. What was remarkable was how many men and women prefaced their stories with, “I didn’t intend on speaking today, but…”
Abuse, rape, sexual assault, harassment: These all take place, and are allowed to continue, under a cover of silence. How long did Weinstein perpetrate completely inexcusable behavior? How many years did gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar abuse the girls he was in charge of guiding? As long as victims remain silent, people who commit sexual assault will continue to commit sexual assault.
So, what else can we do, aside from coming forward and sharing our stories? What if we aren’t victims, but still want to have a hand in shaping a better world?
By changing the way we think. We need to reframe consent as sexy – not just necessary. We need to completely overhaul the way that we, collectively and as individuals, think about sex.
And so, it is with great pleasure that we at the Advocate would like to give you, the reader, the gift of pizza.
As Al Vernacchio, sexual educator, says in his TED talk, “Sex Needs a New Metaphor,” the dominant cultural metaphor that Americans use when they talk about sex is baseball. First base, second base, scoring, pitchers, catchers – these are all sexual euphemisms that most people understand and internalize.
But how does this affect how we think about sex?
Vernacchio highlights several of the problems with the baseball metaphor, and while we’re not going to go into all of them here (though we highly recommend watching his entire TED talk!), some of the key ones are:
– There are winners in baseball (and that means there are losers)
– There is a time to play baseball; once the game starts, you need to finish
– You can’t just stop at a base because you feel like it
– You keep track of your statistics and compare them with other players
With such a transactional, outcome-oriented way of looking at and discussing sex comes a distorted way of having sex. It places a lot of societal and cultural pressure on sexual activity, and equates the amount of sex that we have (or don’t have) with social value. This is problematic in so many ways, for women and for men. (If you’d like a more in-depth analysis of this idea, we highly recommend taking a Women and Gender Studies course.)
Now, bearing all that in mind, repeat these words: Sex is Like Pizza.
When do we want pizza? We want it when we’re hungry. We check in with ourselves, sense a physical desire, and choose whether or not we want to act on that desire.
Step two? Figure out if we want to eat pizza with someone else, or if we want to dine alone. Sometimes eating pizza by yourself is great! You don’t have to dress fancy or even leave your couch, and you get to choose exactly what you want on it.
But it’s also nice, sometimes, to share pizza. So how do you do that? Do you open up your robe and waggle a slice of pizza at someone, like Louis C.K.? Do you chase them around your room with a slice, trying to pick olives off and stick them in someone’s mouth like Aziz? No way! That’s gross. The best way to find out if someone wants to eat pizza is:
YOU ASK THEM! It becomes a conversation, instead of an implied competition. Also, if someone doesn’t want to eat pizza, are you going to get mad? Are you going to call them a pizza-tease? Of course not – sometimes you just don’t feel like pizza, that’s all. And sometimes, people can start a piece of pizza and realize that they didn’t really want pizza, after all. And that’s okay!
Because, after all, the point of eating pizza is not to finish: It is for everyone eating pizza to enjoy themselves. REPEAT: THE PURPOSE OF PIZZA IS MUTUAL SATISFACTION.
So, once you’ve established that someone does, in fact, want to eat pizza with you, what’s the next question you ask?
“What do you like on your pizza?”
Again, the emphasis is on communication and conversation, on discussing the likes and dislikes of everyone involved. You might be anti-pineapple, only to find out that your partner will only eat pizza with pineapple on it. Maybe that’s a deal breaker, so you find a partner who prefers olives. Or maybe you decide to try a bite of your partner’s pineapple pizza and discover that you actually really like it, and the only reason you talked shit about pineapple was because of some meme you saw on 9gag. Whatever the case, an open discussion of likes and dislikes will only enrich the pizza-eating process for everyone.
Is it kind of silly? Of course. Is it going to fix the toxic dumpster fire that is American culture overnight? If only.
But what this approach can do is change the way you think about sex, and talk about sex, because societies and cultures are made up of individuals. Individuals create them, individuals enforce or reject cultural trends, and individuals have the responsibility to choose what kind of culture they want to have.
MHCC and community resources
Call 911 in case of emergency
• Sexual Assault Resource Center 503-640-5311
• Multnomah County Crisis Line –24 hours 503‐988‐4888
• Call for Safety (Portland Women’s Crisis Line) 1-888-235-5333 or 503-235-5333
• Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center 503-674-1122
• Adventist Medical Center 503-257-2500
• Providence Portland Medical Center 503-215-1111
• The Q Center – LGBTQ Community Center: 503‐234‐7837
• 211 Info (Health & Social Services – Clark County Information & Referral): 211/360‐694‐8899
• Oregon Crime Victims Assistance 1-800-503-7983
• National Domestic Violence Hotline –24 hours 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
• National Sexual Assault Hotline –24 hours 1-800- 656-HOPE (4673)
• Domestic Abuse Intervention Services 503-988-6400
• Stalking/Restraining Order, Multnomah County 503-988-3022
• Legal Assistance
o Gateway Center for Domestic Violence 503-988-6400
o Oregon Law Help – OregonLawHelp.org
o Oregon Court Services
o Coordinated Legal Education Advice & Referral: 1‐888‐201‐1014