This Is The Conversation We Need To Have About Sex and Consent on Campus
The mainstream media has been fascinated with (especially female) college students’ sexuality for years. Rather than reflect the nuanced reality of their lives, however, women have largely been reduced to trends related to their technological dependence, ambition or attempts to achieve equality. But sex on campus is ultimately about something much deeper and complex: The way this generation realizes their sex lives can't be divorced from the paradoxical understanding of power with which this generation was raised.
Finally, one media outlet — New York Magazine — is recognizing this in their recently published feature Sex on Campus. The series aptly reveals how college students are embracing a variety of sexual identities that were largely unimaginable to even our parents' generation. Students identify as asexual, sexually fluid, are exploring bondage and fall all along the LGBTQ spectrum. Their ability to do so is undoubtedly attributable to previous victories — such as the groundwork of sexual liberation laid by our feminist predecessors — as well as unprecedented opportunities, like our access to technology that enabled exposure to unique identities as well as communities bound by them. As Robyn Ochs, a former Harvard administrator and LGBTQ advocate at the school, told New York, "I ask young queer people how they learned the labels they describe themselves with and Tumblr is the No. 1 answer."And yet this apparent freedom — this unprecedented power to choose from a seemingly limitless list of available sexual identities that defy patriarchal, gendered sex roles — paradoxically exists in tandem with the reality that the patriarchy does still exist. The truth is, when it comes to sex, one gender still very much wields power over all others.
This has perhaps been most obviously demonstrated by the widespread phenomenon of campus sexual assault. Statistics confirm that while men certainly experience assault, perpetrators are overwhelmingly men.
“This generation is surprised they are not as safe as they thought they were, and as they think they should, and as they are entitled to be,” sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong confirmed to New York. “The fact they are surprised we haven’t gotten there yet puts women in terrible risk.”
College men — especially fraternity men that dominate the social scene at many colleges — “feel entitled to their space, they feel entitled to their actions, one Dartmouth senior, Elizabeth, told New York. “I think there is a subconscious feeling of dominance.”
But while violations of consent are perhaps the most obvious examples of this sexist power dynamic, there is another far more nuanced and certainly under-discussed phenomenon that also serves as crucial evidence that sexism is alive and well: Women have a particularly fraught relationship with sex even when they do consent, and frequently have consensual sex for reasons largely divorced from their own pleasure.
As writer Rebecca Traister crucially writes in her contribution, many college women routinely consent to “joyless, exploitative” sex because “the game remains rigged … male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them.”
Discussions of sex in the feminist movement exist in a binary, Traister argues, in which feminists discuss violations of consent or women's right to have sex as evidence of their liberation. The truth, however, is that because the patriarchy is still alive and well, even when women have consensual sex, they're still having sex that focuses on male pleasure and face sexist double standards before, after and while they do.
“A lot of sex feels like this,” recent Harvard graduate Reina Gattuso wrote earlier this year for Feministing. “Sex where we don’t matter. Where we may as well not be there. Sex where we don’t say no, because we don’t want to say no, sex where we say yes even, when we’re even into it, but where we fear … that if we did say no, or if we don’t like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t count, because we don’t count.”
As Gattuso astutely elaborated to Traister, “I sometimes think that in our real, deep, important feminist desire to communicate that sexual violence is absolutely and utterly not okay … we can forget that we are often hurt in ways more subtle and persistent … And we can often totally forget that at the end of the day, sex is also about pleasure.”
It seems there are no easy answers moving forward. Clearly, solutions to this problem will lie in deep, systemic change. But naming this problem and starting a conversation is a fantastic place to start, and hopefully far more media outlets will take the spark New York has lit and run with it.
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