I was poking around on the Internet yesterday when I ran into some recent research findings from JAMA Pediatrics about teens and sexual violence. What started as a study on violent sexual media ended up revealing some heady stuff about teens and rape, but what interested me most was not the focus on physical force rape, but on psychological force, i.e. coercive sex; the relationship between teenagers, sex and violence, as well as guilt and pressure.
The study focused on 1,000 youngsters between 14 and 21, and concluded that 4% of them had forced sex on someone, whereas 9% admitted to convincing someone to partake in some sort of sexual activity they didn't want to do. Coercive sex. Sounds kind of rapey to me. Nearly all of the 9% copped to using psychological force -- meaning guilt, arguing, or other verbal pressure -- as opposed to physical force to get sex.
Ah, being a teenager. Now that was awkward. As teenagers, most of us want to blend in with one another, to resemble one another, in clothing, in ideals, in experiences. Even those who strive to be different are often striving to by collectively different – stepping outside of social norms to join others hanging out there, too. I shopped at Hot Topic, man. I know.
This comes into play with our emerging sexualities. Those who are meant to educate us, whether it's our parents, our teachers or a combination of the two, often fail -- or don't bother to try -- to answer our questions. If they are open and willing to talk, we're often too embarrassed to approach them, so instead we turn to one another to learn who is doing what, to whom, and how. We're learning from the equally uneducated (each other), and from sex in media, which is teaching us a whole slew of garbage that is at worst horribly misogynistic and demeaning and -- at best -- not actually applicable in the context of our own fledgling sexuality. It's important to point out that while men are typically pinned as rape perpetrators, the JAMA study revealed that among youth, coercive sex is not only a boy's game. Girls are guilty of it too. I saw examples of this growing up.
Guilt and social pressure were a huge part of the emergence my sexual self. I not only often felt pressure from my partners, but from my social group of girlfriends, who alienated those who didn't have the same level of experience. Quite literally, all the cool kids were doing it. My first encounter with the mainstream definition of sex (I'm speaking P in V here) happened on the top bed of a boyfriend's little brother's bunk bed, on Bob the Builder sheets. My boyfriend was several years older than me, and we had been enthusiastically touching each other's bits for a few months at that point. From the view of an adolescent, a relationship lasting a few months is akin to making monthly mortgage payments. We were in it deep, you guys.
I had wanted to have sex with him, but not because of hormones or Big Feelings, but because I had agreed to have sex with him. Maybe I was scared he would lose interest if I said no -- he had previous sexual experience. I can't actually remember why I said yes, but I did, most likely over a steamy late night AIM chat.
I had told all of my girlfriends -- who I could hear giggling outside the bedroom door -- that I was going to have sex with him. So there we were, snuggled up with Bob the Builder, and he expected me to have sex with him. I had a belly full of nerves and a pack of condoms stolen from Stop and Shop.
All of a sudden, I didn't want to do it. I didn't feel comfortable, and I was far from turned on. I was scared. Our knowledge of foreplay was not extensive and failing fast. I started to cry a bit, and told him I changed my mind. My boyfriend told me not to be scared, I was his girlfriend, this is what girlfriends and boyfriends do when they've been together “a long time.” This is what we are supposed to be doing, he said. I felt trapped. We started to have sex, I was crying, he couldn't really get in all the way, he was rough, I cried more, he went soft, or some combination of those events in a now unidentifiable order.
I left the bedroom, ducked into an empty TV room and hid under a desk for several hours while my friends partied. I remember feeling bad, but not because I understood that what went on was wrong, that no meant no even if it was preceded by a yes, that I had been taken advantage of, but because I felt like I had somehow failed. I was disappointed with myself.
I was 12 years old. I wasn't even old enough to be included in the 14-21 year old demographic selection of the violent sexual media study.
It's sad that my first experience with sex was not a positive or empowering one, and it's even sadder that coercive sex is very much still a problem. But the real problem is that many people -- my then-boyfriend, 9% of the teens in that study -- don't understand there is a problem at all. They don't understand coercive sex is not consensual sex.
I'm not dismissing ignorance as an acceptable excuse, because there most certainly needs to be an element of personal responsibility taken into account here, but I also can't help but wonder what we're doing wrong as a society that makes so many of us think it's OK to pressure someone into sex. How is that still possible?
The word “rape” sounds all kinds of alarms, and statutory and forced rape are often discussed in schools, at home, in court. While our legal systems are still often ass-backwards and so many sex crimes go undocumented or unpunished, these forms of rape are more widely acknowledged. They may not be acknowledged enough, and there is still work to be done there, but they are at least on the radar.
Coercive sex gets little to no attention. The idea that no one should ever convince you, using ANY method -- including guilt -- to engage in a sex act was never addressed openly when I was growing up, and from the looks of this study, it surely isn't being addressed now.
Kate wrote very well about coercive sex several months ago, focusing on the fact that so many men are still unable to grasp this concept. They've grown up with it, our media is saturated with it, they see no problem with “trying harder” when their requests for sex are met with a "no."
If the JAMA study unveiled anything, it's that sexual violence starts early. So we need to get 'em while they're young. If they never learn that this is OK, then they will never have to unlearn it later. But it's not just the perpetrators that need to be taught about coercive sex. It's the victims too. We need to explain what sexual abuse looks like when it comes from someone we know and trust.
I wish I had drop kicked my then-boyf in the balls and gone home to feed my Tamagotchi or some other activity appropriate for a CHILD. But I didn't. I didn't really understand what had just happened.
We need to be explaining to our kids not only that no means no, but that you should never ask, beg, plead or badger anyone to turn that “no” into a “yes.” That just because they said “yes” last time doesn't mean they need to say “yes” this time. They are never obligated, under any circumstance, to say "yes." No means no means no.