“Asking” is not the same as “coercing”

Lisa Damour writes in the NYT this week that we shouldn’t just tell girls not to share images–we should also tell boys not to ask for them.

I appreciate the gender equity in how she frames the problem:

That our focus has been so preponderantly on the sending, not requesting, of sexts underscores the exact problem we need to address. We accept and perpetuate the boys-play-offense and girls-play-defense framework because it is so atmospheric as to be almost invisible.

But this article implies that sexting is typically (or even, always?) damaging and coercive. Certainly, lots of people (up to 40% of women in some studies) have experienced coerced sexual contact. Researchers call this “consensual unwanted sex.” And it’s definitely a problem in sexting too. Sexual coercion–online and in-person–is a massive cultural problem that we need to address.

Yes, we should urge everyone not to pressure their partners into to have sex. But no one who’s interested in effective public health policy suggests that educators and parents should also urge all women to avoid sex entirely as a viable solution to sexual coercion.

If we look at the stats, heterosexual relationships are quite dangerous for women–indeed, about as dangerous as sexting, statistically–so perhaps women should just abstain from them entirely? Perhaps the lesbian separatists of the 1970s were on to something.

The alternative is to create educational programs that teach teens how to say “yes” and “no” to sexting, how to recognize their own needs and autonomy, and crucially, how to communicate with and respect their partners.

It troubles me that Damour suggests we should teach teens “not to ask” for photos. Because the vital skill teens need to learn is the difference between “asking” and “coercing.” Until boys and men are taught about consent — how to ask and communicate without pressure or manipulation — in a serious and sustained way, the sexual assault epidemic will continue.

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