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Subjectify Me: The Unfinished, Backsliding Consent Project

What’s the most perfect, ideal, pure act of sexual consent that you can imagine?


Maybe it would be you and your most favorite lover, ever, in a hotel room for the afternoon: “You and me! Right here! Let’s have sex!” you both say—at the same time, out loud, in the same language, soberly, sincerely, and with obvious relish.

At the other end would be the gang rape, beating, and murder of an Indian woman, on a bus, or rape used as a systematic tool of war and social destruction in Congo, or Syria.

Many incidents fall in between the brutally, unimaginably violent, and the ecstatically consensual. Rape is an act of violence, not desire, but it anchors the extreme end of the spectrum of consent.  It’s the most grievous, profound, felonious example of non-consent to sexual contact.  

We think of consent and violence as an opposition but it’s more like a spectrum. A man I knew in my 20s told me of feeling mildly haunted by a sexual experience he’d had, in which he still wasn’t sure if his friend really wanted to have sex. (This isn’t the kind of conversation between men and women that happens often, but maybe it should). Nothing was said about it, and not a lot of words were exchanged. There was no “no,” but nor was there much of a “yes” feeling to it. Had he forced the issue? He still wasn’t sure…. A woman recalls her experiences with a long-term boyfriend in high school.  They weren’t violent but, in her mind, nor did they meet a high but reasonable benchmark of consent. She had an impaired capacity to understand what she wanted, partly owing to a childhood history of sexual abuse; she didn’t feel that she had a plausible social option to say no; and she didn’t give sex much thought one way or another. She just thought sex was something that happened to you. Looking back, her experiences, she felt, “were on a spectrum—a spectrum of not-consensual.”

A Kaiser survey some years ago asked young women why they had sex—what inspired their consent. It’s a basic, overlooked question. Forty-five percent (45%) said they had sex because “the other person wanted to;” 28% did it to “make the relationship stronger;” 16% because “many of their friends had.” I kept expecting to read something like, “I had sex because it felt good” or “I did it because I wanted to.”

What do we call these experiences?  They seem to fall in a range—where not-violent, not-illegal sex is being had in the spirit of appeasement or acquiescence, or with ambiguous desire, at best. 

If we had a substantive definition of women’s consent—for one possibility among many, that consent means a woman wants to have sex for its own sake, without other financial, social, emotional pressures and incentives involved—then these encounters might fall on the spectrum.  

To be clear: I’m not arguing that having sex because your boyfriend whines you into it is an act of rape, or even “victimization,” whatever that word means.  Many of us would have rap sheets a mile long if there were laws against mercy sex—or boring, buzzed, thoughtless, exigent, careless, stupid, and quid pro quo sex.

If an encounter falls short of a consent ideal that doesn’t mean it therefore becomes illegal, or an act of violence, or a moment that reduces the woman to the now-ridiculed category of “victim.”  An incident could be legal and non-violent, and even chosen, but still fall short of the consent bull’s eye.  

This is part of the problem. The dichotomies that grid and organize the sexual universe—legal/illegal;  violent/non-violent;  victim/non-victim—keep us from recognizing what affirmative consent would look like; in other words, how we’d think about consent if it were treated as something more substantive, material, and tangible than just the vague negative space surrounding the illegal, violent, and coercive.

And without this substantive, robust concept of consent, we can’t understand clearly what “no” means, either. The terms are made legible in relation to each other. Without the capacity to say yes, the capacity to “just say no” and to have it be respected  gets unstable, too, because it’s assumed that women’s sexuality—their “yes”—is coy, disingenuous, inscrutable, or prohibited. Scholar Susan Rose discovered this in research with Dutch and U.S. teens. To the Dutch teenagers, “no means no” made sense.  “When someone says no that means no.” But to U.S. teens, both boys and girls, no was mired in fine print.  They gave the “it all depends” answer. Whether no really meant no depended on a variety of factors: how forcefully or frequently she said no, whether she was giving double messages, either verbally or non-verbally, what the girl was wearing, and how she was acting when she said no.

We need a concept of sexual subjectification that’s just as vigilant, observant, and vital as feminist critiques of sexual objectification.  (Although even that voice against old-fashioned “objectification” is pretty weak. As a writer in the UK  Guardian laments, while she used to think feminists were annoyingly “strident” in their sexual politics, she now misses their voice against the pornographic objectification she sees every day.)

I know it sounds scary—that we should be advocating out loud that women have sex lives, or not, of their own choosing and design—but now isn’t the time to shirk from the elephant in the room principle of sexual agency, realized in full. Failure to do so—to defend “yes”—indirectly exacerbates the rape culture in which “no” isn’t respected.

Being subjectified doesn’t mean having (more) sex. Increasingly, in the hyper-sexualized day and the Viagra regime, it doesn’t feel like a genuine option to choose celibacy, but if we lived in a more pro-sex culture, this would be a legitimate, respected, non-pathologized stance, too, for people who didn’t want to have sex, and who were able to arrive at that position without subtle coercion, or for reasons other than the degradation of women’s sexual desires generally as gross and abhorrent.  The relevant thing isn’t which action gets chosen—sex, or not—but that a choice gets made that meets a high instead of a weak standard of consent. Consent would mean something more than “not-violent, not-coercive, and not-illegal.”

Sexual agency gets defended and highlighted in some feminist communities. But subjectification needs to be a proud, conspicuous part of mainstream feminism, especially in reproductive politics. Too often, defenders of abortion rights point to non-consensual examples of violence or “women’s health” concerns to make their case. Victims of sexual violence, or women who need abortions or birth control for health reasons, are obviously important. But we need to stand up for women who have non-procreative sex that they desire, and who use birth control for this rather obvious but largely unspoken purpose. The fear of even rhetorically highlighting this subject makes abortion rights activists appear embarrassed and ashamed about women’s sexual agency.

It also makes them seem as disingenuous as the anti-abortion folks when they claim that their only concern, really, when they mandate that abortion clinics have extravagant, unnecessary hospital-grade design features and facilities is “women’s health.” Both hide behind the skirts of women’s health, and the dodge is equally lame in both cases.  

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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Videos
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  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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