Looking back on teachings about sexual purity now—the conversations about modesty, about saving oneself for marriage—I am struck that we never, not once, had a conversation about consent. It was reasonable for a boy to suggest that he was “tempted” by a girl wearing skimpy clothes, but the blame was always placed on the girl for dressing that way. We never talked about power, about how being a man in power could warp a person’s soul, how that warping could turn into abuse, how that abuse would go unchallenged. We were liabilities, even as men thought they were loving us. We were taught that men have the upper hand, and that it was a woman’s job to defuse that lust. We never talked about what it meant to be a person, a complete, vulnerable, whole-bodied person who had control over her being.
I was having this conversation with Kick’s caregiver the other day, about what TV she watches. Like I don’t care if she accidentally catches a sex scene in some movie before you change the channel. She knows what a boob is. Why are those people doing that? Well, they love each other and when you love each other you kiss and touch.
But stories — and there are a startling number of them — about violence or coercion are so much more complicated, and more necessary, and I’m trying to learn about how to have them in ways that don’t make her hate or fear herself. One of the terrible things we do by gatekeeping the appearances of young women — you look too grown-up, you can’t wear nail polish till you’re 20, etc — is make them afraid of their own beauty; it’s BAD to be pretty, how dare you.
When we refuse to teach young people how to recognize manipulation and power we don’t just make them vulnerable to hurt. We make them afraid of happiness. What if you want to be wanted? What if you care about someone and want him to touch you with love and joy? What if you want to be admired, want to have affection, want someone to be attracted to you? What if that relationship is mutual and fun and you have no idea how to keep from poisoning it with fear?
Are you a dirty slut because your boyfriend likes the way you look in a bikini and you enjoy having his eyes on you?
(This, like most purity discourse, assumes straightness, which is a whole other damn kettle of bigoted fish.)
It’s not just about protecting yourself. It’s about learning to live in the world and not hate yourself and fear everyone else. That’s a hell of a lot harder to explain than why two people are naked.