Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson

In February, I gave a talk at the Pledge Class of the Fraternity. I called it “Sex in Good Taste.” My presentation was supplanting a lecture on manners and etiquette, and so I tried to frame my anti-rape talk in a similar vein. I wanted to keep the presentation conversational, while at the same time giving people practical advice on how to approach sex as true gentlemen.

I was nervous about placing myself as an authority. After all, I was potentially the only woman in a room full of men — and there wouldn’t be another woman to validate what I was saying. Luckily there were a couple of Fraternity Girlfriends who were willing to stick around.

I broke the ice by telling everyone that I wanted to talk about having good sex. “I want everyone to have good sex. I want you to have good sex with yourself. I want you to have good sex with a partner. With multiple partners. With multiple partners at the same time. I want you to have good sex with one-night stands, I want you to have good sex with long-term partners. I want you to have good sex.” Everyone laughed when I said that I wanted them to have good sex with themselves.

The outline of the presentation looked like this:

  1. Seek out enthusiastic affirmative consent.
    • It’s sexy to state your desires.
    • You want your partner to scream “Yes! Yes! YES!”
    • If your partner is no longer having fun, you have to stop.
    • Barriers to consent include: the expectation of sex (just because you’ve had sex with her before, or you bought her dinner, doesn’t mean you’re entitled to sex), alcohol and other chemicals (Everyone retains their rational decision-making skills), lack of communication (ask directly for your desires), and lack of respect of boundaries (learning to read body language and listen to verbal communication).
  2. Sexual assault and rape are not sex in good taste.
  3. How to have sexual relationships in good taste in a rape culture world
    • Preventing Sexual Assault and/or murder is part of a woman’s daily routine.
    • Schroedinger’s Rapist
    • The imagined right to intrude
    • How to be a good guy:
      1. Learn to understand and respect a woman’s communications to you.
      2. If you fail to respect the communication a woman is making (body language, verbal, etc) then you label yourself a problem. You will have to convince them that you are not a rapist, after you exhibited a behavior that rapists have.
      3. Don’t rape. Don’t have sexual contact with anyone who does not enthusiastically consent to that contact.
      4. Don’t let others rape.

I started out by talking about the most basic of sexual etiquette and rape prevention phrases: that “no means no.” As I was explaining that women do not often feel empowered to give a strong “no,” but sometimes instead give weaker response (like “I guess,” or “I don’t know…”) a spontaneous role play broke out.

Jeremy said, “Hey, Tim, want to have sex?”

My partner Tim said, “Oh, I don’t know, I’m not really sure…”

“Oh, come on,” said Jeremy. “You know you want to have sex.”

“I don’t know,” Tim continued.

It was perfect, because I was going to want to do a similar role play, but wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable doing it. From there, I talked about the fact that silence doesn’t mean yes, it in fact means no. And that our legal system, sadly, often treats the lack of an explicit no as an implied yes.

I told them why this presentation was important to me: “I went to Michigan State University. When Tim invited me to come to the house for the first time, I was skeptical. The rumors I had heard about your fraternity at MSU included date rape, crack cocaine, and a stripper pole in their dormer bedroom. I was so surprised and pleased that the your fraternity liked and respected women, and I that I felt safe here. I want your house to continue to be a safe place for women. I want it to be a place where women can come and know that they’ll be listened to, that they won’t be raped, and that their choices will be respected.”

When I talked about Active v. Passive Verbs I read this:

Passive verb: Jane was raped. The subject of a passive sentence is the main character of the sentence, but someone else performs the action.
Active verb: Jay raped Jane. The subject of an active sentence performs the action of the verb.

The security officer, a member of the executive board, asked: “Do you think that we use the passive voice to talk about rapes because of the anonymity of the rapist?”

One of the Pledges piped up: “Actually, most rapes aren’t by strangers, right? The victim usually knows the rapist?”

“Exactly,” I said. (I was surprised and pleased that he knew that.) “I think that it has less to do with the anonymity of the rapist and more to do with the way that our society constructs sex as something that men deserve, and that we talk about sex as if men cannot control themselves.”

The Security Officer said, “Really?”

One of the women said, “No, seriously. I heard this in church, that there’s a switch inside men, and if you turn that switch by showing skin or acting promiscuously, they cannot help themselves but rape you.”

That same Pledge said, “I’m really sorry that you heard that in church. I apologize.”

It was a really great discussion. I’m glad that I had the confidence to do this, and that there were some young women who were willing to stand with me. I’m not expecting magic to happen, but hopefully I challenged some thinking.

This post is fourth in a series.

Combating Sexual Harassment in a Fraternity (as a female non-member):

In Which I Encounter the Rape Culture (Not for the First Time)
Failures of Formal Activism
Informal Activism and Friendships
Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson
On the Other Hand…

7 thoughts on “Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson

  1. Way back when I was in youth group, they split the boys and the girls up to give us the church version of sex ed. While they didn’t explicitly say, “Men can’t help but rape women,” the implication was there.

    It wasn’t, “You guys need to respect the girls. They are human beings, not playthings.”

    It wasn’t, “You guys need to have self-control. Just because some girls are hot doesn’t mean you get to have sex with them.”

    It was, “The girls are going to be encouraged to dress more conservatively so they don’t cause you to stumble. Also, don’t hang out with girls who show cleavage or there is a good chance you’ll end up having sex with them.”

    (That’s a paraphrase)

    The girls were quite paranoid for a while. I don’t know exactly what was said to them, but it stung to have some of my closest friends call me a potential rapist.

    But really, with the kind of lectures we all got, I would have been afraid of me, too.

    • Dude, Matt. (Btw, hi!) I invite you to read the Schrodinger’s Rapist link, because I think it addresses why the girls were paranoid — all women have to guess who the rapists are, and we all set our own risk tolerance levels.

      I’m really glad that you gave me the male perspective of Church “Sex Education” — it kind of gives me a better idea of how messed up this all is.

      • I think a lot of these “how to approach a strange woman” rules should apply to all social situations. I freaking HATE when I’m reading/ignoring people, and they come by and insist on talking to me.

        Thing is, a lot of us are brought up to see that as normal — that a person’s right to speak to you DOES trump your desire to be left alone. Which is dumb.

  2. As an educator … I’m quite impressed with your outline, and more generally with your approach. I read somewhere that people tend to respond better to positive (“thou shalt …”) messages than negative (“thou shalt not …”) messages, and you found a way to discuss the topic in an essentially positive manner. Well done.

  3. This is fantastic. I’m studying to be a school counselor, and I plan to focus strongly on consent. May I keep this outline to use in the future?

    • Sure! I’m tickled that you like it. Feel free to use the outline, but credit the information from the links to the original sources!

      Just a few things to think about: it doesn’t address things like false accusations of rape, or the legalities of persecuting rape. These may not be something you’ll want to address in any presentations directly, but you’ll want to be prepared to answer questions about. It also doesn’t address how individuals may aid rapists in raping — and that’s something you’d want to include in a curriculum on consent. These are all things I want to add in the future.

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