There is a lot happening in our world today that makes me regularly shake my head in dismay. Today I write to you about a very emotional topic.
It is almost every day now that we hear about another prominent person fired or resigning from their job due to accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
(On a personal political note, I continue to be shocked and amazed how Trump himself remains untouched by this process. When will he “step down amid allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior”? But I digress.)
We Are Sexual Beings
Human beings are sexual beings. Boys have erections visible on ultrasound while still in their mothers’ womb. For girls, the process of discovering their own sexuality and sexual function is usually slower and more subtle. What both boys and girls have in common is that too often, their parents are uncomfortable talking with them about their sexuality and what is appropriate sexual behavior.
Poor communication around sex and sexuality leads to sexually transmitted illnesses, unintended pregnancies, and sexual violence.
In the United States, our Puritan heritage often has an added unfortunate effect of driving a treatment of sexuality out into “the street” – innuendo, inappropriate humor, pornography and uninformed peers become common and unfortunate sources of information for young people. Shame becomes a feeling too often associated with sex and sexuality.
Aside: on the subject of shame, a great comment I heard on the radio about all the recent discussion about sexual harassment is that the mantle of shame has finally shifted from the victim to the perpetrator.
In my own life, I am struggling with what to discuss with my sons so they don’t lose a friend or a job due to actions perceived as inappropriately sexual.
When does “sexual” cross over into “harassment”?
One essential element is a power gradient: we see this in most of the stories making the news recently (and also going back to Anita Hill). The perpetrator of the inappropriate behavior holds or is perceived to hold some kind of power over the other person – physical, financial or emotional.
No Clear Invitation
Another element of when “sexual” becomes “harassment” is the lack of a clear invitation. This is where clear communication about sex, which most people are bad at, comes into play. Women (and men) have to draw and hold clear boundaries; men (and women) have to express interest clearly. A critical element of a true invitation is the opportunity to say “no”.
Flirting is a challenge: when there is flirting, an invitation might be perceived but not real.
So, do I tell my boys to never flirt? That would be so sad.
Do I tell them to reject all flirting? That would be equally terrible.
No. What they need to understand is that communication has to be clear. Invitations (in either direction) must be clear. In any situation with a power gradient, the stakes are even higher for all parties concerned.
One more element to mention here of what in my opinion takes a sexual gesture over to the status of harassment is repetition.
If the person with power makes an uninvited advance, gesture, comment or touch, then the recipient says “No”, then the offending person acknowledges the boundary, apologizes for crossing it, and never repeats it again in any form, then that sexual moment did not progress to harassment. Such a mistaken isolated incident might (or might not) be forgiven, but repetition takes it over to the realm of harassment.
Healthy Sexual Expression
I am proud to say that my job often consists of helping people reconnect with their sexuality and reestablish healthy sexual functioning.
However, sometimes it is challenging to even get my patients to admit that they want a healthy sex life with their partner. It can also be challenging to reinvent oneself as a sexual being in midlife, after surviving illness, relationship difficulties or children (haha).
(Read Esther Perel on “reconciling the erotic and the domestic”, and no, she is not American.)
Healthy sexuality includes connecting with and validating your erotic physical sensations, your emotions and feelings, and your heart’s desires. Once identified, you then have to create and protect boundaries around these sensations, feelings and desires.
The last and most difficult part, and critical from now on, is learning to communicate clearly and effectively about all things related to sex and sexuality, which now includes any and all kinds of physical touch.
A future in which women and men can work, live and play together depends on it.