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Talking It All Through

According to a recent NY Times Op-ed piece about New York State’s new “yes means yes” affirmative sexual consent law for SUNY campuses, 40% of sexual assault victims are victimized before they turn 18. I learned in an Abnormal Psychology course that a high percentage of sexual abusers are moralistic, rigid, authoritarian individuals who take advantage of age and power differentials to get their needs met. Accused Quaalude dispenser Bill Cosby and pedophile clergy come to mind here.

Today we have a lot of good information about the neurochemical processes driving what Freud called the id and religious authorities call sinful lust. Accepting and understanding our chemical nature assists us in taking care of ourselves. In terms of brain function, the amygdala and limbic system register environmental cues prompting us for response. Our higher functioning cerebral cortex assesses the situation and formulates a plan. Sexual urges are primal amygdala stuff. Communicating about satisfying sexual urges involves higher brain function. Higher brain function can be a very good thing.

“Yes Means Yes”

Consensual sexual activity always starts with communication of some sort. Amid acquaintances and strangers at a college mixer, ideal communication about physical boundaries requires realistic awareness that one person might be agreeing to relinquish future peace of mind to gain approval from another person who might feel disinterested in that first person’s future well-being. The party with the disadvantage is generally the woman. On and off campus, society still highly values agreeable and nurturing women while valuing strength and personal power in men. That provides gender based set-up for both verbal and non-verbal miscommunication when it comes to the possibility of sex.

Because “yes means yes” requirements serve to empower women, there is fear the law will target men. The law requires concrete and specific communication in a traditionally fraught and primal dance where mixed signals abound. Of course, the law will not deter calculating and deliberate sexual predators who automatically elicit some form of “yes” through physical force. Such predators often require victims to praise that predator’s sexual skill during the assaults. In such cases, yes is not yes.

Nonetheless, there is always some preliminary communication prior to any consensual sexual hook-up ranging from, “would you like to come up to my room and hang out” to “would you like to ____?” Fill in the blank. The softer the opening line, the more mixed the signals. Traditionally, once the “hanging out” commences, another deal might be revealed. At this point, specific discussions about specific body parts might eliminate the he said/she said Q and A testimonies that follow sexual assault accusations. If a female student invited to a male student’s room to watch TV has not preemptively stated she is celibate, then at that point the male might want to suggest any previously undiscussed sexual intentions he may harbor.

Checklists when used properly prevent mechanical errors in automotive garages and medical errors in hospitals. A mutually agreed upon checklist before employing one’s body, mind and psyche in potentially life altering behaviors might not be a silly idea. Here is a sexual consent checklist question I suggest, “How do you feel about conceiving a child with me in the event the contraception you are providing does not work?” Both parties ask and answer the question. Such reciprocal communications, however businesslike, clear the air and actually exercise the still maturing pre-frontal cortex, which involves the executive function of the brain.

Respectful honest communication creates a safer world because when rapes occur, people take sides. Non-consensual sex harms victims, their families and future prospects for healthy relationships.

Of course, not all sex involves reproductive function, but as Seventeen Magazine used to caution, heavy petting can lead to sexual intercourse, which is a reproductive function. Unplanned reproduction adversely affects girls and women more than males. I may seem to digress here, so please be tolerant: between 1950 and 1975, 2.4 -4 million unmarried mothers “surrendered” their children to official and unofficial placements. Surrender is an apt term. Many of these mothers found themselves physically restrained before and during labor, anesthetized while personnel removed their children from them, and then returned home amid secrecy, grief and stigma. In “A Hole in My Heart: A Memoir and Report from the Fault Lines of Adoption,” journalist Lorraine Dusky writes about the lifelong confusion, anger, and grief described by many mothers and children separated at birth during a time when there were many things people didn’t talk about.

We need people who are willing to talk openly about many things. Those unable or unwilling to communicate their intentions regarding sex just might not be ready to have sex. That talk should help them decide.

Debra Merryweather