Monday, April 15, 2013

Thinking About Sex and Consent

I have been following the news stories about sex, rape and consent.  It is good that we are hearing about consent being more than just saying "no" but rather actively (some have even stated enthusiastically) saying "yes".  All of this got me thinking about sex and sexual ethics.  At the end of the day each of us will be faced with making ethical decisions for ourselves about sex, even those who choose not to ever in engage in sexual activity - that is making an ethical choice about one's sexuality (not the only ethical choice - but it is one choice that one can make).

Additionally in the background is the on-going debate about sexuality education in our schools and what should we be teaching.  One side arguing for comprehensive sexuality education - which includes information about contraceptives and condom use to prevent STD's versus abstinence-only education - which presents abstinence until marriage as the only option.

My position is that we need comprehensive sexuality education. As one who has taken the training for all age levels for the Our Whole Lives program - elementary school through adult - this is not surprising.  There is great value in the OWL curriculum and I am grateful that my daughter experienced the Junior High Level class this past fall.  It is full of good exercises on values and making choices.

I have also been reflecting on all of this in light of my ow life experience.  I actually had pretty good sexuality education from both my family and my all-girls Catholic high School.  I was given comprehensive information about anatomy, contraception and STD's along with the strong message that sex was reserved for marriage. The only ethical, moral choice in Roman Catholicism was within a heterosexual marriage.  By the time I got to college I had come to reject the notion that sex was only moral and ethical within heterosexual marriage, yet at first, I did not now what replaced that clear, ethical line in the sand.

It was not until college that I began dating and became faced with having to make ethical choices around the engagement in sexual activity.  I began to realize that this clear ethical line in the sand was not really so clear in practice.  What kinds of sexual activity might be permissible even if intercourse was off limits?  Once I rejected that clear line in the sand, then under what conditions might sex be permissible for me?

I finally decided to have sex with someone that I had been sort of seeing on and off - I don't know that you could call it dating really. We were interested in each other.  I said yes to sex because I could not think of a reason to say no.   I liked this person, this person liked me, we were going to be safe - so what the heck?

Afterwards I realized that deciding to engage in sex should be about more than just "what the heck?"  I realized then that I needed to have clear guidelines for myself about what my sexual ethics were going to be.  I realized that there had to be something between "anything goes as long as it is consensual and safe" and "only within marriage."  It was then that I really thought through what sex and sexuality meant to me, how I understood my own sexual ethics in light of my faith tradition and community.  I needed to have a strong guiding set of principles that I could rely on when I was in situations where I needed to make choices about sex and what kinds of sexual activities I would choose to engage in or not.  What I learned is that consent, my internal consent - the yes I say to me and then give to someone else - should be more than I can't think of a reason to say no.

So beyond the fights about sexuality education in our schools, at some point people are going to be faced with making ethical choices about sex.  When our children are no longer children past the age that our OWL curriculum says they should wait, will they have the tools they need to know when to say 'yes' from a deep sense of  authenticity?  Will the information they received in Junior High be enough to make those choices, often in the moment?  Will they hear a message beyond condoms or safe sex to avoid pregnancy or STDs?

I guess I don't want another young adult to do what I did - choose to say yes because I could not think of a reason to say no. I hope that our young adults view sharing themselves in this most intimate way as a gift and that the best 'yes' is one that is congruent with both their ethics and with their emotions.