“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” – Hippocrates
I spent five years writing a book about how to make sex work in your life, but pretty much since its publication, almost all of the conversations I have are about the sex that permeates our lives that doesn’t work. The unfolding revelations about rampant sexual abuses began with the brave and bold and unwilling-to-be-silenced young women on college campuses. The sexual catharsis is quickening as women of all ages, from all walks of life are replacing the shameful silence of their histories with the power of their voices. Each story shakes the shadows loose, shining the light on how the fundamental inequity of power between the sexes has played out in millions of unwanted sexual acts.
The stories of young girls like Diana Nyad are so heartbreaking, in part, because they are so achingly familiar. All women know some form of sexual transgression, from some point in their life. I myself have never forgotten the night that I learned about the sexual molestation of my best friend in high school. I listened through the night as she shared the stories of over a decade of her father’s sexually predatory behaviors after the first time he tried it on me. No one is questioning the truth anymore. And it is in this unflinching light now illuminating the worst impulses inside of male-dominated power structures- whether in politics, entertainment, educational, religious, medical or familial settings- that the controlling cultural forces are crumbling.
The problem is that holding power to truth has never been fair game, especially when literally everyone knows either a victim or a perpetrator, or both, intimately. In the absence of real conversation- about what sex does and means, and how it becomes a twisted, convoluted cage with the isolating silence imposed on it- we are lost, and forced to revert to shame as the primary social form of sexual control. What we have no language for remains unexplored, unexplained. Often there is little-to-no conversation about sexual needs, even with those with whom we are most intimate. Of all the hurts we inflict on one another, sexual transgressions create their own kind of hell, caging both the victim and the perpetrator. Even the bystanders who see and say nothing are caught.
In some ways, all of the demonizing of powerful perpetrators seems like the only reasonable response. We believe we can somehow throw this kind of behavior out of the tribe by castigating and ostracizing it. Dismissing the newscasters, reporters, and politicians who are found out, calling them pigs, dehumanizing them and stripping them of any good they have produced makes us feel better, or if not better, at least distant from them.
But this practice of embracing shaming will not move us closer to reweaving our cultural fabric. Although it is easy, natural even, to hate the perpetrator, it also dangerously oversimplifies the chasm of pain and suffering that is encompassed in human sexuality. Sexual transgression does not happen in a vacuum. Our collective sexual history is not a pretty one. The world over, women are subjected to unspeakable acts of sexual violation in wars, in archaic family and tribal situations, and in sexual trafficking, which has somehow escaped the current conversation.
No one wants to grow up to become a sex offender any more than they imagine a life of sexual abuse. Young boys who witness inappropriate behaviors by their fathers against their mothers instinctively know them as wrong, but they get repeated anyway. We expect middle school boys who act out sexually inappropriate jokes to grow up. But way more often than we have been willing to admit, boys don’t grow into sexually responsible and confident men. Instead, their sexual immaturity converges with whatever successes they have been able to develop in their professional lives, all the while annihilating the possibility of real, mutually respectful intimate relationships.
An authentic and evolving sexual conversation has to include not only how we address the damage of sexual abuse, but also the brutal sexual impulses which create it. In order to move to real change, we need to ask hard questions about how victims become perpetrators- how we inherit our sexual behaviors, how what we witness and experience shapes our capacity for desire. We need to face the truth about how power both energizes and subverts sexual urges. The less we want to know and understand, the more deeply we lock the aberrant behaviors inside.
So start somewhere. Tell your story. Ask and listen to the stories of other people you care about. Take sexual history out of the darkness.