Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven: De-sexualizing sex

Monday, October 31, 2016 - 7:12pm

Me: *Reading off a 30-page script in high-pitched, infantilizing voice even though I’m only one year older than you*

“Hey everyone, welcome to Relationship Remix! I’m your Sexperteam facilitator, Clarissa!”

*10 minutes and one obviously forced and uncomfortable ice breaker later*

“OK! Now let’s talk about our values and how we act in accordance with those values. Can anyone give me an example?”

Student 1: “Well I value timeliness, so I make sure I’m on time to stuff.”

Student 2: “And I value family, so I make sure to call my family once a week.”

Me: “Wow, great! Thanks so much for sharing, everyone! Has anyone ever not acted in accordance with their values? What about when drugs or alcohol are involved?”

And so on.

As you might’ve guessed, I was a facilitator for Relationship Remix. This year, though, I quit. When I started facilitating Remix three years ago I thought I’d be having really honest and exciting conversations about sexual health with incoming freshpeople. Instead, I ended up babying 18 and 19 year olds — I’m only 21 — forcing them to chat with me, another facilitator and 40 others about their “values” and “choices” for 90 minutes.

The goal of Remix is sexual health education and sexual violence prevention, which I agree with a bajillion percent. What I disagree with is the way Remix is framed. Remix simplifies sexual and romantic relationships to be about identifying your values and acting in accordance with those values. It individualizes the sexual roles we’ve been socialized into and it takes the sexuality out of sex.

Remix is an hour-and-a-half program, and during the entire first hour you don’t talk about sex. There’s one part where you think about potential relationships (both romantic and not) and consider these potential-people-you-might-be-in-a-relationship-with’s traits. You then place these traits in their respective boxes: necessary, bonus, deal breaker, OK. The goal of this I think is twofold: for the activity to be applicable to people who don’t experience sexual or romantic attraction, and to make people who are uncomfortable talking explicitly about sex feel more comfortable.

Realizing that people come from different places and different levels of comfort is totally legitimate and necessary for this kind of work, but the extent to which Remix doesn’t talk about sex during a workshop about sex is weird. While many people may feel awkward talking about sex or may not want to talk about sex at all, a lot of people really do want to talk about sex and the workshop is literally here so we can talk about sex.

Given the current state of both sex-negative culture and the policies governing sex ed in K-12 schools, a lot of people have never been given space to talk openly about sex. Many students are disappointed by Remix when they realize the extent of the sex discussion is learning the 879 steps to putting a condom on a wooden penis and how to use a dental dam (a what?). People have questions about sex. People want to learn about sex. Let’s encourage this conversation; let’s give people information. Let’s talk about pleasure and orgasms rather than timeliness.

The sex part of Remix has approximately three parts: talking about consent, a condom demonstration and a monologue about sexual violence. A conversation about consent is needed, given the dismal amount of sexual violence in the world and on college campuses, but we do ourselves a disservice when we frame consent as merely saying and receiving a “yes” or “no.” The consent conversation that happens in Remix discusses interpersonal coercion and manipulation — both of which are necessary to acknowledge — but what this conversation neglects is our social existence during sex.

Simply saying “yes” or “no” to sex can only be the qualification for consensual sex within a hyper-individualist context; it does nothing to acknowledge the sexual roles we often find ourselves trapped within during sexual experiences. Lots of people say yes to sex even when they don’t mean it, even when there’s no obvious interpersonal coercion or manipulation, and even when there are no alcohol or other drugs involved. This reality is something we have to acknowledge and think critically about if we want to eliminate it.

The way Remix tries to acknowledge this saying-yes-to-sex-even-when-you-don’t-mean-it issue is through a role-playing exercise. The facilitators tell the participants to role play with the person sitting next to them and give them a couple situations to act out. I’ll give you two:

Situation 1: "Someone you want to hook up with asks you to go up to their room. Practice having this conversation."

Person 1: "Do you want to go hook up in my room?"

Person 2: "Sure, let’s go."

Situation 2: "Someone you don’t want to hook up with asks you to go up to their room. Practice having this conversation."

Person 1: "Do you want to go hook up in my room?"

Person 2: "No."

No, the participants I’ve constructed for my example aren’t particularly enthusiastic or engaged, but I think this is the reality for a lot of participants in Remix. I remember when I was a participant these were my answers to the “role play” scenarios.

These role play “experiences” fail for a number of reasons, the first of which is they’re painfully fake, and the second of which deals with the dynamic in the room. Remix workshops are made up of dorm halls and Remix takes place in the fall. What this means is that for Remix, people are in rooms of 40 strangers with whom they’re asked to pretend to have conversations about hooking up. And while, sure, a lot of people have sexual encounters in college (and life) with people they don’t know very well, the artificiality of the role playing doesn’t prepare people to actually have these awkward conversations with strangers they hook up with.

These role-playing activities don’t acknowledge the subjects’ social positions and sexual socialization, both of which (among other things) are necessary for analyzing and understanding how consent plays out on an interpersonal level. For example: cis, hetero women are socialized to be excessively polite and to privilege men’s satisfaction and pleasure above their own. These social dynamics play out in interpersonal relationships, and not acknowledging them explicitly doesn’t set people up to have positive sexual experiences. Just because now a cis, hetero woman has identified a “value” of hers — for example, not wanting to hook up with random guys — doesn’t mean this theoretical value will translate into practice. The power dynamics at play the next time she meets a random guy who wants to hook up with her will not have been deconstructed, and even though she’ll know philosophically that she can say no, it doesn’t mean she’ll actually feel comfortable or able to say no.

If we want to have honest and helpful conversations about sex, a paradigm shift is required. We can’t try and de-sexualize our sex ed through apolitical discussions of “values” and individual choice. We have to acknowledge power dynamics present in sex, and we can’t set the qualification for good sex just to be that you said “yeah…”

The goal of sex is to enjoy sex, whatever that may look like to you, not just for your sex to not be rape. Setting our sights at sex just not being rape is a really dismal goal.

Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven can be reached at cedon@umich.edu

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica}