A culture that can’t talk openly about sex only complicates the question of consent: So, let’s talk…

The above video was produced by Buzzfeed, in collaboration with Jill Soloway (the creator of the great new Amazon-original series Transparent). It begins with a scene of a same-sex female couple caught in a romantic situation.

One lover asks the other: “Can I kiss you?”

The other responds: “Dude, way to ruin the mood.”

The initiating lover poses the question: “I thought you were supposed to ask?”

The refusing lover answers: “No. Wait…are you?”

This dialogue is a perfect reflection of how consent can actually be a very complicated and confusing thing, especially within American culture. But why is this the case?

For a point of departure to answering this question, we can look to the documentary film Let’s Talk About Sex (available to stream, in full, at the bottom of this article), which examines what certain aspects of American culture make it oddly difficult to talk openly about sex.

The documentary begins with a quote by John Goodman’s character, Dan, from the beloved television series “Rosanne.” Here, Dan talks somewhat cryptically to his son about sex, similar to how American parents often do: “The funny thing about it is that even though it’s okay and everybody does it–there’s nothing to wrong with it–nobody ever ever talks about it.” Yes… and that’s the problem.

Sex happens everywhere, all the time, all around the world; and in many other parts of the world, it can also be freely and openly discussed without fear of social taboo. In places like the Netherlands, Germany, and France, sex is considered to be, both in conversations at home and in schools, a natural part of a healthy relationship. It is regarded as an act of love and intimacy–something that can definitely be talked about.

In America, our high school students receive quite a different treatment on the subject of sex. Frequently, teenagers are bombarded with information that encourages them to remain abstinent–you know, that unnatural, practically unrealistic, ideal scenario to prevent pregnancy and STDs that 95% of Americans don’t pursue/can’t actually maintain in their own lifestyles. First goal is abstinence; then, hopefully, they’ll get their diploma and head off to college, where they’ll suddenly be met with a completely different world of expectations–complete with a different set of rules and norms–none of which were adequately addressed in their home or school lives prior to this social re-awakening.

College is regarded by many as the time to learn about sex; this is where the concept of sex can turn from being all about love and relationships–something to save for your wedding night, duh–into a sort of independent study in sexual education, without so much as a well-prepared mentor or adviser to offer guidance along the way.

In one freshman-orientation seminar held on Yale’s campus, the concept of intimacy was a point of study; there, it was found that many college men admitted they found holding hands to be more intimate than getting a hand-job. Huh…

We, Americans, rely excessively on delusions in place of actually teaching our youth about sex. We introduce the topic of sex to them in school classrooms often with the tactic of fear-mongering, hanging the threat of sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) over their heads by showing them gruesome images of the worst infections in the worst places known to man and woman, then expect them to react to such terror by abstaining from sex entirely. Ever heard of compartmentalizing?

Unsurprisingly, providing ‘not-having-sex’ as the one-size-fits-all solution for STD and pregnancy prevention has proven a total failure among United States’ youth. 1 in 3 American girls becomes pregnant in their teens. Nearly half of the 19 million new STDs each year appear among young people between 15–24 years old. And the U.S. has the highest rate of STD infection among all industrialized countries. Really… it’s that bad.

Preaching “no sex until marriage” only renders teens–already a hormonal and sexually curious bunch–woefully ignorant of what key information they really do need in order to have sex safely and prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Thankfully, Let’s Talk About Sex (released in 2009) offers us some graphical representations that make it pretty clear how un-progressive America actually is in terms of sexual education:

teen birth rate graph teen gonorrhea rate teen pregnancy rate graph

On a personal note: When I was in middle school, I remember knowing that many of my peers were having sex; but what shocks me now, looking back, is how normal that felt to me. No one questioned it. By the time I got to high school, sure we had your run-of-the-mill sex-ed class that mainly taught us about all the different STDs we could catch, but I mostly relied on Cosmopolitan magazine to get the bulk of my tips and information. This meant exposing myself to such articles as: 5 Tips for Having Sex at Your Parents’ House8 Anal Foreplay Tips for Beginners, 10 Tips For Surviving Your First Sex Party, and Better Than Road Head: 14 Car Sex Tips That Won’t Get You Injured or Arrested–a bit advanced to say the least.

This is the only place I knew to turn to in order to wrap my head around this “new thing the kids are into”–and I’m actually lucky enough to have parents with whom I can speak candidly about sex! Meanwhile, a pattern seemed to arise among my friends who weren’t so lucky: they snuck out of their homes at night to have sex in cars, wooded areas, etc., and never told their parents they were sexually active.

Debbie Roffman, a Sexuality and Family Life Educator, even states in the documentary:

“It’s like we (America) are a nation that is just culturally disabled about this subject. We don’t know how to think about it. We don’t know how to talk about it. We don’t know where to begin.”

If we can barely get ourselves to talk about sex, how do we even begin to talk about consent? There’s the glaring problem.

Lately, there’ve been many campaigns and attempts to inform the youth, especially, about the importance of consent. Every adage from “no means no” and “yes means yes”–(yea, that’s generally how words work)–to horrible slogans transparently targeted to a young demographic have been tried, such as this poster currently hanging in my college dormitory. Thank you to that someone who wittily used their penmanship to correct the tasteless language:

downsize (8)

So, where do we go from here? Consent is definitely a crucial issue to discuss, but efforts to bring forth a worthwhile conversation in the context of our sexually shamed culture can be, at best, fruitless, at worst, harmful and degrading.

Nina Hartley, the sex educator from the above Buzzfeed video, explains that consent is not the absence of “no”; it is a statement of shared intentions, an agreement between two mutually consenting adults. She elaborates by saying: “I think the most useful thing that people can learn from the ‘kink community’ is talking about what it is you want before you do it.” What a novel idea.

In a culture where individuals feel freer to be open, discursively, about their sexual desires, it’s easier to cut through the murkiness we’ve created around consent and get to that point of common understanding. The video continues to answer a lot of questions many of us have about this topic, starting with the most instrumental: “How do you start a conversation about consent?”

In America, sex is everywhere, on our televisions, in music videos, all over the Internet, even in our commercials. Yet, amidst all of the obvious sexual content in our surroundings, having an actual conversation about sex is too often made to feel really uncomfortable, difficult, or even shameful. It’s wrong to allow these attitudes to cultivate our minds to the point that consent becomes so complicated a thing, we’d prefer not to discuss it at all. I’m afraid that’s the issue we’re facing now.

Perhaps, we just need to heed the advice of people from The Netherlands, and start carving out a space, in the home and in our schools, where the very natural practice of sex can be met with effective communication.

Now, here’s the documentary I promised: Let’s Talk About Sex. Let’s go for it.