“What I ended up feeling when I was talking to girls was that they were systematically disconnected from their bodies, and with boys it was that they were systematically disconnected from their hearts.” – Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex
We do an exercise in many of our remote teen classes wherein we give the students a chance to reimagine a sexual coercion scene we’ve read to them. In the scene as it’s written, two teenagers, Anthony and Naomi, are at a party. They don’t know each other well, but Naomi has a crush on Anthony. As their flirtation escalates, Anthony begins to make decisions that don’t involve Naomi: he makes her a mystery mixed drink when she asks for a beer, he brings her upstairs when she suggests they go outside. Then, alone together, he pressures, manipulates, and ignores her cues of discomfort, until he ultimately has sex with her. I say “he has sex with her” as opposed to “they have sex,” because it is clear from the scene that the only active participant in this experience is Anthony. Sex, to him, is something you do to someone, not something you do with them.
After discussing the gender socialization of these characters and how that may have influenced the choices they made, the students are sent off in groups to re-write the script. They are given no further instruction than “make it something positive.” Although these are self-defense classes, where much of their instruction includes learning how to stand up for themselves in situations like the one Naomi is in, most of them don’t change the Naomi character. They tend to focus on Anthony. This makes sense to me; they are trying to imagine a better world. The Naomis in a better world wouldn’t have to take classes to learn how to defend themselves from the Anthonys. The Anthonys would just be better.
What’s interesting to me, though, about the better world they tend to imagine, is it has its limits. They make Anthony better, but Anthony’s self-improvement has a ceiling.
They usually don’t, for instance, turn him into someone who is proactive about checking in with Naomi, or someone who not only listens to cues but looks for them. Instead, he becomes a character who tries a few moves to escalate the encounter, and after a few polite rebukes from Naomi, he stops. In some of the rewritten scripts, he checks in at this point, and they decide to just talk or hang out. In others, they move at a pace that is more comfortable for Naomi, and eventually have consensual sex.
I doubt that when I was 17 I could’ve imagined an Anthony better than that, either. Given what I thought I knew about boys and hormones and sex, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me that Anthony might be genuinely interested in creating an experience for and with Naomi. When I had my first kiss, it was with someone who was slightly older and more experienced. I remember I told him clearly that I only wanted to kiss, and he said, “That’s fine. I always let the girl decide when we stop.” Boys are elevators; girls decide which floor they want to get off at. Good elevators listen.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I started to meet and date men who were just as invested in my experience as I was in theirs, who wanted to construct that experience together. Could I have raised the ceiling on my own, if they had not been there to show me how much higher it could be?
It’s obviously unrealistic to think that adolescent boys could or should be as confident in intimate situations as more experienced adult men. It’s just as unfair to impose the sexual leader role upon them as it is to ask girls to be experts in defending their sexual rights. But one thing many (though certainly not all) girls are budding experts in is empathy. They have a desire to connect and build intimate trust with the people around them, and they attempt to cultivate that space of trust with and for the people with whom they have sex. I think it’s important for girls to know: a better version of Anthony would do that, too.