Before Christmas I was asked to talk to some teens in my church about sexual violence. It was a part of a larger series on sexuality and ethics. Our conversation (intentionally) centered around healthy, non-violent sexual practices, not on how to deal with having experienced sexual abuse.
With that caveat in mind, I am really impressed with how the whole thing was handled. Instead of repeating over and over again, “Don’t have sex until you are married,” those running the educational time gave the teens a robust guide for sexually appropriate behavior by explaining that sexual intimacy is only one form of relational intimacy—emotional intimacy, intellectual intimacy, and spiritual intimacy are others. In healthy (and ethical) relationships, sexual intimacy should never outpace these other forms of intimacy. When and if it does, you run the risk of objectifying the other person (and just generally getting into a situation that the relationship can’t handle). And, of course, the teens were told explicitly that oral and anal sex involves a very high level of sexual intimacy on par with (if not higher) than genital-genital or manual-genital sexual activity.
Talking with the teens about sexual violence within the context of this broader discussion of Christian sexuality and intimacy made things a little easier in some ways. First, the primacy of enthusiastic consent became clearer. If sexual activities (with a partner) are most appropriate within a relationship characterized by high levels of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy, then it makes it easier for the teens to say to me things like, “you need to talk about sex with your partner!” and “you need to know what he/she is okay with and not before you get into a heated moment” (oh yes, they were the ones that came up with those things). When we talked about the fact that individuals who have been sexually abused in the past may experience difficulty with expressing sexual interest in the moment (and this can be confounding if the other person is trying to determine whether he/she should move forward), they offered that sexual communication can improve if the two individuals keep sharing about their histories and working together to come up with solutions. And, when it came time for me to voice a rather stern warning that minimums for consent cannot be met when people involved are drunk or high, this was fairly comprehensible.
Yet, placing the issue of sexual violence in this context did not speak to the reality that we are socialized in a wider culture of rape in which the systematic and broad cultural objectification of women is normalized and we come to any sexual activity with skewed expectations about women’s roles and behaviors (even in the sexual encounter itself). In addition, the full possibility of rape within intimate relationships isn’t clear in this context (i.e., consent must be given each and every time, previous sexual activity within a relationship does not automatically provide consent for all future sexual encounters). Nonetheless, I think it was a good start.
The reality of sexual violence is important to discuss and teens, like the rest of us, need to hear that it is a very serious sin. Yes, sin. The churches have language to bring to this discussion that secular society does not. We can talk about gravely harmful behavior without having to resort to legal definitions and loopholes. We can claim that sexual activities, in every instance, should embody love and respect for oneself and the other. The language of sexual activities as an expression of love and respect clearly exposes the misstep that a rape victim could ever be “asking for it” and the mistake of defining consent exclusively in terms of its minimum requirements. It is important that we keep talking about sexual violence in church.