It’s easy to look at the now-infamous Steubenville case and see a Penn State writ small — a story of rape in the social-media age. What’s harder to see in Steubenville is ourselves. Yet the moral confusion of witnesses who prevented drunk friends from driving while permitting the assault on a teenage girl too drunk to resist or consent to sex cannot be understood apart from our widespread mockery of sexual restraint.
Self-control gets no respect in the bedroom. Hold back the passions deemed healthy and good? At best you’re quaint and immature, at worst repressed and puritanical. And don’t you dare suggest that possibly a little restraint might benefit those just becoming aware of their newly adult bodies. How dare anyone presume to limit another’s freedom, especially their sexual freedom?
Except in pockets of religious devotion, that’s the prevailing cultural sentiment toward sex and self-control in this country. And we don’t just defend our individual bodily freedom against almost any call to limits; we don’t even seem to believe you can control such desires.
So of course the 40-year-old virgin happened accidentally. It’s virtually a movie cliché that any deliberately chaste character will soon get his or her sexual comeuppance, as seduction or human nature eventually trumps principle.
And therein lies the problem.
If the typical rape involves not a stranger but an acquaintance, and it occurs not in the total absence of desire but in the absence of equal desire (i.e., the woman acquiesces to a certain point, but the man wants to continue), then the rapist should have stopped mid-arousal, if not mid-foreplay.
Yet how many times has the typical American man — particularly the young man like those convicted in Steubenville — actually seen or experienced such an interruption? How often was this interruption deemed good, if not in the physical sense, at least in the relational or moral sense?
I’ll never forget the undergraduate sociology class on courtship and marriage I took years ago, in which the professor shocked us all the first day by pointing out that much of our early knowledge of sex came from movies and TV. After all, she noted, it wasn’t like our older siblings had thought to pack us along on their dates for first-hand education.
So just how reliable was our real tutor? Quite. After all, it taught us that you can always hide from a pursuer in a parade, anyone can land a plane with instructions from the control tower, and people having nightmares always jerk upright in bed and pant when they wake.
Though we laughed at the list then, as you probably would even now, the repetition of such narrative clichés shapes beliefs and expectations more powerfully than we often realize — especially when it comes to bodies and sex.
Why else can flipping through women’s magazines reduce self-esteem? Why have women felt pressure to groom themselves in keeping with porn standards, even if it’s painful or increases their risk of infection? Images and stories shape us, especially when they’re repeated.
Unfortunately, whatever the Steubenville teens learned in their sex ed class, it’s unlikely they’d seen many movies in which the hero stopped partway through sex, unless he was a spy who’d just gotten some urgent mission-related call.
Yet to say that “no means no” means we expect that someone can and will halt sexual advances at any point when the other person says “stop” or “no” or whatever other safe word may have been established.
In the case of some freedoms, we readily recognize their exercise as a privilege that depends on the demonstration and maintenance of maturity and responsibility. You don’t get to enjoy the freedom to drive a car until you’ve proven you can control it; a vehicle has too much power for harm to grant or maintain driving privileges indiscriminately.
A car can transport, crush, or kill the body. Yet sex can affect both body and soul for life, even bringing forthnew life. Why shouldn’t a person have to prove him or herself capable of self-control before getting that kind of access to another person’s body? Is sex less a privilege than driving?
Last time I checked, sexual self control was still a basic part of the social contract underlying marriage — both in the sense of restraint with one’s partner, but especially in the presence of attractive others outside the marriage. The most durable, mutual, life-giving sexual bonds depend on self-control.
Yes, self-control means self-denial. Any basic claim to equal, individual freedom depends on that. We can only enjoy and exercise freedom when someone else chooses to restrict his or hers at the point when it impinges on our freedom — and vice versa. I stop when my light’s red so you can go when yours is green. Otherwise neither of us may arrive at our intended destination. That’s no less true in the bedroom.
Rape culture feeds on a self-centered sexual anarchy that masquerades as freedom. To change it, we’ll have to stop mocking sexual self-control and start practicing it.
Anna Broadway is a writer and editor living near San Francisco. The author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity, she is a regular contributor to the Her.meneutics blog and has also written for Books and Culture, Paste, Patheos, RejectApathy, Radiant and Beliefnet.
Image: Balqis Amran / Shutterstock.com