In high school during the summers I worked in the small clearance outlet of our family’s clothing store. The outlet was small, with only one of us working there at a time.
One day, a guy in his twenties or thirties came in while there were no other customers in the store. He picked out a few bathing suits, went into the dressing room, and came out wearing only a tight, skimpy Speedo. He asked my opinion about how the suit looked on him.
It freaked me out. Getting that reaction from me was probably his intention.
This week Anthony Weiner is all over the news because of a similar impulse to show off. Not long ago it was Brett Farve. In the days before iPhones, one of our Supreme Court justices used word-pictures to the same effect.
At least one of the women contacted by Anthony Weiner was startled when the conversation became sexual. Yesterday’s edition of The New York Times says, “Asked if she was taken aback by his decision to send the photo, she responded, ‘Oh gosh, yes.’ ”
It shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently some men need to hear that not every woman welcomes a surprise showing of their private parts.
It would be nice if there were a bright neon line between healthy and creepy, but it’s not always that simple. One person’s playful intention might feel like a violation to another. These gray areas become even foggier when those involved have had little to no education about sexuality.
The Times’ writers note: “Mr. Weiner’s online conduct in many ways mirrored that of his offline life — he was aggressive, blunt, feisty and willing to push boundaries with an apparent disregard for the possible consequences.”
Healthy sexuality has room for a great deal of diversity. But the entrance fee to the realm of healthy sexuality is consent.
We live in a culture where the balance of power continues to favor men, and where men are expected to be the sexual initiators. But what training do we give men for initiating a sexual encounter appropriately? Not a lot.
Yes, it’s important to work toward a world where all are equal, no matter their gender. Yes, the men-as-initiators model is a relic of a bygone era, and needs to be replaced.
But in the meantime, parents, schools, and religious communities need to work together to provide sex education, particularly for boys and young men. Sure, it’s uncomfortable. Heck, I’m uncomfortable writing this post. I’ve almost deleted it twice.
But if we don’t talk about sex, what’s the alternative? People’s lives will continue to be derailed by ignorant sexual choices.
- Do you want your young adult son to try on bathing suits in front of young, freaked-out sales clerks?
- Do you want your child to grow up to be successful football player–only to be remembered, in the end, for the lewd photos he sent?
- Do you want your adult child, who dreams of being mayor of New York, to have his political aspirations dashed by inappropriate online activity?
- Can you imagine your child as a Supreme Court justice–whose name will always be linked to sexual harassment?
It’s uncomfortable to talk about sex. But the alternatives are far beyond uncomfortable, for everyone involved–for those who cross boundaries, and for those whose boundaries are crossed.
In the UU ministerial credentialing process, there’s a new required competency in “Sexual health, sexual boundaries and sexual justice,” which includes participation in a sexual harassment prevention learning experience. I have to admit that I’ve grumbled about yet another requirement. But then stories like this week’s sexting scandal break, and I recognize the wisdom of asking ministers to be well-educated about sexuality, and able to discuss it without inordinate discomfort.
I’m grateful for the work of UU sexuality experts, including the Rev. Debra Haffner, the Executive Director of the Religious Institute, who writes at “Sexuality and Religion.” I’m also grateful to have found a religious community that supports comprehensive sexuality education, the “Our Whole Lives” program created by the UUA and the United Church of Christ.
More than twenty years later, remembering the customer in his Speedo still makes my skin crawl. The crossing of sexual boundaries leaves a lasting impact. The discomfort of teaching your children well fades quicker than you think.