Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Consequences of a Lack of Sexual Imagination

Brock Turner and his mother, May 23, 2016
source here

I am upset, like everyone else, about the Stanford rape case. You know the one? Where the victim wrote this eloquent letter and a dumbass judge named Aaron Persky STILL only gave the rapist, a 20-year-old star swimmer named Brock Turner, 6 months in jail? Where his mother heard the verdict and "stamped her foot" in frustration? Where his father wondered where their happy-go-lucky son who loved grilled steak went?

I see in this, among other terrible things, a great lack of imagination. The only person in this situation who offers a vision of how this horrible evening went is the victim, and her recall is incomplete due to being unconscious when most of it happened. However, the parents of Brock Turner show a great ignorance to their child and his sexual life as an adult. As did Judge Aaron Persky: he only saw a "talented swimmer," not someone so entitled that he'd sexually touch a woman who was passed out behind a dumpster.

But we know that lots of male star athletes are sexually-entitled beings. We see it in case after case after case after case. We can imagine this, because we see how the rules are bent for men in general, and bent for men involved in prestigious sports, and further bent for men who have "everything going for them." We can imagine this, but apparently only after the fact. Only after the woman has been put through hell to tell the story of what really happened. Then we endure the gaslighting of a society that won't believe her.

Why can't we imagine how this might come to pass earlier? Why can't we imagine that a boy like Brock Turner would have sexual desires and motivations? And that all the messages he's being given in his short life might also bleed into those desires and motivations, making him someone who's so distressed and desperate and entitled and dehumanizing of the objects of his sexual desires that he goes and treats one of them like an actual object. Pumping away at her unresponsive body behind a dumpster--that was what he was caught doing, what he ran away from, when accosted by two Swedish men who happened to be cycling by.

(Incidentally, in Sweden, they have sex education that is comprehensive and stresses consent. I can easily imagine men educated like this being horrified by seeing a woman violated in this way. However, I imagine if they'd been American guys cycling past, they'd probably not have stopped. Or worse, I imagine them watching. Even cheering. This says a lot about American sexual education, doesn't it?)

Let's imagine what made Brock Turner run away. Was it shame at being caught doing something to a half-naked person?  Or was it shame at being caught doing something to an unresponsive half-naked person? I would guess the former. But let's take a minute to imagine. Let's really imagine this. Because how do you get to be the kind of person who behaves this way? What's involved in making a Brock Turner? What's involved in making those Swedish cyclists, who chased after Brock Turner and held him down until the police came, one of whom started crying when he recalled what he'd witnessed to the cops?

We don't consider the sexual lives of people unless something goes wrong. And that, to my mind, is a major reason why things go wrong. We don't talk about how every person has a different sexual blueprint laid over the other layers of their character: their biology, their spirituality, their emotional nature, their cultural history, their family backstory, their psychological make-up. As people mature into their bodies, they bring all those other layers into their sexual conceptions of themselves and other people. Their own sexual imagination, if you will, is built from everything else that's ever happened to them. This sexual blueprint comes to life, whether we know about it or can imagine it or not, though. And for some people, that blueprint involves sexual domination of and violence toward other people against their will.

Statistically, it looks like "some people" is actually "a lot of people."

This is why I am dismayed that people don't want to talk about sex. This is why I'm depressed that authors don't want to see their fictional characters as sexual beings. This is why I'm bored with books that create a vivid character and when it's time for kissing or anything beyond that, the story devolves into stock romance novel language and imagery.

That we lack imagination about sex, that we lack willingness to think about it as an aspect of the lives of all people, real or created, is a terrible loss. It's like closing your eyes and thinking you're invisible. The parents of Brock Turner never imagined him as a sexual being. Sure, they probably hoped he'd find love and marry and maybe have a family. But I'd wager they never considered his sexual aspect, and that's why they're outraged and stamping their feet about binge-drinking women and "20 minutes of action." They never imagined that their son would have desires and questions and motivations in that realm and so it was a total shock to them that he'd take all the bolstering encouragement the world gave him and roll it up with some white male privilege and turn it into tragedy behind a dumpster.

So. Here is what I'm asking you to do, to honor the sexual aspect of all people and to perhaps imagine the horror of rape out of existence. 

Don't wait to talk about sex with people until something horrible happens.

Don't act like all people don't have sexual backstories and thoughts and motivations and desires.

Don't fade-to-black in your story-telling when what happens between two naked people could help show how real sex might look.

Don't laugh off discussions about sexual problems or desires or fantasies, saying that romance novels are trash or women are idiotic readers, or scenes involving sex and bodies are "smut." Look again. And again. Why do these things exist? What rings false to you? What rings true? What does all of this mean for real people?

Don't walk around like you're not just as naked as everyone else under your clothes.

Don't say, "I can't write sex stuff" when you're capable of creating worlds full of so many other fantastical fictional concepts.

Don't be an author who can more easily write about rape and sexual violence and abuse but stops when it comes to positive portrayals of sexual behavior. Figure out how to bring your characters together sexually and romantically in a way that's true to them and their experiences; show what inexperienced sex might look like for these people. It need not be perfect; it just has be genuine.

Don't swerve into romance novel language when you're thinking about your own sex life or your characters' sex lives. Give yourself and your characters some credit and honor and individuality.

Don't be afraid to talk to young people about sex. Or old people, for that matter.

Don't look at sex as disgusting and obscene; look at rape and sexual violence as disgusting and obscene.

Don't be scared to write and talk about sex with people; they could be thinking and wondering the same things you are. Open the door for conversation. Make sex normal.

Don't close your eyes and think you're invisible.


  1. This, a million times this. Thank you!

  2. You are brilliant and this is brilliant. Thank you.

  3. This is so smart, or as we say in Maine, wicked smart!

  4. Carrie, I read the article and knew it was you before I even saw your name. My first thought was "Hallelujah, sister!" Brilliant. And God love the Swedes :-)

  5. Best thing I've read about this "sexual assault" case. And great advice. At 60, I'm still trying to shake off my mother's description of sex as "something two people who love each other very much do".

  6. I totally agree with your proposal to Talk About Sex and to make it normal. Thank you.
    That said, you've totally missed the point of the Brock Turner punishment. The jail time is NOT the main punishment. He will be a lifelong Registered Sex Offender. This means no professional career, no mortgage, no contact with children, and daily constraints on where he can go. Forever.
    I am NOT crying for the guy. But don't add to the frenzy of how he got off light. Anyone who understands the two punishments would rather spend 5 years in jail than be a lifelong Registered Sex Offender.