We have important steps to take in learning about desire, consent and pleasure-based sexual experiences in the wake of #MeToo.
[TW: this piece contains discussions of #MeToo and sexual violence in varying forms.]
Started almost ten years ago by Tarana Burke, #MeToo has spread (and in some ways, been co-opted) and become synonymous of the large-scale outing of men with influence who use their power to commit sexual violence within the entertainment business and beyond.
Many people recognize #MeToo now as the avalanche of overturning these structures of inequality that have remained in place for far too long, starting with Harvey Weinstein and continuing to explode to include other Hollywood powerhouses. But where that leaves us in a world where our understanding of consent, coercion, harassment and abuse is more developed or vocalized? There is a collective struggle to find where we fit in desire, sexuality, and everything in between.
When the collective narrative of sex and sexuality has been so consumed and hyper-represented by violence, how do we begin to construct positive examples of these things in our lives?
What does desire look like in the wake of #MeToo?
The complexity of this question comes from the diversity of examples of sexual violence that we’ve seen, both in experience and through public #MeToo stories. The social narrative that many of us grow up with is that there are certain kinds of sexual violence that are acceptable in their horror and grotesqueness. We imagine that sexual violence will always look like a stranger in a dark alley, where the victim — usually female, always cis, always white — has done all she can to fight off her attacker and say “NO”. Through shows like “Law & Order: SVU”, we imagine that there will always be justice for survivors, that all it takes is a committed cop, a sympathetic jury, and 60 minutes for justice to be served. But how wrong and limiting these fantasies are.
The truth is that there is as much diversity in what a survivor’s experiences are as there are with, well, anyone else. Survivors aren’t always attacked by strangers — perpetrators often know their victims — they can’t always verbalize “no” or physically fight off an attacker. They don’t always report, or go to court, or have faith in a justice system that more often leaves them victimized than vindicated. And it is on us for that failure, because we don’t do nearly enough to ensure safety, access to resources for healing, and centering survivors to feel validated, even after their experiences.
But the collective question of what desire and sexuality looks like outside of this normalized violence comes especially after the story of Grace and Aziz Anzari. Through this account, we have been forced to confront the realization that our ideas of what sexual violence looks like completely undermines the severity of it. Perpetrators of sexual violence can be self-proclaimed feminists, can know the terminology that we use, can be charming and charismatic and we can be flattered to be a “Nice Guy”. Sexual violence doesn’t always look how we think it will. But that makes it no less important to affirm, validate, believe.
So if sexual violence can be experienced in a variety of forms, where does that leave us in recognizing a positive sexual experience? It starts with reclaiming and restructuring the narrative.
If we only have outward, society-focused images of what sexual experiences look like, it’s a lot harder for us to individualize the experience. What does desire look like for you? What sexual experiences do you fantasize about, arouse you, make you feel like your best self? It may seem simple, but having a clear idea of what desire looks like for you rather than trying to commit to a mass-approved idea of what it needs to look like, simply because that is all you see, is the first step towards having affirming, positive, and consensual sexual experiences.
The resources that we have access to and are available to us to educate, affirm experiences, or even give us the knowledge to things we didn’t know before are also important. Sexuality professionals especially have a responsibility to update their curriculum to cover these things, to give clients the tools necessary to recognize sexual violence but to claim the positive sexual experiences that they truly want. People are hungry for sexuality resources that are inclusive, pleasure-focused, consent-based, and rooted in what they desire to experience — why not have more of that instead of upholding what is no longer working?
Desire is not about violence, claiming what is not yours to claim, nor is it something that should instill fear. Desire is a normal, natural emotion and can be the first step in claiming positive sexual experiences. Desire is your responsibility alone, but it’s a powerful tool. Own it.
There’s no doubt that our ideas of sex are shifting — hopefully for the better. This shift is long overdue, because if our only measure of how desire manifests sexually is through violence and force, through coercion and manipulation, of course our collective idea of what positive sexuality looks like will be warped. But the good news is that we have the power to reclaim the narrative that we wish to see. We can change this narrative.