We live in a nation where one of the major Presidential candidates has been caught on film advocating non-consensual sexual assault of women. Since this film was published in the media, many women have come forward to state that they’ve received such treatment from this candidate. Likewise, that same candidate is going to trial later in December for allegedly raping a 13 year old girl, a situation where consent can never be obtained due to the victim’s age. Despite these issues, that Presidential candidate is managing to hold a projected 40+% of the nation’s votes. What this tells us is that we live in a culture where women’s and children’s sexual rights are seen as irrelevant by far too many people.
Given that we live in such times, I don’t believe it is possible to discuss sexual boundaries without discussing the issue of sexual consent. In his book Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture, Chris Donaghue attempts to do just that. The general premise of his book is that we need to break down the boundaries around sex, gender and sexuality. Donaghue doesn’t believe we should refer to ourselves as male or female, man or woman, straight or gay or even pansexual. Instead, he visualizes a utopic world where labels around sexuality are not used at all so that everyone’s sexuality is accepted.
As I read through beginning of the book, I kept asking myself repeatedly, “But what about consent?” By the end of the first chapter, I felt as though someone whose sexual pleasures included acting on pedophilia or rape would feel completely justified in their sexual activities and would see them as acceptable based on Donaghue’s rhetoric. By trying to break down *all* boundaries, Donaghue is doing just that: He’s getting rid of the good along with the bad. I believe that there are some very important boundaries which exist to protect us from trauma, violence, and abuse, and I believe those protective boundaries cannot ever be eliminated if our society is to become more sex positive as Donaghue hopes.
As I kept reading through Sex Outside the Lines, the word consent did not appear anywhere. I even stopped to look in the index to see if the word was there. It wasn’t. Finally, on page 166, Donaghue finally mentions consent in passing. He states, “As long as sex is consensual and no one is injured, then it’s all part of healthy sexual expression.” This statement, in an expanded form, needed to be at the very beginning of his book. To me, as a woman who has experienced sexual abuse and assault both as a child and as an adult, consent is an issue that cannot be ignored when discussing sexual boundaries. I wasn’t looking for an entire chapter or an entire section on consent. Instead, all I wanted was a paragraph early in the book devoted to the importance of consent as a boundary that can never be violated.
As my book group discussed this work, I hypothesized that Donaghue may not have had any peer readers of drafts who had endured sex abuse. Someone in the group who knows Donaghue told me that she knew for a fact that he did. Yet even under that kind of advice before publication, Donaghue still chose not to include any vital discussion of consent early in the book.
This issue of consent came up during Chris Donaghue’s presentation for the Southwest Sexual Health Alliance on October 8, 2016 in Austin. The SWSHA has a saying, “Don’t yuck somebody’s yum,” a phrase that was invoked before Donaghue’s presentation. In short, it means having respect for all sexual practices. What may disgust you may be the most arousing activity for someone else. We all should have respect for that difference between us. At one point, though, a therapist politely but obviously concerned asked Donaghue, “I don’t mean to yuck anybody’s yum. But what about pedophiles? What about the issue of consent?”
Donaghue stated that his easy-out answer is that he follows the law and advises others to do the same. He also said that healthy sex starts with compassion, and that this is the approach to work on boundaries with the clients. Donaghue noted that all of us have desires we’d never act upon, a true statement. He voiced his opinion that most people with pedophile desires know that such desires aren’t appropriate to act upon and are trying to refrain from engaging in them. I think that belief of his may be based on the population that he works with: Those who are actively working to stop from acting on non-consensual desires. I don’t believe that statement is actually true for all who violate consent, though. However, I’m viewing it from the place of a practitioner who helps those who have been violated, so my viewpoint is vastly different from his. An estimated 1 in 4 women has been sexually abused (though I believe that number is inaccurate), and an estimated 1 in 6 men (again, a number I believe is too low) have been sexually abused. Even if they are underestimates, those statistics indicate a lot of people who aren’t resisting their non-consensual urges and are harming others. Overall, the answer Donaghue gave in response to such important questions felt very unsatisfactory to me.
Additionally, Donaghue pounced on the therapist’s use of the word “pedophiles.” He doesn’t like the word because he believes it is a word laden with shame. He prefers to use the phrase “intergenerational sexual attraction.” On one hand, I see his point. I don’t believe in using shame the way our culture does as a disciplinary method. I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown whose work attempts to undo the damage of shame in our culture. I believe all people are capable of change though I also believe many are unwilling to do the work that is required to change and grow.
However, I also believe in calling a spade a spade. I’ve been in a sexual relationship with a man who is 14.5 years older than me. That is an intergenerational sexual relationship that included a lot of intergenerational sexual attraction. It was a wonderful experience for me. I’ve also been sexually abused by men who were 20-40+ years older than me when I was 3, 7 and 18 years old. Those were not intergenerational sexual relationships. Those were abuse, assault, and nonconsensual relations. They are vastly different experiences. By conflating attraction of two consenting adults to the same thing as a person attracted to and acting on pedophilia, Donaghue is helping support our culture that disregards sexual assault as a serious issue that isn’t being addressed properly. By Donaghue's logic, the term rapist should be changed to “a persuasive sexual practitioner.” However, it’s never ok to downgrade the severity of sexual abuse and assault. Language is powerful, and by rejecting language that actually names a toxic act, Donaghue is rejecting the pain and suffering of so many people whose bodies, spirits and minds have been violated.
I agree with Donaghue that our culture desperately needs to evolve to become a sex positive culture. In order to create that new openness towards sexuality, we must establish respect as one of the most important roots of sex positivity. We must have respect for others’ desires, for others’ bodies, and for others’ genetic predispositions, and for others’ choices. We must have respect for everything sexual about a person. Yet in order to achieve that broader respect, one must also have respect for the boundaries that are necessary to keep each person safe. Consent is a boundary that cannot ever be eliminated in a healthy sex positive culture. As we move toward a new paradigm for sexuality and gender in our lives, we must bring consent into that new culture. We need to create a world that respects everyone, especially each person’s right to say no.
© 2016 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC