Mainewhile: Teaching consent, not segregation, is the answer

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I found listening to the news last week to be difficult, painful, infuriating, and grating.

I’m not a big fan of the term “triggering,” but I honestly don’t have another way to sum it up. There have been tears, there have been angry rants, and I know I am not alone. One meme I saw floating in social media read “Every woman you know is just one conversation from completely losing it. I offer this as a PSA.”

I am referring, of course, to the coverage of the hearings regarding the nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, and to the topic of sexual assault as a whole.

I am furious about so many things. Furious at the lack of awareness on display; furious at the slander and mean, stupid jokes aimed at the character of the woman who came forward; furious that those same jokesters turn around and demand to know why women don’t report; furious that in 2018 this is still the conversation.

In this whole, swirling storm of rage and fury and righteous wrath, I have seen a new conversation emerging – and it makes me more fearful than all the rest. I am speaking here of loving, well-intentioned parents who are responding to this crisis by teaching their children to be afraid of the other gender, regard it as a threat, and never, under any circumstances, be alone with it.

If you have not heard this directly from a parent, you might think I am exaggerating. Perhaps I am making one wild leap from Vice President Mike Pence’s bizarre policy to never meet alone with a woman, to sweeping comments about the populace as a whole? I wish that were so. Sadly, I have heard very clearly from several parents, including some in my family, that they are doing exactly this. And it breaks my heart.

Sidestepping for the moment the most obvious flaws in that approach (same-gender abuse happens, too, and gender is more and more understood as fluid, not fixed), there is nothing about this approach that is healthy or productive. I might not have the answers to all of society’s woes, but I am quite certain that more fear, suspicion and gender-based disdain isn’t it.

If we, as a group, want to get someplace good and healthy and whole, we are going to have to work on the opposite of those things. The answer to sexual assault isn’t gender segregation. In fact, at its core, sexual assault has very little to do with gender, or sex, at all. Sexual assault is rooted in entitlement and power, so that’s where we have to do the work.

Teaching consent starts early. Really early, and has very little obvious connection to a healthy sex life. Teaching consent starts with the basics. No hugs were ever demanded or required (even to their all loving, safe grandparents) and no behavior from others was a given. You want to pet that sweet dog on the sidewalk? Well, first you must ask permission. You want that other child to play with you? Well, if they don’t want to, that’s just the way it is.

Not only is it important to instill the behavior of asking, we must teach how to handle rejection. Being told “no” is never fun, and kids get to feel whatever it is they feel about it. I’m not about to tell a child their feelings are “wrong,” but I am also clear with them that it is not the responsibility of anyone else to make it better. Coping with life’s rejections and disappointments is part of growing into a healthy adult.

I admit, there is something very powerful about being in a space with just other women. I admire their wisdom, their strength, their humor and their ferocity. I am grateful for my female friends. I also know that my life is much, much richer for the friends I have who are men, some of whom I’ve had as friends since high school. I admire their wisdom, their strength, their humor and ferocity, too. I learn and grow, am challenged and supported, by fellow humans. I would not wish a life of gender segregation for myself, I would not wish it for my kids, I would not wish it for society.

What I do wish is for us all to take a collective deep breath, recognize that we are all a little scared and uncertain about how to navigate this minefield of hurt, and grant each other grace as we help each other through.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at heather@heatherdmartin.com.

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