“Pick-up artists” from the American company Real Social Dynamics (RSD) have been back in Australia to run a series of seminars for men on how to seduce women.
RSD encourages the overt use of violence, such as choking, as a method for “picking up” women. Other strategies include wearing women down through repeated requests for sex, and “negging”, where men subtly insult women to undermine their confidence in an attempt to make them more likely to submit to sex.
The program promotes models of masculinity and ideas about sex that have been explicitly linked to individual propensity to perpetrate sexual violence. Sexual conquests are construed as an impersonal “game”. Men are encouraged to view women as dehumanised objects: as points on the board or notches on their proverbial belts.
At the very least, these strategies constitute highly unethical sexual practices. At worst, they teach men strategies of sexual assault.
Compounding this problem is that we don’t consistently provide young people with information about sexual consent and negotiating romantic or sexual relationships as part of sex education at school. Yet they’re crying out for this information. So programs like RSD might inadvertently fill this void.
So what, precisely, does an “ethical” approach to sex and sexual consent look like? And how can we avoid repeating the various pitfalls of the RSD model?
Sexual ethics 101
First and foremost, an ethical approach to sex requires that we challenge the hierarchical system of sexual value that deems certain sexual practices or identities as being inherently “good” or “bad”. Sex in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship versus casual sex is just one example.
An ethical approach to sex arms young people with the skills to discuss, negotiate and articulate their own sexual desires and boundaries, and to respect those of others.
While there is no one correct way to negotiate sexual consent, this can involve:
Discussing your sexual likes and dislikes with a partner. For example, “which sexual activities do you find most pleasurable?”
Asking if it is OK to proceed with a sexual activity with a partner and respecting their response. For example, “would you like to do X?”
Paying attention to all of the signals a sexual partner is giving, including verbal responses and body language
Stopping and checking in if a partner gives any sign that they are not comfortable with what is happening
Never making assumptions about what a sexual partner is thinking or feeling
Having a conversation about safer sex practices.
Importantly, sexual consent is not a one-off “yes” or “no”. It’s an ongoing process throughout a sexual encounter. It might also shift across different relationship contexts (for example, a casual encounter versus a long-term relationships), or with different partners.
Context, power and gender roles
The particular social or relationship context we are in can have significant implications for the ability of a sexual partner to freely consent. Consuming alcohol and other drugs, for example, can impair our ability to give consent. If someone is extremely intoxicated or passed out, they cannot legally give their consent to sex.
An ethical approach to sex requires that we are aware of power dynamics and our position in the world relative to our sexual partners. For instance, does one party have direct power or control over the other, such as a boss and employee? How might this restrain the ability of the employee to openly refuse a sexual encounter?
The onus sits with the person in a position of power to “check in” with the other and to create the space for them to freely communicate their needs and desires. If there are negative consequences of not having sex, such as losing your job, this is not ethical.
Likewise, gendered sex roles often teach women to be the passive recipients of sex, and men to be the relentless pursuers. Of course, not everyone adheres to this model of gender or sexuality.
It’s important to reflect on how this might shape our own and others' sexual expression. For example, might this make it more difficult for women to refuse heterosexual sex? Does this relentless perseverance respect the desires of the other person?
Exploring and challenging dominant models of gender and sexuality is vitally important in enabling people to become ethical sexual actors.
Sexual ethics education
Programs such as Moira Carmody’s Sex & Ethics have been implemented in some schools across Australia to teach young people about negotiating sex in a way that minimises the potential for sexual violence or coercion to occur.
Initial evaluations suggest the program has had some success in changing the attitudes and behaviours of young people when it comes to negotiating sex.
It is vital that sexual ethics education starts early and is age-appropriate, that respect and ethics are modelled across all interactions within a school (and, ideally, other environments such as the home) and that programs are responsive to different social, cultural and religious needs.
Ensuring young people are engaged in discussions on ethical sex can only lessen the influence of groups such as RSD and reduce the potential for coercive sex.
Resources for parents, teachers and young people:
Authors: The Conversation Contributor