Sex-Negative Education and the Spectre of Rape

Another story to add to the chorus of voices on why abstinence-only policies promote rape.

Here’s my take: when you teach adults and children sex-negative messages, sex becomes an undifferentiated mass of “wrong.”  If all sex is wrong, then why try to tease out good from bad, pleasurable from painful?  When students are taught not to think about sex, they aren’t going to spend any time determining what they do and don’t want, or what they might be interested in.  Of course, they’re going to have sex eventually, but when it happens will they be able to communicate at all through the veil of guilt, shame, and self-loathing that sex negativity encourage?

Sex-negative messages don’t keep people from having sex.  They keep people from having good sex.  They keep people from having pride in their sexuality, from sexual self-awareness.  They keep people from asking questions about sex, and communicating with their partners.  They discourage experimentation.  They blur the lines between consensual sex and rape by framing all sex as an undifferentiated mass of “bad.”  They combine victim-blaming with generalized guilt about sex, so that perpetrator and survivor are equally culpable.  Basically, they take logic and reason out of the equation.

Sex doesn’t “lead to assault.”  Sex is not the culprit.  Silence is the culprit.  Shame is the culprit.  Educational institutions should teach young people how to communicate, how to express their desires and listen to what a potential sex partner is saying.  If young people have no language to communicate about sex, if sex is a furtive, secret, scary thing, then some of those young people are going to assault their peers because it is the only way they know to respond to their physical desires.  However, if young people are taught to speak clearly and honestly about sex, and to respect one another, then the sex that does take place will more likely be consensual.  It may not be possible to eliminate rape entirely, but the answer is not to put sex back in the closet.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.


  1. Actually, the sex-negative approach does have a way of determining whether sex is “good” or “bad” — heterosexual marriage. If you’re married to someone of the opposite sex, and you engage in sex, then it’s good; if you engage in sex with anyone outside of that paradigm, then it’s bad. Problem, of course, is now you can’t determine when rape occurs within the marriage, because rape is “bad sex” and hetero married sex is “good sex,” so how can hetero married sex be rape?

    Another confusing mixed message, courtesy of the same people who brought you misogyny and homophobia!

      • Thing is, they don’t always say no. ‘Family values’ teach us that the woman is subservient to the man, and that as such, when the man wants to have sex, sex has to happen. Many women are ashamed to say no, even though they don’t want to (and don’t enjoy it). Also, many men don’t bother to ask.

    • You don’t marry someone you’re not in love with, and you don’t rape someone you’re in love with either. Anyone with a conscience can figure this out.

      It’s not called homophobia. It’s called having a purpose in life. Homosexuality is vanity.

      Sexual promiscuity is misogyny, to use a woman’s body for vain sexual pleasure without concern for the consequences to her (pregnancy, disease).

  2. […] Sex-Negative Education and the Spectre of Rape by Amory of Sex Positive Activism. Even when I was a kid, I hated that sex ed was being taught the way it was under the Bush administration – it wasn’t. It was like all these people happily forgot what it was like when they were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Brief reminder: it’s awkward, it sucks, you’re easily pressured into things because of it, you don’t communicate well, and you have a gender-specific version of a boner basically THE WHOLE TIME. So yeah, put yourself back into that mind frame, and imagine being told “if somebody sees you naked and even considers having sex with you you’ll get antibiotic resistant pregnant AIDS and die.” Then imagine having condom-free cum-inside sex and being like “hey, none of that happened. What liars!” […]

    • I complete agree with your take on rape, it is about power and humiliation and degredation. And common sense says to teach children about sex in a way that educates them to the fact that it is a completely natural human desire. It’s obvious that teens are going to continue to have sex and get pregnant much too early and catch STDs. With that in mind, it would make more sense to educate them in a way that would help them avoid any negative ‘consequences’ when they do have sex. Not just preach that sex itself is a negative thing at their age. Again, I love your reply on rape and control and inferiority-complexes as well as your opinion on why and how sex should be taught in school.

  3. Rape has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with control over another person. They teach that in some schools. Rape isn’t about sexual attraction, it’s about the attacker wanting to have control over someone and by forcing them into sex, they humiliate and degrade the victim. It is–in my eyes–the ultimate violation of the human will. Abstinence-only education does not promote rape, in my opinion, but I think inferiority-complexes promote rape more. Most rapists that I’ve seen that are outed usually have a background of being in powerless and helpless positions themselves and thus, when they assault someone, they have a momentary feeling of being in a position of power over someone.

    However, I do agree that the sex-negative education is bad. Teaching children that sex overall is a bad thing to do as oppose to teaching them that sex is natural, and defining an appropriate age to begin practicing safe sex would have a greater impact on youth.

    • I agree that rape is an act of violence but I think the post here is very true because it spells out part of the reason the victims don’t come forward. Our culture frames the rape as sex, and because we are to be so ashamed of our own sexualities, especially as women, rape can fall into that fuzzy category of bad sex. Its not sex its violence but because there is some much shame and silence around the act and because it has the symptoms of sex, it falls under what the author is saying.

    • Rape is not always just about power. Rape occurs when there is not consent. People need to learn to ask for consent and hear consent. if they’re not taught, they may rape. And abstinence only attitudes and education promote rape.

    • Black-and-white “rape-rape” is easily identified, and certainly not encouraged by ab-only dogma. What sex-negative sexuality education _doesn’t_ cover is the nuances of consent and open communication. It encourages silence, shame, and gender-normative assumptions about sexual intent… for example, the idea that a woman is supposed to resist, even just a little, and it’s a man’s job to show her how much he wants her by pushing the issue. That makes her feel desired and self-confident, right? Also, sex is something that a woman “gives” to a man, and her pleasure is derived through his. This reinforces a norm of masculine aggression and feminine passivity where consent is the absence of a “no” rather than the presence of an enthusiastic “yes!”

  4. @Desmond: there’s actually an easy answer to that. Sex-negative people believe that, by definition, sex within a marriage can’t be rape, because the wife “consented” by marrying the man.

  5. […] Sex doesn’t “lead to assault.” Sex is not the culprit. Silence is the culprit. Shame is the culprit. Educational institutions should teach young people how to communicate, how to express their desires and listen to what a potential sex partner is saying. Sex-Negative Education and the Spectre of Rape « Sex Positive Activism […]

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