One day, when I write my memoirs, I will include a chapter about my first big girl job as an administrative assistant in higher education, and how that often meant being the keeper of office secrets, the desk at which weary professors and students stopped to share the heavier moments of their day. Last week, while going about her work, I had a woman pause at the corner of my desk and softly recount her hectic day, mentioning that she had met with a student who had just realized she had been sexually assaulted.
I nodded knowingly, not unfamiliar with the tales of young girls who do not realize that what they initially deemed a confusing or blurry sexual experience was actually assault, was actually rape, was actually not ok, until months or years after the fact. I tucked her story into my heart next to the others I carry like it, and breathed a quiet prayer for grace and peace.
My early twenties finds me and my community frequently reflecting on the messages we received growing up from Christian culture regarding sex and sexuality. Some of the messages were good, a number were harmful, and others were just crazy. But the message I never heard preached in a chapel, a sermon, or even referenced off hand, was the importance of consent.
From the minute I started wearing a training bra, I've been subject to unending messages about how all of Christendom hangs on my ability to cover myself in a way that keeps other people's thoughts pure (go ahead and file that one away under "crazy" messages received), but not once did I have someone sit me down and explain that my clothes could not and should never serve as an excuse for unwanted sexual contact.
Well meaning Christians were so concerned that I understand that sex is a sacred act that should only be shared with a spouse, that they altogether left out the part where sex can be abused and misused within the context of marriage. Instead, I was painted a painfully simplistic picture where all sex before marriage was bad, and all sex after marriage was good, with no conversation whatsoever concerning the importance of each partners willing and enthusiastic consent for any sexual activity.
My peers and I were given countless rules about what kind of physical contact was "allowed" in a dating relationship, but were never told that each partner should always feel safe, comfortable, and heard.
Oddly enough, it was television and the internet that first educated, and continues to educate me about the importance of consent. I learned more about consent from detective dramas and blogs than I ever did from my faith community, strange as it may sound. It was there I first learned,
If you're drunk, you can't consent.
If you're underage, you can't consent.
Coercion is not consent.
Silence is not consent.
You can say no at any point, even if you've done things with this person before.
No means no, and will always mean no, and should always be taken seriously.
Sexual assault is not sex. It's violence.
Nothing you do, say, or wear gives someone license for sexual violence.
And with every painful story I hear of those who survive sexual assault, but have never had anyone explain to them that what happened was wrong and not their fault, I find myself thinking, HOW THE HELL ARE WE NOT COMMUNICATING THIS TO OUR CHILDREN/TEENAGERS/YOUNG ADULTS/EVERYONE?!
At the core of a consent based sexual ethic is the idea that individuals matter enough, are valuable enough, to have a say in what they do and don't do with their bodies. And as a people who follow Jesus, this God who wrapped himself in flesh, the Word through whom humanity was created, body and soul, we should be the first to educate and advocate for the dignity of all persons.
May the generation that comes to faith behind us recognize Christ in us, not just because we believe sex is for marriage, but because at the core of our sexual ethic lies, as Brennan Manning describes it, "a deep and delicate respect for one another... a cordial love impregnated with reverence for the sacred dimension of the human personality because of the mysterious substitution of Christ for the Christian."