The year 2017 closed with scores of reports of high-profile men accused of sexual harassment, polls  revealing that half the country believes President Trump should resign due to sexual harassment allegations against him, and taxpayer money being used to settle sexual misconduct claims in the House of Representatives.

But it also ended with women gaining momentum to openly describe these assaults and with new support for victims through the #MeToo movement. TIME even honored some of the women who have broken their silence about the abuses with Person of the Year status. Their faces highlight the widespread atrocities experienced by a reported 30% of women worldwide.

Less publicized is the victimization of men. Actor and former football linebacker Terry Crews gave voice to sexual assault against men by filing a lawsuit against talent agent- Adam Venit.

Indeed, the threat to women (and men) is real and widespread. But, clearly change is happening.

As a psychologist and psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health, we believe an important element of this conversation is missing. The current conversation parallels our country’s divisiveness with the polarizing assumption that men are bad and women are good. We need to move beyond this dichotomy by including a constructive definition of healthy sexual interaction in the conversation. Both men and women desire fulfilling relationships that include sex.

Differentiating sexual harassment from appropriate dating behavior must be part of the solution.

The accused Tavis Smiley adamantly rebuked allegations and stated: ”It’s time for a real conversation in this country about where the lines are, about how men and women can engage each other in the workplace.”

The World Health Organization stated: “Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” California requires affirmative consent prior to a sexual encounter. A movement is growing nationwide to initiate a culture of “yes means yes”, starting early–in grade school. A new norm of consent, rather than refusal, prevents evasion of criminal charges when victims are unconscious or incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. Current sexual norms place women at risk for sexual assault, but unwanted sex is also reported by men. New standards of dating and sexual health must be established.

A key factor in healthy relationships is clear communication. The initiator and recipient must state intentions without making assumptions about the other’s desires. Assumptions about acceptability are risky because the judgment about what behavior is appropriate is subjective and personal. Clear communication prevents misunderstandings and supports intimacy rather than continuation of unwanted advances.

Within a romantic relationship, communication of acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior energizes sexual health.

Simple inquiries of a partner’s sexual comfort, satisfaction, and desire to be intimate are an important part of dialogue.

The aim is to explore and heighten both partner’s experiences. Discussion of desires with a lover provides an opportunity for constructive conversation and consent rather than a forceful interaction that will lead to negative sexual and relationship consequences.

The focus on communication will be useful for people whose desire is to develop a consensual, non-coercive sexual relationship rather than for the predators who seek to fulfill their selfish needs. It is a myth that sexual assault is only about power—it also includes a fulfillment of selfish sexual desire while disregarding the partner’s rights.

Within the current national discussion, we strongly advocate inclusion of basic human rights as critical to sexual rights. As defined by the World Health Organization: “The fulfillment of sexual health is tied to the extent to which human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Sexual rights protect all people’s rights to fulfill and express their sexuality and enjoy sexual health, with due regard for the rights of others and within a framework of protection against discrimination.”  The conversation must include both men and women engaged in incorporating sexual rights into local and national organizational policy to move forward. Accepting that sexual harassment is a community-wide problem that involves everyone must be achieved to defend against another wave of attention to this public health problem that fades without resolution.

-Sheehan Fisher & Katherine L. Wisner

Sheehan Fisher, PhD, is a psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern University and a previous Public Voices Fellow.  Katherine L. Wisner, MD, MS, is a perinatal psychiatrist and the Norman and Helen Asher Professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, and a Public Voices Fellow.  

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