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What I missed during sex education - and you probably did too

Illustration by April Knutson 1 / 2
April Knutson2 / 2

FARGO — If you're like me then you didn't have the "sex talk" with your parents.

There was little time for that conversation. Four children within 5 years of age meant we were all going through the "You just don't understand me" phase consecutively. (Sorry, Mom.)

Most likely I would have cringed, balked or completely shut down if my mom even tried to sit down with me to explain the emotional and physical consequences of sex, sexual harassment and assault or the definition of consent. Being a teenager during the heyday of MTV's "Real World" and ABC's "The Bachelor," I couldn't value my parents' view on relationships any less. How could my parents even understand the pressures of attracting the male gaze by "seeming" promiscuous but never actually giving in?

So instead, my education started during middle school: first, informally among friends and the secrets I could siphon from my older sisters and, second, at the required sex education course, complete with sweaty palms and nervous giggles. (You know, the one that teaches abstinence, shares deeply frightening facts and photos of sexuality transmitted diseases and ends with taking care of a mechanical, slightly creepy baby for a week.)

I learned what most Midwesterners do: sex is meant for marriage, and most of society follows — or should adhere to — this rule. Living in a small town of 1,400 people, those who did not practice abstinence were the main thread of gossip. Our whispers weaved one of our favorite of Midwest traditions: a frank righteousness through snickers.

As a word nerd and an overly-enthusiastic jokester who was either always reading or in front of a crowd, I wasn't my male classmates' choice for a girlfriend. To a 16-year-old girl with an affinity for alternative, emo music by artists like Bright Eyes, this cut especially deep. (I mean, there were more than 20 boys! One chose to define me as "cute if you lost weight," a label that continued to haunt me into my college years.)

When I arrived on campus at Minnesota State University Moorhead, my experience with boys and their attentions was sparse. "Who would be ever interested in me?" I thought. (Mom and Dad, you can stop reading at this point.)

So when did I learn about consent or the value of my own body? My agency and role in affirmatively consenting to physical acts of passion didn't even cross my mind. All I thought I wanted was attention, not understanding that attention could come with some strings I was unwilling to pull.

I idolized seemingly free-spirited pop stars like Kesha (at the time, the singer still had the dollar sign, Ke$ha, in her name) who did want she wanted, while being one of the boys. Women like Kesha were presented as empowered only by their sex appeal. (I also admired women like Eleanor Roosevelt, but it could be argued from a naive mind that she only received her standing and respect after she married Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

You could say I was on the lookout for the male gaze but I would have vehemently denied any interest. I felt defined by the amount of heads I did or did not turn. And the friends I found felt the same. (We all wanted to be "neck-breakers," a pop culture term to describe gorgeous women who men figurativelly break their necks trying to ogle.) We spent hours deciding how, when and where we would meet up with boys. And afterwards, we'd compare scorecards — who received the most phone number requests, who stole a kiss or who made plans to meet up, possibly to round second or third base.

Now, years later, I bear the scars of foolish judgement, trusting others instead of myself. Access to my body wasn't something I decided to grant, it was something that others expected to gain after calculated, well-rehearsed maneuvers.

My stories, like so many other women, are familiar — a cliche once whispered about but now shared in public light. Recently, the website Babe reported Grace's (a pseudonym to protect the woman's identity) version of the date she had with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. In her words, the date went awry when he rushed her through dinner and up to his apartment afterwards.

Ansari's demand for sexual compliance may not have been assault exactly. Grace did agree to the date, but her complicity does not excuse the danger in what we perceive as an "everyday occurrence."

Instead of outrage, feminists and non-feminists alike reacted with a gray tension. It seems to have opened the lid on a box of shameful discomfort I carry. A box of headache-inducing memories I believe others carry as well.

Sexual violence — as it is being termed now — is not gender exclusive. Pressured to put notches on their belt, some men collect women like the action figures that once lined their bedroom walls. Others feel forced into acts because "Why would I turn a woman down?" instead of choosing based on their own morals, desires and boundaries.

The truth of consent can't be defined strictly through the viewpoints of men or women. The awkward but vital conversations have started. And we're learning these murky waters of consent, agency or equality require a filter. Consent is not only a private issue but a shared conversation.

Before the sex talk, let's teach shared human dignity without gender stereotypes. Sexual violence occurs when we forget to recognize the nature and value of human relationships.

April Knutson

April Knutson is lifestyle-focused journalist producing stories for the Forum News Service about people, health, community issues, and services. She earned her degree in both English Literature and Mass Communications. After working as a digital marketing specialist and web design consultant for a few years, she joined Forum Communications in 2015. She grew up on a farm near Volga, S.D. Follow her on Twitter @april_knutson.

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