Consent, even when properly understood and communicated, is never enough to establish a meaningful, trusting, healthy relationship. What exactly do I give you permission to do when I “consent”? I do not give you the right to use or abuse me. I do not sign myself over to you for whatever fantasies come across your mind and project upon my body, mind, heart, and soul. I do not offer myself as a giver to you as a taker. Healthy relationship requires mutual sovereignty, vulnerability, respect, learning, and a keen commitment to “learn into” another person’s energy without projecting one’s own assumptions or needs.
In Chapter 6 of my newly released book, The Spiritually Confident Man, I talk about “Raising Men and Boys; Opening to Women and Girls.” In relations between the sexes and between adult and child, you do not see much in the way of mutual honoring. It’s as if we don’t know how, even if we’re intending to be respectful. How do I express myself to this different other in a way that is not simply imposing my will, but instead welcoming their will? How do I become truly co-creative? How do we work together in a dance where the innocence of the other is an invitations to my own joy and innocence rather than a signal to dominate or manipulate to meet some lack?
This is virgin territory, quite literally and metaphorically. We largely don’t know how to consent to co-creation. We don’t know how to co-create. We have been taught in the language of contract—“I’ll scratch your back, then you have to scratch mine.” This is imposition, expectation, soft or hard coercion. This promotes brutishness, not beauty, predation, rather than appreciation. How can we come together to meaningfully discuss healthy consent and what it means to honor and co-create with another person?
My wife and television journalist, Regina Meredith, recently interviewed a former seminarian with a M.Div. degree named Wieslaw Walawender. He is Polish by origin and committed his life to God, and was raped by his direct male supervisor on the cusp of his ordination. I will direct people to the interview to get the full story, but Wies’s words leapt out at me: “Why do they (abusers) do what they do?” Too many of us, horrified by the subject of sexual abuse unintentionally create a silence around the issue by representing abuse as twistedness or a confirming sign of evil meant to be exterminated or quarantined away from civilized people.
Yet sexual abuse is epidemic. In the psychology class I teach on motivation and emotion, roughly a third of my students admit to being sexually abused, usually in the form of incest and usually from fathers, uncles, and grandfathers to young girls. Many told their mothers, only to be told to keep quiet. A 2013 Atlantic Monthly article by Mia Fontaine entitled, “American Has an Incest Problem” states that: “One in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family… and this is a notoriously underreported crime.”
Fontaine goes on to say that the entire society would unravel is sexual abuse was actively investigated and prosecuted, as families would be split up, work disrupted, and society placed into a truthful but destabilizing turmoil. Perhaps this is why so many of the abused keep silent and others who suspect keep it far from their consciences. It’s ugly, ugly stuff. It is traumatic to think about, much less experience, yet each of us has a duty to think about it, discuss it, and advocate for the dignity of innocents abused, because the damage is overwhelming in terms of the spirit, mind, heart, and body of an individual and the very soul of the community they live within.
What can we do about it?
Walawender was somewhat pessimistic on the current approaches. He finds that psychotherapy does not work, and most programs are too “in the head” to reach the violence done to a person’s spirit by sexual abuse. Walawender himself was healed of his abuse by a Native American tribe, the Hualapai, who live on the rim of the Grand Canyon, through process that included prayer, chanting, incense, dancing, and even sleeping (without sex) with a virgin female to help heal, rebalance, realign and integrate his sexual orientation and foundational energies back into a state of health. The reverse is also true: Those whose orientations are LGBT as a matter of nature should not be bullied into pretending otherwise. The fundamental authentic state of a person’s sexual identity should not be abused, so that any person can grow into awareness and experience by their own choices and connections and not through some damaged reaction to someone else imposing their will and sexual identity upon him or her.
There do seem to be some ways forward though:
- Walawender spoke of arranging meeting whereby the perpetrator of a sexual crime sincerely admitted wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness.
- We cannot all find a Native American shaman to realign our energies around abuse, but perhaps we could take the notion of sexual polarity seriously as I do in my book, The Spiritually Confident Man, so that we recognize and explore how distinct female and male energies can balance and inform each other as energies and not simply as gender roles and expectations.
- We could explore the development of positive, healthy touch as an antidote to negative, using touch. I found that if I allow positive masculine giving energy to pour through my being, and sensuality and healing, rather than sexuality to be the point in massage, I was able to make advances in healing a female friend who had been sexually abused.
- More exploration and research has to be done on what effects duration of abuse, when abuse happened in the development of a person, and when intervention occurred (that is, how long after abuse before silence was broken and healing attempted).
- It is a scary notion that abuse can “implant” a desire contrary to your spirit or soul, kind of like a possession, without your say, even to the point of altering your sexual orientation, as it did with Mr. Walawender. So the notion of sovereignty comes up as a significant point of discussion, and as a way to challenge false New Age notions that we “choose” our abuse as a learning opportunity of to settle some karmic score.
- We need a serious and open discussion on “consent” that embraces a piercing look at the knowledge and intention of people involved in “consent.” As I said in my book, the exact same act, putting one’s hands on another’s shoulders, could be congratulatory and welcome or predatory and unwelcome, simple with a micro-ounce extra of pressure communicating a covetous desire. “Consent” also has to be discussed from a psychospiritual and emotional level and not simply from a contractual level.
- We need to openly discuss what being “gender fluid” means and where it comes from. Some who call themselves “gender fluid” are rejecting the straitjackets of conventional roles and expectations they feel to be oppressive to their genuinely diverse sexual orientation. Others, have learned to be “gender fluid” possibly from damage they experienced from abuse. This, I think was the case for the tragic pop star Whitney Houston, who had allegedly been sexually abused by her aunt, singer Dee Dee Warwick, as revealed in the recently released film, Whitney.
- We must begin to understand sexual energy, not just an animal impulse, but a psychic energy involving deep bonding, feelings of pleasure, love, fear, and pain, as well as a spiritual one involving potently creative forces which mix primordial energy and identity.
- We have to investigate and recognize the damage is not just of the physical sort and that a child cannot developmentally know enough about what themselves and what they are consenting too to give sexual consent. When an adult seeks to legitimate his or her sexual abuse of child through the notion of consent and mutual pleasure (“Hey, I’m not hurting them physically and they seem to like it; what’s wrong with that?”), two things need to come up: 1) The damage to this child is to this child’s emotional, psychic, and spiritual fields, not just to his or her body, and 2) children cannot give meaningful sexual consent with an adult because they are not developmentally aware of the consequences of such an alleged consent. That’s why pedophilia is illegal.
- I think we need to admit to ourselves that we keep silent on incest and sexual abuse because we experience even the thought or discussion of it as traumatic, nausea-inducing, and low frequency. This should never be an excuse for us to leave our children and other victims unprotected. On the positive side, we need to build with young people, in particular, positive and healthy ways to exchange touch and aspiration that does not involve mindless sex and consumed, manipulated images of who we are and who we ought to be.
- We need to call out predators for what they are, sick in the diseased sense of the word. Predators have fallen to a psychospiritual disease and addiction with devastating effects to all of whom it touches including the perpetrator. This disease, as a say in my book, is vampire-like in its expression, sucking the spiritual innocence and energy and vitality from a usually younger, uncertain person. The predator learns to substitute his or her will for another. This emphasis on the disease allows for a compassionate and firm response, vs. attempts to simply marginalize predators by calling them twisted, low-lifes.
After hearing Wieslaw Walawender’s story, I was struck by how little success he had with experiencing or even imagining some constructive ways forward to dealing with the problem of sexual abuse from a positive, effective, and psychospiritual healing orientation.