Responsibility And Sex

There are many incisive editorials about the Penn State cover-ups. This piece Bearing Responsibility is one of them. The author insightfully concludes: “Children deserve protection and safety, and to be made a priority. Adults are responsible to know this. If you choose to believe and act otherwise, you bear responsibility for your choice.”

I would like to focus on another aspect of responsibility as it pertains to sex: the idea that as mature adults, we are obligated to act responsibly in ALL areas of our lives, sexuality included.

Here’s my understanding of adulthood. As we grow up, we become more independent and self-reliant. We obtain an education that (hopefully) allows us to support ourselves and possibly others. With greater independence comes greater responsibilities, too; yeah, you could have ice cream for dinner, but you’ll also have to deal with the consequences if you get a stomach-ache or a cavity. Yeah, you could go out clubbing every night, but if you come into work groggy every morning, it could cost you your job.

My parents used a system of rewards to help me and my younger sister understand the responsibilities of adulthood. We would get gold stars on a weekly chart for helping with household chores such as loading the dishwasher and setting the table for dinner. Those stars went toward things we wanted: a trip to the zoo, or a new book (I was an especially voracious reader). As we got older, our responsibilities increased, but so did the rewards. I got a used car to drive–on the condition that I helped ferry my sister around. If I kept getting good grades, I could add another afterschool activity I wanted to pursue, like martial arts or belly dancing. And so on.

The point here is that being a mature adult entails responsibility in all aspects of your life. If you renege on your duties, sometimes the fun stuff goes away as a consequence. Put another way, if you can’t treat your toys nicely, you don’t get to play with them anymore.

Where does sex fit into all this? If you have non-consensual sex with someone, you are essentially saying, “I am not a mature adult; I cannot follow the social contract.” A truly mature person only initiates sexual interactions with people who are able to consent. To do otherwise is to renege on your claim to adulthood. Other people who break the social contract are seen as criminals, and put in some kind of reforming program (prison, rehabilitation, and so on).

If someone has proven, by their harmful sexual acts, that they are not acting as a mature adult, then they should not get to keep doing their other adult activities (such as coaching football) until they’ve demonstrated that they are once again able to act responsibly (in addition to doing other appropriate actions like receiving counseling and attempting to make amends for the lives ruined by rape). That’s what I believe, at any rate, in an attempt to get some positive dialogue out of the Penn State scandal.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.