‘My younger sister is having one-night stands with random men’
Dear Roe: How can I make her see that she needs to be careful?
My younger sister is 27 and has temporarily moved in with me to save some money. She’s never had a proper relationship, but goes on a lot of dates with men from dating sites. None of them seem to stick for very long and she’s had a couple of one-night stands (not in our house, thankfully). I think it’s ridiculously risky behaviour, but she won’t listen to me, and gets angry when I bring it up. I think ignoring that having sex with random men is dangerous is naive and wilfully stupid. How can I make her see that she needs to be careful?
This isn’t about your sister’s safety. If it was, you wouldn’t feel the need to mention that she’s never had a proper relationship, nor would you be so relieved she isn’t bringing her dates home. Surely, if you were so concerned, you’d prefer that than having her go off to a stranger’s house?
What’s happening here is that you’re living with your little sister and realising that not only is she an adult, she’s an adult who enjoys sex. And you’re judging her for that.
“Risky behaviour” is a term often used to police sexuality. It’s no coincidence that it’s most commonly applied to teenagers, to gay men, to kinksters, and to sexually confident women. It is literally never applied to straight men. Because “risky sex” is a pejorative; a condescending, faux-concerned way of accusing someone that their sex is “bad” or “unhealthy”; and that if something goes wrong, it’s their fault. Their fault for enjoying sex, for not having more self-control, for not following the rules.
As if following the rules has ever kept women safe from dangerous men.
At age nine, I was groped by an adult; a few minutes earlier he had been cheerfully chatting with my mother. At 13, a boy at the Gaeltacht forced his hands down my jeans, and slapped me across the face when I pushed him away. At 17, I was sexually assaulted by a man from one of my college classes. We had mutual friends, he even knew my brother. He was a “nice young man”.
None of these violations happened because I was looking for dates, or sex. They happened because I was a woman – a girl, really – existing in a world where predators also live.
This proves that having casual sex is not the major risk factor
My experiences reflect the reality of violence against women, as 85-90 per cent of sexual offences are committed by people the victims know or are in relationships with. The last comprehensive study on the subject, the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report, found that while 42 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual abuse, only 10 per cent of sexual offences were reported. This proves that having casual sex is not the major risk factor in experiencing sexual violence; being a woman is. It also proves that victims often don’t tell anyone.
I didn’t, not for years. I had absorbed the misogynistic messages that only bad girls attracted this kind of attention, that I must have wanted it, that I deserved it. The shame that surrounds women and sex didn’t protect me; it protected my assaulters.
Shaming your sister’s normal exploration of sex and dating won’t help her feel safe. Supporting her, listening to her, letting her know she can ask you for help if she needs it, will. Don’t tell her not to date, or meet men, or have sex with them. Instead, tell her that you hope she enjoys herself and that if she’s ever in a situation where she feels unsafe or uncomfortable, she can call you. Tell her that if anyone ever does hurt her, she can tell you, and that you’ll be there for her because you know that the only person to blame for sexual violence is the person who commits it.
Your sister has a world full of people who will judge her for having sex, who will blame her if she does get hurt. Don’t be another judge. Be what only you can be. Be a big sister.
- Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.
- If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe