Let the Kids Know: A New Take on Consent Education

Content Warning: This piece includes language and content that some readers may find triggering or upsetting, as it relates to sexual assault.

The man is a faceless stranger. He carries a weapon. The woman wears a short skirt and trips drunkenly over her stilettos. She decides to take a shortcut through a poorly lit alleyway. The man attacks, brandishing his weapon. The woman whimpers, and cries out: “No!”

To many Americans, this is what the word “rape” means.

Suzanne meets Johnny in organic chemistry and soon bonds with him over their soul-crushing midterm grades. They occasionally study together, flirting constantly. One night, they go back to Johnny’s room. They start making out. Things progress, and Suzanne starts to feel uncomfortable. She tells Johnny to stop; she doesn’t want to sleep with him. But he doesn’t. Afterward, she gets up, gets dressed, and goes home. The next morning, she walks to her organic chemistry lecture, where Johnny is seated at his customary desk.

Although many Americans may not realize it, this, too, is rape. 

Legally, rape is non-consensual sexual assault resulting from violence, threat of violence, or incapacitation. The relationship between the people involved is not specified, and though we tend to assume no acquaintance, 80 to 90 percent of sexual assaults occur between acquainted individuals, and the survivors of such assaults can be deeply traumatized.

On the 5Cs, we’re now informed if a report of sexual assault is filed; what we hear shapes how we perceive sexual assault. In almost every report, the individuals involved are students of the Claremont Colleges — not strangers to one another, but peers, acquaintances, or more.

And yet current prevention measures tend to focus on stranger rape: increased lighting, security, and encouraging women to learn self-defense. We have proposed such measures at the 5Cs; the idea seems to be that if we turn up the lights at Pub, sexual assault won’t happen. And yes, perhaps that could be true — to a point. Such prevention measures might prevent one type of incident at one particular place, but they really postpone rather than prevent sexual assault. Further, these methods promote victim-blaming, suggesting we can fix a problem without confronting those whose actions cause it directly: the perpetrators. The only meaningful path to prevention lies in education. To be most effective, this education must target and alter the underlying attitudes of individuals — usually men — that increase their likelihood to rape.

Therefore, I propose male education programs. They exist, but many are ineffective. For example, confrontational approaches that attack individuals rather than established ideologies prevent men from changing their attitudes. A technique called empathy induction, which attempts to reduce blame of survivors by focusing on situational causes, has also been found ineffective.

I suggest an educational system that focuses on middle school boys. Why? Because most of them aren’t yet sexually active. They are less likely to have previously assaulted someone, so they are less likely to get defensive and refuse to change their minds. Greater experience with sexual coercion, for both survivors and perpetrators, is linked to resistance to attitude change.

So, let’s take these kids and debunk sexual assault myths before they’re exposed to them. Let them know that people are more likely to assault someone they already know, or someone with whom they’ve had a past relationship. Discuss the notion of withdrawn consent: A “yes” one night or one minute does not mean a “yes” the next. And frame the issue of sexual assault in the context where it’s most likely to appear — in situations like hook-ups that we think of in terms of desire rather than power dynamics. If middle school kids believe that rape is only about power, then they may find it hard to imagine themselves in the role of a perpetrator. The lesson won’t seem to apply to them, so the education will be less effective.

Let the kids know that if their sexual partner doesn’t seem all that interested, they shouldn’t push it — solicit enthusiastic, rather than passive, consent. Teach them to recognize common warning signs, and they will be able to identify problematic behaviors before enacting them.

The goal of sexual assault education should be to disrupt unconscious processes, to help perpetrators recognize problematic actions as problematic. The best way to do this is to begin education at a young age. Let kids know about situations in which they might find themselves someday. Teach them to recognize warning signs. Then, they might be more likely to stop before continuing to harm another person. Had he received such an education, perhaps Johnny would have recognized Suzanne’s withdrawn consent, and she could have left to spend the night in safety.

Andrea Hellebust PO’16 is a tentative chemistry major from Seattle, WA. 

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