“No Means No.” “Don’t Rape.” “Real Men Don’t Rape.”
For the last few decades, these slogans have stood at the forefront of education concerning sexual violence prevention. Plastered across fliers, hung up around campuses, written on signs, and blasted across the slides of presenters from high school to college programs on sexual violence prevention. At this point, these mantras have become rallying cries for some educators and advocates surrounding this issue.
Where the intent of these campaigns are noble, the application and implementation of them are a little more harmful than intended and lead to a failure to properly educate our student populations around the complexities of the issues of sexual violence prevention, sexual assault, and the vastly convoluted topic of consent. Conversely, these campaigns also infantilize the problem, taking sex, which we know is a profoundly personal situation between two or more unique individuals, and attempts to break it down into its most simple parts.
The problem is that sex is not transactional. Often the issues our students, and even professionals, are running into are less the black and white of healthy sexual relationships vs. violent or deliberate assault. Instead, many of our students are facing the grey areas of sex where participants are unclear of what is occurring in their relationships with a multitude of partners and thus, creating opportunities for sexual violence to occur. To clarify, I want to illuminate on a few points. First and foremost, as a survivor, I want to reinforce that no one chooses to be sexually assaulted and survivors deserve the support of their communities. Second, I do not believe that if every student were educated about the role of consent and how to talk about sex, we would prevent all forms of sexual violence. We often know sexual assault is an act of power, not one of actual sex. Believe me, I know
that if the person who drugged, raped, and stalked me knew more about consent it would not have stopped them. Third, I also know that intent does not equal impact. For many students I work with I have to clarify for them that where their desire was not to cause harm or commit an act of sexual assault or violence, ignorance is not a pass for the damage caused to another.
What I do know, however, is that research shows that a vast majority of individuals would not willfully commit acts of sexual violence if they were given the opportunity. The problem therein lies that many individuals are committing assaults without knowing they are causing harm because they have never been properly trained on how to discuss consent and its complexities, they are not aware of power dynamics, or because of they are uncertain about the role of alcohol and drugs when involved in consent.
Here lies the reason we must shift away from only “No means No” type programs of education. Our students understand that they should not commit rape and it is important we still teach programs like bystander intervention and how to recognize predatory behavior for the cases where there is an ill intent. A large shift to our education should also stem from cultivating spaces where students can learn how to communicate their values around sex better, learn how to talk with partners in a realistic perspective, and be educated about the unintended harm they can cause through their actions.
Here are a few things we must consider as we begin approaching this topic.
Approaching Sex from a Genuine Perspective
Reflecting back on the point that “no means No” often infantilizes sex, our educational approaches need to move away from treating any student population as uneducated or not ready to have blunt, open conversations around sex. Discussing statistics around assault and throwing around high-level terms about consent is not enough. We know that sex is a complex thing occurring between parties and for every relationship, the way parties explore consent, communicate their values, and engage in activities is different depending on a slew of factors.
Part of the topics we need to consider approaching lie outside of the realm of what is black and white and instead facing the grey areas of sex head-on. For example, a majority if not all of our students understand no means no. Questions I hear emerging from students when given the opportunity to speak openly however are less around what is violent rape and more what are the lines between coercion versus seduction? What about harassment versus flirting? What are healthy relationships and how can we talk to peers when we are concerned? What are the roles of alcohol and drugs in consent?
None of these are black and white and to try and make education a one- answer-focus fails. Whenever we are considering these issues, we need to speak to them with open honesty and a willingness to be challenged by our students. Also, we must be open to addressing problematic behaviors or mentalities not with scorn but instead from a place of education. I will never agree with problematic behavior, but it is not my place to speak down to these individuals and instead to work with them to understand why their view is negative and help provide a solution to move away from this. Part of what we know is that this is delicate work, and we must be prepared to address it as such but while still addressing it maturely.
Educating Students about their Sexual Values
Everyone has different values on how they select and engage with their sexual partners. These values are influenced by their upbringing, family members, religious beliefs, personal preferences, and how they have been educated about sex. Some students might be comfortable with casual
hookups where others are not. Some might want to wait until marriage for sex where others only want a committed relationship and others still just desire a mutual connection. There is a whole depth I could go in here, but none of these values are right; they are personal values each person must establish for themselves.
The importance lies in helping students discern their values around sex, help them explore how to communicate these values, and how to teach them about the evolution of these values as they experience sex in their own life. If our students do not know their values around sex, they will not be able to communicate them to their partners. Even more so, when our students don’t know their values around sex, they will not be able to have conversations with peers and friends about these values which in turn can dictate how their friends support and assist them throughout their different relationships.
Understanding & Acknowledging the Dangers of Predatory Behavior
With everyone being better trained about sex and consent, this does not prohibit predatory behavior from occurring. No Means No and Don’t Rape touch on the highest level of this behavior but fail to cover a variety of acts that can cause harm or unintentionally cross boundaries. Even as students explore their values around the sex they are engaging in, and how to have healthy conversations on sex, it is vital to educate on the role of dangerous and predatory behavior. These types of education should cover and address what predatory behavior looks like, successful steps for bystander intervention, how to recognize and address problematic mindsets, and also the importance of acknowledging that harm can be caused regardless of someone’s intentions. In covering these topics, we must be clear sexual assault or sexual violence is never acceptable behavior, and we must give students the room to have conversations about how they can individually be a part of a solution in realistically preventing these behaviors.
With regards to this type of training, it is essential also to be prepared to address the impact sexual violence has on survivors of sexual assault.
Providing Support for Survivors
Again, regardless of our educational efforts we must always address and acknowledge that no one ever chooses to be sexually assaulted and regardless of the circumstances, survivors are not at fault. This is key in educating on this topic area to ensure those who may have experienced any more of sexual violence are appropriately supported in their journey and understand that they are not to blame for the behaviors of another who choose to commit an act of sexual violence.
Educating on this topic takes care, compassion, and the proper choice of words and information. There is a delicacy we must always be aware of when breaching this topic as where our intent may be to create education; it is important always to remember the maxim that intent does not equal impact. Whenever you are working on these topics, I always advocate for bringing in the right professionals who are trained on explicitly supporting survivors.
Your campus no doubt has a variety of individuals who are capable of providing the delicate support needed in this situation, make sure to leverage and use their expertise when embarking on these lines of education. Sadly, I understand there is no one size fits all solution to educating on sexual violence prevention nor any one set answer to fixing this issue. If I knew how to end sexual violence once and for all, I would have shared this knowledge already.
Working to end sexual assault is a multi-faceted issue that requires care, intentional programming, deliberate education, and the routine hosting of targeted events.
Please know that you are not alone in your work. Regardless of how you are approaching sexual violence prevention, I would love to assist in the conversation and work to help find a solution that best serves your campus, its unique culture, and the needs of your students and peers.
Also, please know I am eternally in the debt of any individual who has decided to help eradicate sexual violence prevention. As a survivor, this is my life work, and I know I cannot do it alone. Thank you for your support in these areas, I know the emotional toll this work can often take, and your support is appreciated beyond words.