By Dana Fleitman, JWI
People just don’t think about it.
As a society, we are not asked to think critically about sex and consent.
Sure, we’ve heard that “no means no” (unless it’s really a coy yes, of course). And we’d all basically agree that rape is wrong (violent stranger rape, anyways, anything else might be ambiguous). As we grow up, the media and our peers send us the message that sex is the absolute pinnacle of the human experience (especially for men), but our sexuality education focuses on sex as a cause of disease and shame (especially for women). Parents usually don’t say much of anything. We know some people think sex should wait until marriage, other people are for it in just about any circumstance, and rape is bad.
That’s about it. That’s what we got.
Is it any wonder, then, that when young people step onto their college campuses, they have no idea how to navigate sex and consent, or what sexual assault even really is?
I’m the author and a trainer for Safe Smart Dating, an original program addressing sexual assault and dating abuse in Greek life on college campuses. The program is co-ed, peer-led and was created in a unique partnership between JWI, Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) and Sigma Delta Tau (SDT). Through the pilots and the feedback I’ve received, there is no doubt in my mind that college students desperately need (and even want!) guidance, non-judgmental information and structured time to actually talk about sex, consent and relationships.
Most people do not connect their own sexual behaviors to the spectrum of sexual assault. As a society, we tend to think about sexual assault as violent rape of a stranger, maybe somewhere seedy like a back alley, and it’s easy to think “well, I’d never do something like that!” and make our own sexual behaviors seem incredibly distant from something as horrible as rape. It is eye opening when young people learn that – while violent rape and stranger rape do exist – sexual assault is any sexual activity that takes place without the explicit consent of the recipient, and that most sexual assault is perpetrated by an intimate partner and/or someone the victim knows and trusts. Having sex with someone who is passed out or very drunk, refusing to wear a condom, and assuming everything’s fine because no one has yelled “no!” are all forms of sexual assault.
One major focus of the program is shifting the framework from “no means no” to “yes means yes,” guiding students to seek enthusiasm from a partner rather than begrudging consent. Whether it is with one person after marriage or with a different partner every night, sex should be consensual, pleasurable, something both parties feel they had control over and wanted. By the time the question becomes “okay, but was it really sexual assault?” there is already a problem; everyone should be looking for an enthusiastic partner who wants to have sex in the first place.
The student participants tell me that this framework is very different, very new – and very helpful. One girl literally took a picture of a slide showing ways non-consent can look to share, and told me, “It really clicked. The ‘yes means yes.’”
In the post-session surveys, students were asked to write in what they learned that was new. Men’s responses included: “I learned that it is best to explicitly ask for consent. ‘Blurred lines’ are not okay,” “Sexual abuse does not just include rape but any unwanted interaction,” and “I learned how consent is more than just not hearing no.”
Female student responses included: “Not being able to say no doesn’t mean a ‘yes,’ so one has to ask for a positive answer before continuing,” “I learned sexual assault is more than just rape,” and “I learned that sexual assault is not played up in any way, shape, or form. It is real.”
This was new information, learned for the first time through this program.
Safe Smart Dating is a valuable first step and conversation-starter, but so much needs to be done on college campuses to address the structural, cultural and individual contributors to this epidemic as well as create effective systems for reporting, supporting survivors and punishing perpetrators. Today, the Obama Administration took a bold step and launched the Not Alone initiative, a truly groundbreaking project from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault that makes preventing and addressing sexual assault on campuses a national priority.
With the shocking numbers of sexual assaults on college campuses – one in five undergraduate women will experience attempted or completed sexual assault before she graduates – it’s about time.
People just need to start thinking about it. And talking. And acting.
Dana Fleitman is JWI’s manager of prevention and training programs.