Teaching consent

Sexual health educators have been teaching about consensual and non-consensual sexual activity for decades.  Despite gains made by the women’s movement since the late 1960s, sexism is far from eradicated.  Rape culture, although under scrutiny and challenge, is still the norm.  Sexual harassment and assault are as common as dirt.  How can we make a fundamental change in our society through education?

If all genders are not on board with the concept that consensual sexual activity is enjoyable and fulfilling, we will not make any headway.  If boys and men in particular are not included as allies in this struggle, classroom education will remain no more than an exercise.

I created a lesson plan about sexual assault at least 20 years ago which continues to be used by former colleagues.  It is a two part activity.  In the first part, the facilitator reads a series of statements and asks students to agree, disagree or indicate that they are not sure; in the second part, students work in small groups and read through two scenarios, one told from a girl’s point of view where it is clear there was no consent; and the other from the boy’s.  Then they answer questions on the board which are later discussed by the whole group.

One of the statements in the first part, “It is OK to say no at any time” (during sexual activity) provoked a grade 8 boy to insist that once you had initiated sexual activity, you couldn’t stop.  I asked the class why someone might want to stop (fear, pain, flashback, changed their mind etc.), but this kid wasn’t budging.  So I said, “Suppose you’re on top of her and you can see that she is in pain”.  He said, “Turn her face away”.

That is an unusual response from a 12 year old, but indicative of the far end of the consent spectrum; viz., a total lack of empathy and clear exercise of power.

After each group reads their story, I read them both out loud, where it becomes clear that what happened was not consensual.  I remind them that there are medical issues that need to be explored (Emergency Contraception, Sexually Transmitted Infection testing) psychological/emotional issues (the need for counselling since most people blame themselves after an assault) and legal issues.  Because the stories are written in a way that demonstrate a miscommunication based on the popular cultural ideas we explored earlier, exacerbated by alcohol, I suggest that if the police came to this boy’s door and said they were investigating a sexual assault, he would probably say, “Who got raped?”  We end the class by brainstorming how it could have been prevented.

Gray zone

Girls and women are still seen as gatekeepers in heterosexual relationships.  In spite of the current support for affirmative, ongoing consent, it continues to be difficult for a girl/woman to live this new norm.  Societal ambivalence rules: is it really OK for women to want sexual activity and say yes to it?

I remember teaching that to say no, it is important that tone and body language be congruent; i.e., to say no in a way that is clear and unequivocal.  But no to what?  No means no to a particular sexual activity at a particular moment in time.

People are complicated and so are their desires – they can change during the course of any sexual encounter.

In a more sophisticated discussion with older students, this can be illustrated with a continuum: from enthusiastic mutual consent to playful seduction; to giving in; to coercion; and to forced sexual contact.

People may move back and forth along the continuum from mutual consent to playful seduction during a single or multiple encounters.  One may not initially want to engage in a particular sexual activity, but could become interested.  There is a difference between talking someone into it and turning them on.

There is also a difference between hearing no and ignoring it.  We are familiar with the power dynamic and the culture that facilitates this crime.

For boys/men, saying no to sexual activity with girls/women may be difficult for other reasons.  Society tells them never to refuse what is handed to them on a silver platter.  Women who sexually assault men are more likely to use shame and coercion than force for obvious reasons.

Same gender assault involves many of these same dynamics.

Politics and pedagogy

We want affirmative, ongoing consent to become the norm.

We detest rape culture and want it eradicated.  We are appalled when images and videos of assaults are posted as entertainment.  Good pedagogy includes teaching empathy for survivors in order to eliminate this ghoulish feasting on others’ misery.

While it is useful to explore the underlying ideas that lead to assumptions, miscommunication and/or predation – a simple unpacking may be preferable to political rhetoric.

In their fervour to drive home the harmful outcomes of rape culture, some educators are using materials that are more likely to alienate the boys and young men in the classroom than to enlist them as allies.  We want them to accept the premise that there is an advantage to mutuality in relationships.  I read recently that consent culture is a resistance movement to rape culture.  It is a lot to ask for young men to see themselves as freedom fighters against rape culture and sexual assault.

I think Wiseguyz is on the right track in the way they address young men directly.  There are also some excellent public campaigns like the one from Norway “Dear Daddy” and New Zealand’s “Who are You?” that bring home these messages in a simple, clear and direct manner that appeal to the positives.

Because good lessons on consent and sexual assault are so hard to come by, well thought out print materials can play a role.  I would love to see a good pamphlet which includes the language of consent and refusal as a guide for young people to take home.

There is work to be done.

 

Advertisements

Detoxifying society

If people are still reading these blogs in say, ten years, I hope they will have to look up the meaning for FHRITP and “hate fuck”.

The FHRITP acronym has been used to publicly humiliate female journalists during live TV spots.  “Who would you like to hate fuck” was one of the posts of the Dalhousie dentistry students’ “Gentlemen’s Club” Facebook page.  These examples of hateful male bonding seem to be the topic of the week.

The Dalhousie students were sent to a restorative justice program rather than being summarily expelled. On the same day that I read the report, detailing the comprehensive process of rehabilitating the male dentistry students (http://www.dal.ca/content/dam/dalhousie/pdf/cultureofrespect/RJ2015-Report.pdf) I listened to a CBC interview on the sexualized atmosphere in the military and the way different countries were addressing it (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-22-2015-1.3083305/seeking-worldwide-lessons-on-reforming-military-sexual-misconduct-1.3083331).  The CBC interview focussed on finding the best mechanism for pursuing complaints of harassment and sexual assault of women, men and LGBT people in the military.  But when asked about prevention, one participant said that just being able to check “inclusion” off a list was inadequate; there needed to be enforcement.

Quite right.  But I generally associate prevention with education.  The word was not mentioned in either the interview on the military or in the Dalhousie report, although the Dalhousie report does describe “the way forward”:

“…addressing climate and culture is about doing the things we do differently, not just doing different things.”  They expect that “…the ways forward on culture and climate issues within the Faculty… will also be informed and shaped by the recommendations of the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia … at the end of June 2015.”  I hope they are right.  Because part of a good university education is the preparation of young adults to take their place in society.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that is toxic – and unsafe – for women and LGBT people.

Inclusion and respect seem to exist only on paper.  The expression of deep hatred towards the “other” is based in the distortion of human sexuality where we commodify sex and objectify people.  I addressed some of these issues in an online magazine article on how this affects girls (http://www.cwhn.ca/en/networkmagazine/hypersexualization).  Their self-objectification starts young, when they are encouraged by societal norms, reinforced by media, to buy into their objectification and the accompanying loss of power.

When we see strong women break down because their hard earned power has been attacked, it is both shocking and distressing.  In the wake of the recent FHRITP incident, CBC women reporters assailed their harassers in a video where they related their personal stories of dealing with sexism (https://www.facebook.com/thenational/videos/10152868931477686/?pnref=story).  One reporter asks why no one steps forward.  In a recent TV interview, a female comedian also asks: why does no one step forward when we are sexually harassed on stage?

The answer is that critical mass has not yet been reached.

Addressing society’s negatives, like racism, misogyny and homophobia begins in the home.  Media literacy can take place in front of any screen, unpacking the prancing women of Victoria’s Secrets’ lingerie ads, the overt misogyny of music videos and the every-day cultural normalization and trivialization of violence against women.  Before girls become imprisoned as objects in their own minds, this work needs to continue in the schools.  For example, the 2015 revised Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum addresses stereotypes, harassment and consent at multiple grade levels.  With good teacher training and comprehensive lesson plans, perhaps we can, at last, have some positive expectations for their – and our – future.

What I hope will emerge is a generation of young people who respect one another, who have no desire to discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, who are empathetic and brave.  They will stand up to the Neanderthals who have not yet absorbed the basic values of equality and respect.  This is the generation of young people who will turn rape culture on its ass and kick it to the door.

Sexual assault – Seeking a sea change – January 29, 2013

At the end of 2012, when a 23-year-old woman in India was viciously attacked and later died of her injuries, it touched off a movement which will hopefully have a profound effect on their culture. Not surprisingly, there is no such movement in the Congo where rape continues to be used against both men and women as a weapon of war. During the last American presidential election, the absurd and enraging remarks about rape and pregnancy got a lot of press as well as more activity from women’s organizations in a long time. In a Toronto neighbourhood last summer, people came together after a series of sexual assaults, resulting in well-attended and well-publicized demonstrations.

And yet, despite decades of feminism and talk of “rape culture” we do not seem to have affected a fundamental shift in thinking in Canada.

Working in middle school and high school classrooms for three decades, I dedicated considerable time to issues of gender equality, including developing an education module on sexual assault specifically in a dating situation.

Years ago, I was in a class of Grade 8 students, 13-year-olds. We were working through the first part of an exercise on sexual assault. I was asking them to respond to a list of statements. It was interesting that they often gave the thumbs up to what they thought was the “correct” answer. For example, “no always means no” almost universally got a yes. Then, I would explore why some girls and women may say no at first, but then seem to accept the advance. They understood that some girls and women don’t like to be considered “easy”; that they worry about their reputations. They also understood that the tone of voice or body language could lend their “no” a certain ambiguity, resulting in miscommunication, especially if alcohol was involved.

Next statement: “a person never loses the right to say no.” One boy stood alone in his refusal to accept that notion. I asked the class under what circumstances someone might want to stop the action and the student responses included: experiencing pain if it was the first time, a change of mind, worries about STIs, etc. But this one male student steadfastly insisted that once you started you had to finish. I said, “what if you’re with a girl, you’re on top and you see that she’s in pain?”

“Turn her face away,” he said.

I later found out from his teacher that he had trouble with female authority figures, which made sense in terms of his misogyny and lack of empathy; but it also made me fearful about his potential future behaviour.

It is an understatement to say that parents are raising children in a culture steeped in contradictory images of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. What’s a parent to do?

One day when my children were young, I heard my young son and daughter fooling around in the living room. My daughter sounded unhappy about what was going on. I peeped in. My son had pinned her down and she was struggling to get up. I said to my daughter, “say, ‘get off me’ like you mean it”; and to my son, “and then you have to listen.”

Of course, using this kind of teachable moment can only happen in a context with all other things being equal. Statistically, a child who has been sexually abused is more likely to be sexually assaulted, especially in the absence of good therapy. The egregious ongoing assaults and murders of Aboriginal women are in a category by themselves based in the profoundly racist history of our relationship with First Nations people.

We live in a society that deems us responsible for our choices in health, including sexual health, without taking into consideration the factors over which we have no control, like abuse, poverty and racism. Yet, the potential for dealing with sexism remains the purview of the parent through education. What is taught—or not taught—in the home can have a profound effect on children’s ability to work through the issues despite the media barrage of sexist images, including pervasive violent sexual images.

After the 23-year-old Indian woman died of her injuries recently, men in India laid their bodies down in the street and called for a fundamental shift in culture. Our White Ribbon Campaign has made some significant inroads; and yet, the scourge of sexual assault remains statistically high. In 2011 more than 21,800 sexual assaults were reported in Canada. We know this represents only one in ten of the actual assaults, which are most commonly committed by someone we know.

Of the many challenges facing our quest for equality, this one runs deep.

Murder by misogyny? June 25, 2014

mi∙sog∙y∙ny  noun.  1. a hatred of women (Merriam-Webster).

Laci Green, self-described sex-ed activist, uses the phrase “misogyny as murder” in her YouTube rant about the May 2014 murder of six people and wounding of 13 others by Elliott Rodger in California. People seeking out the definitive answer to “how could this have happened” fall all along the blame continuum that runs from blaming his family life and early mental health issues, to the medications that he was prescribed, to his blatant hatred of women, and to easy access to guns and ammunition. The latter is of course refuted by the gun lobbyists who continue to assert that guns don’t kill, people do—citing their right to bear arms. Interestingly, in their effort to deflect attention from Rodger’s modus operandi, some gun lobbyists have put all the blame on prescription medication.

Rodger’s particular form of male entitlement—expecting the world to work entirely in his favour—is exemplified by his hate-filled video in which he blamed women for his persistent state of virginity. Yet despite this evidence, we will never really know the reason why he carried out this heinous crime. Despite all the “ink spilled” over his and similar crimes, it is time for a more nuanced discussion that does not attribute blame to a single issue, although misogyny continues to figure large in this picture. It is also time to start putting together a prevention package.

Zoe Mintz’s article in the International Business Times is not, in my opinion, part of that package. She states, “In the field of ‘threat assessment’, which is dedicated to studying school shootings and other school-based attacks, notable outcroppings in personal histories is known as ‘leakage.’ An individual may indicate his distress long before the crime is committed…Elliot Rodger created YouTube videos and a 140-page manifesto that shed light on his mind-set before the killings.”  She never once mentions misogyny, aside from this oblique reference to Rodger’s “mind-set.”

On the other hand, Anne Theriault’s response to male entitlement in her May 31st Belle Jar blog explores the negative feelings she experienced about her own late entry into partnered sex:

“And you know what? Literally at no time ever did I think, gee, I should go on a killing spree.

I never felt entitled to men’s bodies just because I wanted them.

I never blamed all men everywhere for my inability to get it on.

Never. Not once.”

I agree with Laci Green and Anne Theriault. We need to begin building our prevention package by addressing male sexual entitlement. Readers of this blog may be tired of hearing it, but healthy sexuality education begins at home. This is where societal mores begin, and where they begin to change. From infancy, relaxing and blurring rigid gender roles, expectations and responsibilities promotes much more than the achievement of a child’s full potential; it is an integral part of crime prevention.

Boys need to learn about girls’ essential humanity to develop into empathic individuals. Girls need to learn how to have agency in their lives. Young people need to fully comprehend the horror of denying and violating that agency.

I was profoundly shocked to read more than one story these past few years about sexual assaults of young women that had been filmed and posted on the Internet. Why did they not empathize with the victim/survivor? Perhaps because rape culture promotes sexual violence as entertainment. Reasoning that it was crucial to teach students the potential reactions and harms suffered by someone who is sexually assaulted, I included a list of these after-effects in sexual health education materials intended for the use of educators across the country. I only hope that they accept the challenge of this particular call to arms.

Few would dispute that a sense of male entitlement and rage has fuelled sexual assault, physical assault and murder. Rape culture starts with the objectification of women, promoting both the notion of the right to unlimited access to women’s bodies and its subsequent violent expression. This twisted ideology will flourish as long as we continue to ignore its impact; namely, distrust and fear, and ultimately, criminal acts. Interestingly, those very social media platforms that allow the promotion of rape culture have found their match on Twitter (See #YesAllWomen).

The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict extends this analysis to a broader context: the use of women (and men) as pawns of war. The “othering” of one’s enemies was raised decades ago in Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will (1975). It is much easier to hurt, and kill, what has been objectified. The recent kidnapping of Nigerian girls and young women may very well result in sexual abuse, as Boko Haram has threatened to sell them in “marriage.”

The theme of women as property is echoed in the rallying cry of men who kill their partners, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” I have often quoted Maya Angelou to students over the years:

“Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”

Elliott Rodger was steeped in misogyny, blaming and hating women for not wanting to be with him. Aside from his legal access to firearms and ammunition, as mentioned above, the question has also been raised about his use of anti-depressant medication. Because psychotropic medications alter brain chemistry, an overdosing of—or a rapid withdrawal—from a number of medications in this class can lead to behaviour that is out of character for the person taking them. This may include erratic or even homicidal behaviours. Although the latter may be rare, for the many people who take these medications and feel they are being helped by them, it is often hard to believe in or make that connection.

Consider the following conclusion to the online article published in PLoS Medicine, “Antidepressants and Violence: Problems at the Interface of Medicine and Law”:

“The association of antidepressant treatment with aggression and violence reported here calls for more clinical trial and epidemiological data to be made available and for good clinical descriptions of the adverse outcomes of treatment. Legal systems are likely to continue to be faced with cases of violence associated with the use of psychotropic drugs, and it may fall to the courts to demand access to currently unavailable data. The problem is international and calls for an international response.”

Which brings me back to that other prescription, the one for prevention. We need:

  • improved education for health care providers about psychotropic medications, and better monitoring of their patients;
  • sexual health education that promotes equity in all its forms;
  • campaigns targeting male entitlement that engage men as allies (#AllMenCan);
  • comprehensive gun control on both sides of the border.

Rx: #NotOneMore.

Additional Resource:

Robert Whitaker on Psychiatric Drugs, The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio