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Teach Consent! (But What Good Is Teaching Consent?)

April 1, 2013

There’s a petition to the White House to require that consent be taught in public school sex education. Sometimes a petition can ask for something sensible but mess it up by including problematic wording; I include the full language here:

Make Consent a Mandatory Part of Sex-Ed in Public Schools.
There seems to be a huge misunderstanding concerning what consent is when it comes to sex. And yet — when discussed with teenagers — the idea that “unless someone says ‘yes’, it’s not consent,” is easily accepted. It’s not a hard conversation: Unless you get a “Yes,” assume “No.” Uncomfortable, maybe, but difficult? Hardly.

Please make the line between a clear “Yes” and anything else — whether it be someone drunk, asleep, or otherwise unable to say “No” — something schools must cover in health or sex ed.

If STI information and methods of contraception are standard fare, consent should be, too.

That’s it. For most regular readers of this blog, there’s nothing to dislike about that. But one might ask, what good would it do? That’s a serious question, and it deserves a serious answer.

Here’s the root of the question: are rapists confused about consent, or do they know what they are doing is rape? Well, my view based on the research is that they know they are raping, at least the vast majority of them. Some of the most widely referenced and linked posts in this blog’s history are on just this subject. Some of those review the research of Dr. David Lisak and others about who the rapists are and how they operate, which I refer to as Predator Theory:
Meet The Predators

Predator Redux

Predators Again: NPR Cites Lisak

And one post discussing communication analysis and its implications for claims that rapists just misunderstand:

Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer

Long story short, there is a percentage of the population who are rapists because they like to rape, they are very bad people and they are not making mistakes. They plan to rape, they plan to rape is ways that won’t get them punished, so they rape victims who have the least ability to do anything about it and use tactics, like intoxication instead of violence, that make it tough to prosecute or even get people to see what happened as rape.

So we’re having this national moment after Steubenville, and I’ve already said that this wasn’t some confused and horny guy, but rather a decision that it would be awesome to subject the drunk girl to a series of sexualized humiliations.

Recently, the amazing Zerlina Maxwell went on Sean Hannity’s show and said that we should tell men not to rape, and what she got for trying to have a serious conversation was a series of racist and misogynist threats and mockery. But because Zerlina Maxwell is amazing, she reacted by completing the thought that the right wing tried to shut down, writing for Ebony.  I’d prefer folks read it there, but short version of her five ways is as follows:

1. Teach young men about legal consent

2. Teach young men to see women’s humanity, instead of seeing them as sexual objects for male pleasure

3. Teach young men how to express healthy masculinity

 4. Teach young men to believe women and girls who come forward
5. Teach males about bystander intervention
I’m going to go ahead and say I agree with all of that.  And I think that of everything she says, none of it is really all that dependent on the idea that we can change the hardcore rapist to a nonrapist.
Two Reasons
Even if you believe, as I do, that the predators are not confused and can’t be educated, there are two good reasons to believe that consent education can make the climate better.  First, because there are rapists who are not that small percentage of predators.  Second, the predators absolutely depend on what I call the Social License to Operate, the climate that explains away or excuses what they do in certain circumstances, calls it not rape, calls it the survivor’s fault, minimizes it and lets him get away with it.  Without that, the rapists can’t do it over and over because they’d get caught, excluded from their social circles, disciplined by commanding officers or expelled from campus, and they’d either have to stop or end up in prison.
First, the one-timers.  Lisak’s research and McWhorter’s complimentary research both found that there was a population of guys who admitted to acts that met the definition of rape, but only one time.  These guys were not the predators who had an average of six victims.  Now, the math gets complicated because of the difference between rape and rapists and because some survivors are raped more than once in a lifetime; basically, the predators are responsible for a lot of the rapes, Lisak believes the overwhelming majority of them and I think that’s probably right, but the known figures leave room for the interpretation that a significant amount of rapes are committed by these other guys.  And Lisak  and McWhorter don’t deal with rapes other than male-on-female at all, really, and just because we don’t have much data on those doesn’t mean they don’t exist, so there necessarily are dynamics other than the predator dynamic that this research has shed so much light on.
I’m not exactly overflowing with sympathy for guys who rape “just” once.  Some other people are, and some people in my view want to magnify the significance of this dynamic, essentially for the purpose of making excuses for rapists.  Some of that’s inside baseball between those of us who write about this stuff a lot, but I’m saying it.  So is there a population of guys who are some mixture of entitled and confused, but might not commit rape with more education?  Um, maybe?  Actually, I think probably so, but how big it is remains very unclear.  And if those guys can be gotten not to rape, well, fewer rapes is maybe one of the world’s few unalloyed good outcomes.
And it doesn’t matter, because even if educating people about consent doesn’t convince a single rapist not to rape, there is still reason to believe that it will produce an outcome with less rape, by stripping away the social license to operate.
The Social License to Operate is the set of beliefs that make rape seem like a continuation or extension of normal sexuality, instead of an aberration and personal violation.  By normalizing rapists and rape, by blurring the lines between rape and sex, we create a culture where instead of responding to the crime like we should, there’s always room to argue for and or excuse or mitigate the rape and the rapist.
No matter what a rape survivor did, there is a set of pre-existing attacks on the survivor and excuses for the rapist.  (These are mostly in the form of sexist tropes because the kind of rape that gets talked about, and the kind that is most common, is when men rape women.  That’s not all rape.  When women rape or when people who are not binary gendered are raped or when the victims are boys or men, the most common response it that it is never talked about at all.)  These tropes operate to give the wily predators cover and let them weasel out of accountability for what they did.  So in the case of Steubenville and now of Torrington, the survivors have been bombarded with threats — some by girls!  Much of it takes the form of people assuring us that they don’t blame the victim for getting raped BUT … and the part that follows BUT is the important part, because what these people really want to do it to explain what the survivor did wrong and take the focus off of the criminal act of the rapist.
This we can change. 
In Steubenville, many of the witnesses saw the rape while it was happening and did nothing to stop it, didn’t even say anything, because … I’m not going to dignify this bullshit by saying that they didn’t know it was wrong.  But they didn’t know it was a crime, they hadn’t been armed with the language to say something, and they didn’t have any reason to believe that anyone would support them against the stars of the football team. 
This we can change.
People didn’t believe her.  People called her a slut and a liar.  People always do that.  We know that most alcohol-facilitated rapes are planned, that predators specifically use alcohol to facilitate rapes because it is hard to prosecute, and yet we excuse the rapists in a way we’d never excuse con artists that similarly prey on people’s vulnerabilities.
This we can change.
People joke about rape and talk about rape like it is inevitable, like it’s a weather system, like male sexuality is beyond human control.  That’s a view that normalizes rape.  If it’s beyond control, there’s nothing to be done about it except get out of the way.  That’s wrong, wrong in fact and wrong morally.
This we can change.
Look again at Maxwell’s Five Ways.  Legal consent, humanity of the victim, healthy masculinity, believe the survivors, bystander intervention.  Those sound to me like ways to revoke the social license to operate, direct attacks on pillars of a belief system that allows rapists and rape to seem sort of normal.
Teaching about consent isn’t going to convert the predators.  But it looks to me like it can do a lot of good, and it sure won’t do any harm.  That’s why I signed the petition.
49 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2013 1:30 pm

    Signed as well. I definitely agree that even if we do not convince one single rapist out there to not rape that such education can go a long way to educate those people who might otherwise just “stand bye” and as such empower people to intervene and prevent rape from happening.

    “So is there a population of guys who are some mixture of entitled and confused, but might not commit rape with more education? Um, maybe? Actually, I think probably so, but how big it is remains very unclear. And if those guys can be gotten not to rape, well, fewer rapes is maybe one of the world’s few unalloyed good outcomes.”

    I agree here as well. And of course, I also have no sympathy for someone who cannot be bothered to know what is consent and what isn’t. Just because you didn’t start the night planning on raping someone doesn’t mean that you won’t end the night doing so. And if you can’t be bothered to have the common decency to consider that your sexual needs shouldn’t trump someone else’s body autonomy, then you are still a scumbag. Just not a premeditated scumbag. So I don’t have too much hope that such people can be reached. But they may be able to be reached, and if it prevents 1 person from violating another, good.

  2. April 1, 2013 3:24 pm

    And by teaching males, we can teach females as well–because, as you pointed out, often other girls in the group flock to the defense of the rapist.

    In other conversations about rape, there will be comments by women talking about the lack of wisdom of the victim–dressing like that, being there, drinking. Even when it’s pointed out to them that a) sometimes women have no choice as to when they are where (hello, minimum wage jobs), b) that quite a lot of rapes are not stranger attacks, never mind that in those cases it doesn’t matter what the victim does or does not, and that c) blaming the victim is not just not helpful and wrong, but terribly damaging.

    That is the culture that must change. When mothers and sisters and daughters hold men in their lives accountable for rape mentality, when we stop excusing sexist chatter as “boys will be boys”, rape rates will go down–because there will be consequences every time and not only when victims are brave enough to face the shitstorm of humiliation, dehumanization and threats of violence that are the inevitable result of coming forward.

  3. April 1, 2013 8:42 pm

    I would like to suggest another reason why it is good idea to teach consent, so that the survivors can name their experiences and seek healing from it.

    Many survivors take years at the moment to understand their experiences where violations, and with that to understand that they aren’t over reacting, or crazy or whatever else maybe with a discussion of consent in sex education they wouldn’t take years.

    • May 1, 2013 11:31 am

      It took me three years to understand that my ex-fiance had raped me. I went through so much psychological trauma that could have been avoided if I’d been educated about consent.

  4. Purposefully Scarred permalink
    April 2, 2013 9:03 am

    Reblogged this on Hope for Survivors of Abuse.

  5. April 2, 2013 10:27 pm

    Reblogged this on Reality Enthusiast.

  6. April 6, 2013 1:46 pm

    I hope the petition gets more posts, otherwise there is no hope of reaching 100K signatures by April 20 – still needs 68K

  7. Tomek Kulesza permalink
    April 7, 2013 2:28 pm

    Thomas, did you analyze any other research beside the Lisak study? I am asking because i don’t remember that, and Lisak study was procured in rather specific environment, and it might mean there are other types of rapists elsewhere.

    Also, wouldn’t “rapists that are confused about consent”, to quote you, fly under the radar in Lisak study (since they wouldn’t admit to forcing people to have sexual activity against their will, which iirc was the base for Lisak choosing them to study)?

    It seems that it is your conclusion is going too far, i think this conclusion can’t be drawn from Lisak study alone. And ftr, that’s because i don’t remember all your posts – which i read – so it is simpler to ask you this question, since you likely remember it better 🙂

  8. April 9, 2013 4:46 pm

    Thomas, teaching consent in the gender-specific way that you and Maxwell can actually do a lot of harm.

    For one, it ignores male survivors and female rapists. While I understand that your position as a feminist is that sexual violence is something only males can do to only females, the reality is to the contrary. Many men and boys are raped, most often by women (see the CDC’s recent study). If you only teaches boys about respecting consent, you will never address male-on-male or any female-perpetrated sexual violence.

    Secondly, our culture assumes that male consent is a given. No one has to ask for it because all males want sex all the time. As a male victim advocate and a male survivor, the most common thing I hear from males sexually abused by females is that the women never even thought they were committing rape because they assumed the males wanted it. By gendering the teaching, you will miss addressing that.

    You cannot really teach consent if you only teach it to one group of people. Every one must be taught to respect and ask for other people’s consent. Otherwise, you will recreate a dynamic that actually allows for and excuses sexual violence, in this case sexual violence committed by females, particularly against males.

    • AMM permalink
      April 10, 2013 9:50 am

      If you see female-on-male rape as a problem that is not being adequately addressed by those dealing with male-on-female rape, why don’t _you_ do something constructive about it? Find others who are already working to fight f-on-m rape and add your efforts?

      Just coming here and telling people who are fighting m-on-f rape — especially women, who are the ones threatened by m-on-f rape and who are AFAIK doing most of the work to fight it — to stop what they are doing and focus on your concern instead is simply derailing.

      Note that the overwhelming majority of people who jump in and ask why (supposedly) nobody cares about male victims of rape aren’t themselves doing squat for male victims. This leads us to assume that their real agenda is to disrupt efforts on behalf of female victims. So far, you have not differentiated yourself from them.

      • April 11, 2013 10:48 am

        AMM, I am involved in advocacy for male survivors here in the Midwest, and I have spoken publicly about my personal experiences. I mentioned that in my above comment, so I am unsure why you assume I do nothing.

        My point, however, is that if one wants to stop all sexual violence, one must address all types of sexual violence. Ignoring one group’s violence and another’s victimization hinders that effort.

    • April 11, 2013 7:24 am

      You’ve mischaracterized my position. I have at least one post about an adult male survivor. Also, I have a post about my own difficulties with cultural tropes about male sexuality. Look, you make some valid points, but I think you personally are a tiresome asshole. If you ascribe again to me a position held not by me but by the strawfeminist in your head, I will ban you.

      • April 11, 2013 11:10 am

        Thomas, I do not care about your personal opinion of me. My concern is for other male survivors and making sure that they do not go through the things that I and other male survivors my age experienced when seeking help. If you are uninterested in discussing male victimization, that is most unfortunate. However, I think that will hinder your efforts to prevent sexual violence.

        As for ascribing to you a position you do not hold, I can only base my opinion on what I see, and unfortunately there is a general lack of any mention of male victimization and female perpetrators on your site. If I have your position wrong, I do apologize. However, would you clarify what your position is?

        You say that I made some valid points. I am curious as to what you think those are given how much we appear to disagree on this issue.

      • April 11, 2013 1:52 pm

        I woke up with my fangs on this morning for reasons that have nothing to do with you. I apologize.

        Don’t confuse me with someone who thinks it’s funny or okay when teachers rape their students. It’s not okay, it’s rape, regardless of the sex of the survivor. When a guy sued the NYPD for raping him, I wrote “This Man Was Raped” complaining about the media’s refusal to call it rape, because it’s rape. I don’t tell or tolerate prison rape jokes because it’s rape, and those jokes are just as much a part of rape culture as any other rape joke. I’m against rape. I don’t think that women who molest boys are somehow less culpable — male abusers, too, are often survivors themselves, and it’s not okay for them to visit on others the harm done to them. I cringe when I hear Li’l Wayne talk about being raped at 11 years old; however he defines it now, what was done to him was wrong and criminal and it’s hard to listen to.

        If you’re saying I don’t say enough about male survivors … I agree. I often respond to news, and those stories rarely get covered, which is part of the problem. And in part, the dynamics of how rape culture enables predators who prey on boys, whether it’s Sandusky or Letouneau, are very different, and instead of addressing that directly I’ve more often written about the more common dynamics.

        But I have not entirely ignored masculinity and the aspects that lead to abuse of men and boys entirely. I reprinted a male survivor’sstory, I covered Mineo, I wrote about the assumption that men always want sex, and, in one of the posts that I think nobody read, I used motorsports history to examine when toxic masculinity literally becomes a death cult.

        I don’t feel like I have as good a feel for how issues of rape culture play out for men and boys who are survivors, and I under-cover it. I’ve had posts in my head about the long list of female teachers who molest male students, and about the similarities between Steubenville and Mepham, and I should probably write those instead of just thinking I’ll get to it some day.

      • April 12, 2013 10:32 pm

        >>As for ascribing to you a position you do not hold, I can only base my opinion on what I see, and unfortunately there is a general lack of any mention of male victimization and female perpetrators on your site.<<

        There are two mentions in the very article you're commenting on; most explicitly:

        "These are mostly in the form of sexist tropes because the kind of rape that gets talked about, and the kind that is most common, is when men rape women.  That’s not all rape.  When women rape or when people who are not binary gendered are raped or when the victims are boys or men, the most common response it that it is never talked about at all."

        If you're going to criticize someone for not mentioning something, don't do it in a comment to an article where they mention it. It makes you look silly.

    • Beryl permalink
      April 23, 2013 6:37 pm

      Why are males here on this girl blog. Am I wrong in understanding that this is a girl blog? If a female came into a male site, all chaos would break loose. Males, please allow females to have something without you all bursting into it. Correct me if I am wrong, and if I am, I apologize.

      • April 24, 2013 6:53 am

        It would be an awfully strange rule that only women could comment on a blog post by a man, on a blog where a man is the most prolific contributor.

    • donna permalink
      April 28, 2013 2:02 am

      Oh do shut your trap about women raping men. And i’m sure this will get me banned, or even not posted, but when you walk down the street afraid to walk by a group of girls or women in constant fear of being sexually harassed or touched, so much so that you cross the street, and when you are literally afraid to go on a date with a woman in her car, for fear of being raped ( not mugged, but raped), you can compare. Til then shut the hell up. F on M rape may happen, and it sounds like you only refer to statutory (you have no clue, you total moron, how lucky you are to be concerned with that only) You are a big bag of shit to bring that up as if it is a comparison to the constant raping men do to their friends, dates, and wives, often every night of our lives. Shut your stupid mouth and go die.

  9. Tomek Kulesza permalink
    April 12, 2013 1:53 pm

    Is there a reason my comment is still in moderation?

    I sort of got the answer, since in the comments section of your post about Alyssa article on GMP and subsequent arguments people posted almost exactly the same questions, you answered, so, well 🙂

    • April 12, 2013 9:01 pm

      McWhorter’s research replicates the results from a completely different sample.

  10. Realsmlover permalink
    April 13, 2013 11:07 am

    I would like to see a sex and gender neutral education. Rape is rape, whether it be man or woman as perpetrator or victim. I am tired of the strange reactions I get when I inform people I was molested as a 5yr old boy by 3 fifth grade girls.

    If you think the amount of female rape that goes unreported is staggering, just imagine how much male rape goes unreported for the same reasons and then some.

    • Beryl permalink
      April 23, 2013 6:42 pm

      Most times when a males gets raped, it is by another bigger male. I am sure that females bother vulnerable males, but how common is this? There is a small movement by some men’s groups and silly copy catty women, who feel they need to include women, when ever we scold men about their sins. Why is this?

      • April 24, 2013 6:56 am

        True for adult victims. For child molestation, the old assumption that all or nearly all molesters are men has not held up particularly well, and I think we need to reckon with the cultural reality that there are men out there who as boys were molested by women. Asshole male supremecists argue essentially that this means we shouldn’t try to reduce rape and abuse. That’s ridiculous. We need to try to reduce rape and abuse wherever it occurs and to whomever.

      • April 24, 2013 11:49 am

        Most times when a males gets raped, it is by another bigger male.

        Most times we hear about it, yes, but definitely not necessarily the reality of it. Just as I’m sure there are plenty of girls who have been sexually molested/raped by older girls/adult women, but who would not report it, for many reasons.

      • Tamen permalink
        April 24, 2013 12:47 pm

        79.2% of men who report they were “made to, or there was an attempt to make them, sexually penetrate someone without the victim’s consent because the victim was physically forced (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threatened with physical harm, or when the victim was drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” reports a single female perpetrator.

        Source: NISVS 2010 (page 17 for definition and page 24 for the 79.2% number)

      • realmslover permalink
        April 24, 2013 10:44 pm

        The reason, shown time and again when the evidence is available, is that people are the problem. No matter their race, sex, gender, religious disposition, income bracket, education, or any other social denominator. No matter what the transgression may be, people… are the problem.

  11. April 28, 2013 2:22 pm

    Let’s try to go beyond “there is a percentage of the population who are rapists because they like to rape, they are very bad people and they are not making mistakes”- and make an even stronger point for consent education.

    Now, I’m starting off from the premise that no one (apart from maybe a really really tiny percent of psychopats) is -so to say- born evil. I’m also assuming that (again, apart from maybe very few psychopats) people don’t usually want to see themselves as evil- so they are much more likely to do bad things if they are able to build up some sort of mental justification for it (which is different from the idea that the mere knowledge that something is bad will stop them from doing it). So how do rapists become rapists? I understand that your research seems to show that “the vast majority of rapists know that they are raping”; how do they learn that it’s acceptable, though?

    What I mean: OK; so a young man grows up in a culture that tells you that tells him constantly that women to drunk to consent are fair game; that a short skirt is “asking for it” , that by being a slut /anything but a virginal pure damsel covered from head to toe a woman gave away her right to consent etc. etc. Then, at some point, maybe even into adulthood, he finds out that sex with anyone who does not explicitly consent, even if she’s drunk, even if she wears a short skrt etc. is actually rape. He understands intelectually, but he doesn’t like the answer. So he may rape- despite not being mentally confused about consent. From his point of view it makes sense: the culture he grew up in gave him the justifications.

    Now imagine the same young men growing up in a culture that emphasises healthy and enthusiastic consent, with no slut-shaming and with ingrained respect for human beings’ bodily autonomy. Then, at some point, he encounters sexism- along with the idea that women to drunk to consent are fair game; that a short skirt is “asking for it”; I think in this second example the exact same man would be less likely to say “yeah, that sounds like a good idea, I’ll start raping women if they’re drunk or sluts” than the man in the first example is. It doesn’t come down as much to the pure intellectual knowledge of “this is consent and this is rape”, but to how we are formed to think ethicallly and what our brain/ moral beliefs will let us or not let us get away with.

    • Andy permalink
      May 14, 2013 6:54 pm

      I beleive we’ve already accomplished a society that believes rape is a horrible act. What we need is to get rid of the myth that men are born with uncontrolable rapist instincts. Male artists have been using nude models for centuries, and yet modern day people believe that men cannot even handle the sight of a provocatively dress girl, without being sexually aroused to such an extreme, that his penis takes control of his entire body.

      • donna permalink
        May 23, 2013 9:33 pm

        Agreed. So we should immediately switch to co-ed public bathrooms, showers, etc. Seriously. Raise the bar for what we expect.

    • May 21, 2013 10:33 am

      If every sex act that occurs without “explicit” consent is rape, then almost every man alive is a rapist. It’s not hard to imagine why there might be resistance to that message.

      Non-verbal communication is usually pretty clear. Two people will start with kissing and then feel things out from there. I’m of the opinion that you should always ask before you stick anything inside another person, but asking verbally for every single escalating touch is probably a bit much. That would require a couple to stop every few seconds to verbally confirm consent to continue.

  12. May 21, 2013 10:27 am

    What does “teaching about consent” mean, exactly? Consent is a complicated and contentious issue. Literally speaking, the word ‘consent’ means to willingly accept and/or allow the conduct of another person. Does consent always have to be verbalized? Because if it does, then approximately 100% of the population is guilty of sexual assault.

    If a man and a woman are making out, and things are escalating, and that man’s hand wanders to the woman’s buttocks, what should happen. Let’s say the woman is uncomfortable with the man touching her buttocks. The man feels the woman tense as his hands begins to contact her buttocks, he pulls back and apologizes. She says it’s okay and the two of them resume kissing with the understanding that it will progress no further. Does that man deserve to be labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life?

    This issue is so ideologically charged that I fear all perspective is being lost.

    • donna permalink
      May 23, 2013 9:31 pm

      Why not convict him, in that case? All he has to do is say “Is this ok?” It’s not that hard. You speak as if we’re contriving this rule in a vacuum, rather than in a world where rape is rampant, if not the norm. Pro-active rules and laws are needed.

  13. Anne permalink
    August 9, 2013 2:14 am

    What never ceases to puzzle me, and I’m not American, is how many, many women adore violent players, pathological alpha-males and sociopaths. They seem to worship this type of men. The whole American culture appears to revolve around them. I mean, that’s practically teaching boys and men to behave that way.

    • donna permalink
      August 9, 2013 10:50 am

      American culture revolves around the idea that sex is a bad thing, something to be ashamed of, which is way rape is a crime of power, rather than of sex, per se. As far as women liking violent males, amoral males, males with no consciences, etc – -there is no other kind. That’s what we have to choose from.

      • August 9, 2013 2:02 pm

        I have no tolerance for essentialism. If all men are “violent … amoral” then it would be impossible to expect them to not rape. But that’s just plain false. We know from the research that all men do not rape. In fact, men are moral actors, responsible for their behavior. If you think that all men are rapists, then you and I have nothing further to say to each other.

  14. donna permalink
    August 9, 2013 5:11 pm

    I was responding to Anne’s comment, dear. No one was talking to you, so no need to worry your pretty little head about having anything further to say to each other.


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