‘Is it okay to bring younger girls alcohol and have them back to my place?” a male student recently asked educator Blake Spence, during a workshop he was leading for the Calgary Sexual Health Centre. And when Caiti Barendregt-Brown, another sex educator in London, Ont., finishes her high-school session, it’s mostly the boys who line up with questions: “I’m really confused,” one told her, “if a girl wears a short skirt and a low-cut top to a party, it looks like she wants sex.” In Atlanta, teacher Abby Norman blogged about a conversation she had with students following the sexual-assault convictions in Steubenville, Ohio. “Some of my kids were genuinely confused,” she wrote. “‘How can she be raped?’ they asked, ‘She wasn’t awake to say no.’”
It’s been nearly two decades since the Canadian Federation of Students created the “No means No” campaign. And even after years of Take Back the Night marches, and sexual-assault awareness campaigns, the confusion over what consent means is as unresolved as ever. If anything, a tell-all society saturated with porn has increased the potential harm to victims, as gossip and insults spread quickly and mercilessly. Are we waiting too long to teach the concept of consent to our kids?
Consider the discourse of the past year: In Steubenville, a pair of celebrated football players – and their watching friends – made a game of raping an unconscious girl, and their defence attorney argued she’d given permission by getting drunk. A U.S politician observed that some women “rape easy.” This winter, a student leader at Queen’s suggested publicly that victims have to take some responsibility for an assault. A California middle school recently called an all-girl assembly to tell their female students to stop wearing yoga pants because it was “distracting the boys.”
And now, Canadians are reeling over the tragic death of Nova Scotia teenager Rehtaeh Parsons, who killed herself after two years of bullying, when a graphic picture was distributed online following an alleged gang rape at a friend’s house. (The police have reopened the case after initially finding there was not enough evidence to lay charges.)
“We are setting up a perfect storm for sexual violence to occur and then we are shocked when it does,” says Barendregt-Brown, the co-ordinator of public education at London’s Sexual Assault Centre. Ask a teenager what they remember from the sex talk at health class, and they’ll likely say the condom demonstration or the STD video. But schools, experts says, struggle to speak frankly about the realities of teenage life today, including the connection between alcohol and sex, and how to navigate intimacy in general.
Barendregt-Brown points out that anti-bullying programs tend to overlook the role that sexual assault and harassment play in cases of cyber-bullying and abuse, missing another opportunity to talk about consent. The focus is still on advising young women how to avoid being raped. But there’s little evidence to suggest these interventions have worked.
Charlene Senn, a psychologist at the University of Windsor who is studying a new campus initiative to empower bystanders, says that in 30 years, survey after survey suggests that the rate of rape or attempted rape on North American campuses has held steady at between 18 per cent and 24 per cent. Add in harassment, groping and sexual coercion, and the percentage of female students who say in surveys that they experience this behaviour during their college years rises to 60 per cent.
More recently, sex educators have tried to tackle the persistent myths about rape and aggressive pop culture messages around sex, by shifting the onus away from the person avoiding the assault or turning down an advance, to promoting the idea of “enthusiastic consent.” In that discussion, the focus shifts from how to say “no,” to making sure there’s a genuine “yes.”
Barendregt-Brown uses this analogy: “When kids are little, we don’t teach them how not to get hit, we teach them not to hit. And then all of a sudden, you go to university and your parents are like, don’t leave your drink unattended, walk in pairs, bring your cell phone. Why aren’t we having a conversation with our teenagers that asks: Are you paying attention? Are you sure your partner wants to have sex?”
Michelle, a Grade 12 student in Ottawa, says the message about consent that she recalls from health class amounted to “wait until you’re ready; and you are allowed to say no.” The notion of enthusiastic consent is new to her. If her friends are going drinking, she says, they make lists of boys they “consent” to have sex with, and rely on the designated driver to intervene if it looks like they might go too far with someone not on the list.
She is surprised to learn that Canadian law says someone who is intoxicated can’t give consent. When a friend lost her virginity to an older boyfriend “because he kept asking for it, and she wanted to make him happy,” and she felt later as if she’d been forced into it, Michelle was conflicted: ‘She didn’t say no.” And she wonders about girls who dress in skimpy skirts and tops and then are harassed. “That’s the way guys are,” she says, “they automatically think, ‘oh, she’s showing it off, she wants me to touch it.’ ”
In Calgary, Blake Spence runs a 10-week program for Grade 9 boys call Wise Guyz, which covers the traditional topic of anatomy, but also explores respect and communication in relationships, as well as cultural influences on masculinity. A big part of their discussion involves understanding enthusiastic consent, how they should interpret hesitant body language, and why their partner might not overtly say no, even if she wants to.
A further complication is that for today’s youth culture, group socializing has replaced many dating rituals of the past. Tony, a Grade 12 Toronto student, suggests that in a house party where everyone is drinking and hook-ups are common, the risks of assault are even higher. “It can be hard to recognize when consent is an issue.” But for him there’s no confusion around the abuse that Rehteah Parsons endured. “People said stuff that made it seem like it was her fault. It wasn’t her fault.” That’s a safe-sex conversation every teenager still needs to hear.