Rape charges brought against two popular high school students in Steubenville, Ohio, in 2012, and the students’ subsequent trial and convictions in 2013, placed a harsh and unprecedented national spotlight on the occurrence and dynamics of sexual assault among teenagers.
As the case unfolded, what also became painfully clear were the cavalier, even heartless attitudes and actions of students on the periphery of the incident who documented and photographed the several-hour ordeal — as did the perpetrators — on social media. Equally egregious was the irresponsible behavior of adults in the community who either attempted to cover up the facts, didn’t report what they knew, or blamed the victim so the boys, both star athletes, wouldn’t get “in trouble.”
Plus, there was cell phone video gone viral of the drunken 16-year-old victim, seemingly unconscious, being paraded around between two boys, one holding onto her wrists and the other her ankles, like a fresh piece of meat.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Steubenville episode — followed in quick succession by a series of other high-profile cases — was transformative. It jump-started an ongoing, long overdue dialogue about sexual assault in the public arena and on high school and college campuses that has ultimately led to profound cultural change: The nation, finally, has begun to take the issue of sexual assault — and its victims, causes, perpetrators, and facilitators — seriously.
Changing Language, Changing Expectations
One of the most significant and hopeful outcomes of this intense scrutiny has been a powerful paradigm shift in how we now think and talk about sexual assault, and how we distinguish it from mutually consensual sexual behaviors.
Increasingly, in the eyes of prosecutors, legislators, school personnel, and the general public, the “absence of no” is no longer an acceptable or sufficient standard for determining when mutual consent exists. In the new standard, known as “affirmative consent,” an individual must ask for and receive a direct, verbal “yes” from a potential partner before any kind of sexual contact can proceed.
This change should not be mistaken for a mere linguistic flip. The new standard is important because it turns the old one on its head: The onus is no longer on a potential victim to protect his or her sexual boundaries once crossed (or about to be). Instead, the other person must know and accept at the outset that sexual access to another person’s body is never a given. It is a privilege the person must earn by asking for and receiving permission first.
In the best of worlds, teaching young people to respect sexual boundaries would simply be an extension of a central role adults already play in their lives. Even when children are very young, adults constantly teach lessons about the importance of respecting all kinds of limits and boundaries, including personal boundaries:
- You can’t just grab a toy away from other children. It belongs to them.
- Knock on the bathroom door and wait for an OK before you enter.
- No, you definitely don’t have to kiss Grandma unless you want to.
- The answers on another person’s test paper don’t belong to you, since it’s her work, not yours.
- Please don’t sit so close to me because it makes me feel uncomfortable.
- A good friend doesn’t tell another friend’s secrets.
How much of a leap, really, is it to extend those messages to potential sexual encounters? After all, people know that when you walk into someone’s living room, or a classroom, or a store, it’s not OK to simply walk over to an attractive object, put it into your pocket, and walk out with it, just because you want to and no one specifically has said, “Don’t take my stuff from that room.”
Touching or overtaking people’s bodies without permission, especially the sexual parts of their bodies, is an even more serious boundary violation, of course, since people are human beings, not objects, and have inherent rights.
So why isn’t that always equally as clear?
Seeing the Whole Picture
In reality, despite the recent and welcome emphasis on respect for sexual boundaries in personal and public dialogue, that’s not the complete picture: Children and teens live in a culture that teaches disrespect for those same boundaries, especially women’s boundaries, at almost every turn.
Indeed, one day while I was actually working on this blog, I interrupted myself to get the mail and confronted a stark example. On the front cover of the Style Magazine in my box (unsolicited) was the image of a presumably stylish and seemingly naked woman wearing nothing but a shiny, clear plastic raincoat sporting several white dots, one of them placed strategically near the center of her breast.
On closer scrutiny, I discovered that beneath the coat she was wearing a very tight-fitting garment colored to match her skin shade. The message, though, was unmistakable: “Women’s bodies are for public consumption and therefore not entitled to respectful boundaries. You may look — and maybe even get to touch — at will.”
Unpacking “Rape Culture”
Ubiquitous media images that normalize disrespect
for sexual boundaries reflect profoundly troubling aspects of American society. The U.S. is often referred to as a “rape prone culture
” because of deeply embedded belief systems that encourage and even justify
sexual assault. While these beliefs are vastly complicated, they contain at least three central components, elements of which are always present in situations like the Steubenville rapes:
Objectification: Whenever people are reduced to objects with no boundaries, they are essentially devalued, dehumanized, and rendered vulnerable. People viewed as objects have no inherent rights, do not require protection and respect, and need not be taken seriously. Perhaps most frightening, there is no reason or obligation for others to sympathize or empathize with them or their suffering.
Power- and privilege-based gender expectations: While certainly, boys and men are raped, embedded in stereotypical gender roles are assumptions rendering “masculinity” and “femininity” opposite and politically unequal dichotomies, which put girls and women at particular risk:
- Males are strong, dominant, and in charge; females are weak, passive, and subordinate.
- Men are entitled; women are pleasers.
- “Boys will be boys” (rowdy, insensitive, physical, troublemakers); girls are emotional, neat, and dutiful.
- Sexual boys are manly; sexual girls are suspect.
Misogyny and the convenient “logic” it breeds: Despite decades of progress, the presumption — often the result of unconscious conditioning — that boys and men are superior and females (as well as males perceived as female-like) are “less than” persists. When deep-rooted and unchecked, these assumptions can create social and psychological cover for misogynistic attitudes, beliefs, and actions.
- Girls and women are inferior and therefore don’t necessarily deserve decent or fair treatment.
- If rape happens, it’s the victim’s fault — as in, she brought it on herself, or “asked for it,” out of her own stupidity or other character flaw.
- Girls and women can be reduced to negative sexual stereotypes (bitches, hos, teases, sluts, prudes, etc.) who don’t deserve empathy or respect, but rather deserve punishment or even force to remind them of their place.
- Clothing, flirting, dancing provocatively, etc., signal, “I want sex.”
- If a girl then says “no,” she really means, “try harder.”
Flipping the Paradigm and More
Comprehensive education in our schools around sexual assault prevention begins with — but doesn’t end with — helping our students recognize the double standards that American culture reinforces around sexual boundaries versus other kinds of personal boundaries. For sure, teaching students to apply the “presence of yes” paradigm will require practice through role plays and other activities where they must speak the words “yes” and “no” clearly and firmly, and ask, empathically, “Is this OK with you?” At the same time, we also need to consistently remind students about the countless other situations in life in which they already know, intuitively, to employ and insist on affirmative consent.
For the lessons to stick, however, teachers and parents will also need to help students continually notice, deconstruct, and delegitimize the subtle and blatant, yet “invisible,” forces in everyday life that communicate, “Nah, respect for personal boundaries? That doesn’t apply to sex.”
Deborah M. Roffman is the author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex and a teacher in the lower, middle, and upper schools at the Park School of Baltimore (Maryland). She’s consulted with faculty and parents at more than 300 schools nationwide around the implementation of comprehensive, truly age-appropriate K–12 sexuality education. You can reach her at Talk2MeFirst.com.