9.17.15 | Mary Cathryn Ricker
In the wake of the St. Paul’s School verdict, I want to talk about rape and responsibility.
Rape is not new. Our reaction to it, though, has been evolving. In the last few years, we’ve seen a meaningful shift in the way sexual assault is discussed. That hasn’t happened on its own; the changes are the hard-won victories of a movement largely led by sexual assault survivors. Especially over the last few years, the topic of sexual assault on college campuses has helped catalyze a broader conversation about rape, consent and healthy relationships.
But even as we see progress at many levels—like California’s new affirmative consent law—every year also brings new, ridiculous lows, like politicians talking about “legitimate rape” or attempting to pass laws narrowing sexual assault to “forcible rape.”
So even as we make real progress, it’s clear that we have a long way to go.
For parents and teachers, it often can be difficult to approach this subject. But sexual assault and the rape culture that feeds it thrive in the dark of ignorance. Sexual assault survivors are often too ashamed to come forward because of our upside-down culture where the accused is innocent until proven guilty while the survivor is guilty until proven innocent. According to the Justice Department, sexual assault goes unreported 68 percent of the time, in part because of the social pressure and scrutiny put on survivors.
Changing that culture will require a different approach. We can’t be afraid to discuss sexual assault and to help our children—and our students—build values systems around healthy behavior, respect and affirmative consent.
Some will say, “Talking to kids about sex—and especially about sexual crimes—is inappropriate.” Sadly, nearly half of all survivors of sexual assault are under the age of 18. We can’t wait until our kids are headed off to college to talk to them. They need the tools to create healthy relationships now. They need to understand respect and consent so they won’t commit assaults. And they need the support and courage to prevent potential assaults, and to come forward if a crime has been committed against them or someone they know.
Affirmative consent—or “yes means yes”—laws have been slowly but surely passing across the country. How do we create a culture together where the expectation is to ask for and receive an enthusiastic and informed “yes,” rather than to listen for—and try to pressure someone past—“no”?