I’ve been teaching sexuality education to teens for a decade now. In that time, I’ve seen a huge shift in the way young women respond to the issue of date rape, although almost no change in the way young men respond.
The date rape lesson in Our Whole Lives for high school students takes the form of the story of a date told from the perspective of each person. Participants divide into two groups, each with one version of the story, which they read aloud. The basic facts of the date are the same in each account – they go to dinner, drink a bottle of wine, go back to his room at the frat house, drink some more, play music, dance, get partly undressed, make out. It’s at this point the stories diverge radically – his version ends with them having sex, her version with her being raped. After reading the story, participants answer a series of questions which include “What could he/she have done to change the outcome of the evening?”
I’ve always believed the date rape session is about communication. Throughout the evening, the characters try to guess or intuit what the other person is thinking and feeling. At no point in the evening does either partner bring up the question of sex, nor do they ever explicitly discuss their feelings or desires. Both characters, seem unwilling to have the crucial discussion about sex because dinner was romantic and fun and the music in his room was wonderful and they were dancing and enjoying it and didn’t want to wreck the mood. They each assume the other understands the meaning behind their actions – neither simply asks “Do you want to have sex” or says, “I’m not ready to have sex with you.”
Every time I’ve taught this course, the young men responded with a variation on, “What he did was wrong. If he wanted to have sex with her, he should have asked her.” That response assumes the male is more interested in sex than the female and that he will naturally be the one to initiate sex (and there are some problems with those assumptions) but it acknowledges the need for her consent.
Over the decade, the responses of young women have shifted dramatically. The first time I taught the course, the young women condemned the girl in the story – she was stupid for drinking on the date, for going to his room, for getting undressed; “She should have known better!” When I lead this session with adults, I’ve gotten almost the same response from the overwhelming majority of women in the room – she was stupid and put herself in harm’s way, she should have known better. A few years ago, the young women’s response shifted. Rather than condemning her, the female participants said, “She made some mistakes but she said no and he should’ve stopped. He’s at fault, but she didn’t protect herself.” At which point they listed things like “Don’t to his room if you don’t want to have sex.”
In the group earlier this year, the young women responded to the question “What could he/she have done to change the outcome of the evening?” with two phrases: “He could’ve not raped her,” and “She said no and that’s all she needs to do.” When I pushed them a little – is there something that either of them could have done earlier in the evening to change the outcome, I was told, “She said no. Expecting her to do anything else is blaming the victim.” I responded by saying, “I’m talking about is there anything that didn’t happen during the evening that might have changed the outcome? Something they could have talked about it?” At which point, one of the boys in the group asked, “Why didn’t he ask if she wanted to have sex?” Again the girls responded, “She said no. There’s nothing else she should have to do.”
I said, “I’m not disagreeing that she said no and he should have honored that. However, she said ‘No’ and he still raped her. Is it possible she could have left his room earlier in the evening? Called for a ride? Brought up the question of sex over dinner? In the story, almost until the moment he pulled her pants down, he’s very solicitous of her, wanting to give her positive attention. The date went well up until the very last few minutes, two sentences of the story.”
The female participants were still troubled by the story but when I framed it that way, the group was able to move the discussion into the realm of “The could have talked about sex over dinner . . . She could have asked one of his frat brothers for a ride home . . . she could have asked for a taxi.”
When I brought up the question of communication – actually saying over dinner, “I don’t know you well enough to have sex with you” – they laughed because they said no one would do that on a date. But, they all agreed communication broke down the date. Rather than trying to figure out what the other was thinking, it would have opened up an avenue to discuss what they wanted from each other. They might have agreed to not drink so much so they could have a conversation without the fuzziness of alcohol. He would have known up front she wasn’t interested in sex and wouldn’t have interpreted her actions as being “into him” as he does in the story. They even agreed that the worst case scenario after that – he gets mad and storms out of the restaurant – is better than what happened.
I’ve been reflecting on this experience for almost six months now. I keep asking myself if, as adults, we’ve done young persons a disservice when we’ve taught them “No means no.” Victims of date rape are not, in any way, “asking for it.” Getting undressed isn’t consenting to sex. Getting in bed with someone is not consenting to sex. Every account of date rape I have read includes the victim saying “No.” No means no, but saying it is obviously not enough to prevent date rape. I am afraid that having learned “no means no” and that is enough may be blinding some people to the complexities and realities of dating.
As I reflect on my sexual encounters with a variety of partners, I recognize the complexity in the majority of those situations. Very few were straightforward – I felt competing emotions and ambiguous desires. Even when I most desired sex, that wasn’t the only emotion I felt; I wanted my partner to enjoy the experience, to be willing, to be enthusiastic, to not feel pressured. I think most persons experience the complexity of sexuality. What we want and don’t want isn’t always clear. It’s all gradations and a continuum; not a simple yes or no reality.
I wonder if we’re offering a too simple formulation about communication around sex. No means no, but sex is rarely that simple and it’s okay to negotiate and discuss our sexual feelings and desires with our potential partners. The opportunity to ask for what you want and to set boundaries is too important to ignore. What if we taught young people the time to say “no” or “yes” is well before you’re in bed with someone? Talk about the boundaries, talk about what each person is okay doing and not doing.
On dates, there is (usually) an undercurrent of sexual interest and energy. Acknowledging that interest and energy by empowering people to talk about it early seems like a better way to guarantee that “no” is respected. Conversations about sex and contraception don’t have to be difficult or awkward. What if we teach young persons to feel comfortable having the conversation – “I’m having a great time. Can we talk about sex and make a decision together that we both feel comfortable with so that something we both regret doesn’t happen later?”
I would hate to think that we’ve made a well-intentioned mistake that put people at risk for date rape. I guess, as I re-read what I’ve written here, I’m hoping that we, as adults, can make it okay to talk about sex in ways that aren’t prurient or salacious. I hope we can be better teachers and mentors to young persons. I hope we can model discussing sexuality in respectful ways without passing on the false narrative that a romantic dinner will let you psychically know the other person’s intent and desire. Consent needs to be explicit but if we wait till we’re in the ‘moment’ we have waited far too long. I hope we can give young persons, both male and female, the tools to experience satisfying, rewarding, emotionally rich, consensual relationships throughout their lives.