We are living in an exciting, challenging time where the rape culture status quo is increasingly being disrupted. The social norm of silencing, or even blaming, survivors of sexual violence is shifting, as more people share their #MeToo stories, and people are being encouraged to have open discussions about sex and relationships.
For us, the underlying question in these conversations is: what would it take to eliminate domestic and sexual violence in our society?
During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this question becomes more prominent in the public forum. As a complicated issue is reduced to 140 characters, consent education is inevitably presented as an easy, Tweetable solution for this complex problem.
To be clear we absolutely believe in the value and necessity of sexual consent as part of one’s own ethical sexual practices. We also know that using consent education as the primary strategy for sexual violence prevention is like taking an umbrella out into a hurricane. When a solution doesn’t align with the problem, we have very little chance of being effective.
The problem with consent education is the presumption that the perpetuation of sexual violence is based on a lack of understanding about what constitutes consent. With near daily stories of sexual abuse in sports, the church, the media, houses of government, entertainment, the military, schools, and so much more, do we honestly believe that the aggressors didn’t know the rules? If they all didn’t know, why were the doors locked, the music turned up, the careers threatened, the incidents covered up, the priests relocated, the victims discredited and the settlement payments made?
Consent without equality still leaves sexual violence as a choice for those with power.
The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know. The problem was that the power that they hold — based on their positions, statuses and identities — allowed them to get away with it. It’s not that they have bad boundaries, it’s that they regard the boundaries of those they choose to harm as irrelevant. And the “didn’t know” defense is another method that our culture uses to excuse and minimize aggressive masculine behavior. We allow ourselves to understand these behaviors as mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings, he said/she said scenarios rather than addressing them as the intentional use of power over individuals with less power.
Acts of sexual violence are the willful exertion of power by individuals with authority and status over vulnerable individuals. We see this both in current media accounts and in national research describing the problem of sexual violence in the United States. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey and other sources show the disproportionate burden of sexual violence experienced by marginalized populations. We know that women experience more sexual violence than men, but also that the highest rates of sexual violence are experienced by transgender women, women with disabilities, Native American women, women who identify as bisexual, and Biracial women.
Even when we do a perfect job of educating young people about consent, where there are differences in social status and power among people, sexual abuse will remain as an option that some will choose to make.
Where do we go from here?
Ethically and strategically, we have a decision, we can continue to default to the quick and easy thing, or we can commit to working towards the impactful thing. Those of us working to prevent violence recognize the scope and impact of sexual violence for individuals, families and communities. We believe that the urgency of the problem requires us to be disciplined in our approach—to choose strategies that can be as impactful as possible in preventing those harms.
Part of the challenge in changing strategies is that knowledge-based approaches like consent education are relatively easy. Telling young people what we think they need to know in order to safely navigate inequalities in our culture is much easier than investing in the longer term, more complex, difficult work of changing those inequalities. Information based strategies are low hanging fruit, but with the limited resources that we currently designate for sexual violence prevention, investing significant time in such strategies can detract from our capacity to invest in strategies that can address the roots of the problem. Where we pursue strategies that are disconnected from the problem, we enable the status quo.
We need to work on strategies that reduce power disparities between people by increasing equity in opportunities and protections for all of us, across all of our identities. Investing in communities to ensure that all youth are raised in safe, stable and nurturing conditions can help to reduce the distance between populations that have benefited from unearned privilege, and those that have been marginalized. This can include equitable economic investment and policies—things like public investment in great educational experiences for all of our children and access to higher education. We also create access for women in career fields traditionally dominated by men and invite men to share more caregiving responsibilities—both within families and within professional spheres.
Additionally, we need to work to increase connections between people and a shared sense of our responsibility to one another’s safety and wellbeing. We need to reach those peers who, in the context of sexual abuse, encouraged, laughed, complied, or simply remained silent. Within families, organizations and communities, we can establish normative standards of respectful behavior by affirming one another when we engage with others as equals, and we can hold one another accountable when we behave in abusive ways.