Rape is not always a violent, savage held-at-knifepoint type of occurrence. It doesn’t always happen by strangers who grab women from behind and drag them off into a back alley. It’s done by people you know, people you like and people you see every day. It happens at parties, in dorm rooms, on dates.
Rape is often committed by people who have no idea that what they’re doing is wrong or harmful, and it is often done to victims who are then blamed for whatever behavior they must have presented to let it happen to them at all.
Rape culture is finally being talked about in public dialogue as something that should not be blamed on victims, and as something that happens when consent is not made clear. However, the concepts of sexual consent and what constitutes as “rape” still seem to strike people as relatively new information.
Many studies and polls, including a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, suggest that people are still confused about what consent means, and while a number of college campuses are implementing new methods for teaching students about sexual assault and consent, I strongly believe the target audience needs to shift from college campuses to K-12 institutions.
When you are a child, everything you learn socially is conditioned into you. From your mom yelling at you not to run into the middle of a street without looking both ways, to learning to raise your hand in class before speaking. All social behaviors and norms are ingrained into us as we grow and experience the world. Our parents, guardians and teachers are responsible for reinforcing good behaviors, such as how to treat others and how to be safe.
Growing up as a young girl, I was conditioned to think that choices I made such as walking somewhere alone or how I dressed could paint me as a target for assault. Dress codes were heavily enforced at my school, and some of the absurd rules included not allowing bra straps to show underneath a shirt and hiding any traces of cleavage. The reasons given were usually around the theme of not distracting male classmates or attracting unwanted male attention.
As I got older, I was taught more than ever to be on guard at all times. My mom used to tell me, “don’t ever stand in front of your car fumbling around for your keys, because someone could come and grab you.” She wasn’t wrong. Studies show that women who are distracted with a task are more likely to be targeted as victims.
Still, this social conditioning that young girls go through –– this paranoia that the way you walk, the way you dress, the way you carry yourself –– could all lead to someone coming up from behind and attacking you is so one-sided and wrong. Instead of teaching young girls that they shouldn’t distract boys with their fashion choices, we should teach young boys not to stare and hyper-sexualize them in the first place. Instead of teaching students not to get too drunk at a party for fear of getting raped, we should teach them to leave unconscious women and men alone and to never lay a hand on someone without consent.
We should be teaching children at their most impressionable, cognitively malleable stages that they should not be doing things such as poking each other, pulling each other’s hair or touching each other’s faces without the other person’s consent. They should learn not to advance on one another romantically without consent. For the love of God, they should just learn the word consent.
Each year, SF State holds an annual conference called Greek Summit, which is a mandatory event for every fraternity and sorority member on campus. Every conference, they present an animated video about consent, which addresses what consent is and how to respect it. While it’s great that college students are learning about the very simple yet crucial lesson about how they shouldn’t rape people, it is my firm belief that we need to be showing the same video to young kids who are much more easily influenced than us.
Ultimately, we should be focusing on shaping the minds of people who are still learning to experience the world from a fresh perspective. There will always be bad apples. For as long as human society exists, there will be terrible people out there who rape and harm others.
We can’t realistically expect to purge the world of all rapists until the end of time, but we can look toward a time where the people around us –– the ones we see at work, in class, at parties –– will respect the boundaries and bodies of others. In order to change the future of rape culture and consent forever, we need to start with the most open and impressionable minds out there: Kids.