Why Educating About Consent Is So Important

Japan,Tokyo,Shibuya Ward
Japan,Tokyo,Shibuya Ward

There have been some reprehensible reactions to the rape trial of Brock Turner, his father's first and foremost among them. Turner himself never apologized for his violent actions; he apologized for drinking too much, an excuse many people are fixated on. Wonkblog highlighted a study that showed a major underlying problem for why attitudes like Turner's (as well as his friend who wrote an infamous letter in his defense) are widespread:

Oklahoma State University professor John Foubert, who designed his school's rape prevention program, asked a group of first-year fraternity brothers in a 2007 study whether they'd ever raped someone. They all said no. Foubert changed the phrasing, however, and 10 percent of first-year brothers reported they'd penetrated a woman against her permission.

"They don't see this behavior as rape, perhaps as a way to protect themselves, to not be responsible for their behavior if that happens," Foubert said. "It's not just college students. You hear these beliefs in broader society."

These perceptions have endured even as the national conversation about sexual assault has grown.

As University of Arizona professor Mary Koss told the blog:

"You can put a college student rapist on a lie detector test and they will pass," Koss said -- not describing an actual experiment but the depth of the students' beliefs. "They sincerely do not believe what they did is rape."

We are only now seeing a serious move toward consent education, with California becoming the first state to require a "yes means yes" standard. Sex education is abysmal in many parts of this country. Some of us get basic anatomical facts, scary descriptions of STIs and the mechanics of making a baby. The fact that sex should be pleasurable and enthusiastically enjoyed by both parties is rarely discussed. What would have happened if these young men had been told by their parents that anything other than clear verbal and physical consent is a crime, the same way they were taught stealing or hurting someone is? What if high schools and colleges brought the discussion to a practical, real-life level and talked students through scenarios and explained consent and rape culture? People will complain about the difficulty of conveying these messages, but there are already great examples of how to do it. The fact of the matter is we are already teaching. But what we're teaching is that penetrating an unconscious woman is just a side effect of drinking and not a moral and legal crime.

I'm heartened by people's stories about sharing the brave survivor's letter to Turner with their children as a way to talk about these issues. I am glad that young people see the (male) vice president of the United States sending an unequivocal message about sexual assault. The enormous outcry against Turner and Judge Persky shows how far our culture has evolved on this issue. But there is much more work to do, and there's no clearer example that we need to teach consent early and often.