The Age of Consent

05 June 2018 Published in DOVE Center Blog
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Increased healing and awareness, positive cultural awakening, and perpetrator accountability are all positive outcomes of the #MeToo revolution. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a downside that is emerging as well, and we have more work to do.

 There’s probably not a single soul reading this who has not also read at least one account of a #MeToo survivor. But before you groan and scroll on because you just can’t tolerate yet another article, hear me out.

The momentum of #MeToo has generated incredible awareness about sexual harassment and violence as well as other forms of abuse. It has helped many survivors gain access to healing services and tell their stories without fear of being disbelieved. It has helped many employers identify training needs and remedy toxic work environments. It has helped others learn about and better understand abuse and harassment in ways they hadn’t considered before.

A positive cultural awakening is taking place, thanks in large part to #MeToo. Crimes such as harassment, stalking, or intimidation in the workplace and in relationships are now much less likely to be ignored or tolerated. Instead, they are being exposed and perpetrator accountability is in demand. This awakening has expanded a collective understanding of sexual harassment and abuse and many survivors are healing better now because of it.

Increased healing and awareness, positive cultural awakening, and perpetrator accountability are all positive outcomes of the #MeToo revolution. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a downside that is emerging as well, and we have more work to do.

Men are feeling picked on. They’re feeling threatened, attacked, harassed, and blamed; thrust into an unwanted spotlight because the accusations against them just won’t quit coming. I mean, even good men are being taken down by the silly, overblown purpose, if you have to call it that, of sexual violence awareness.This sentiment has support from women, too; in fact there are plenty of people who are more than a little fed up with #MeToo.

But as advocates for sexual violence survivors, we are far from fed up. In fact, we celebrate the awareness and survivor healing that has resulted from #MeToo. The brave actions of survivors has created an unstoppable momentum that will hopefully result in increased healing for survivors and the complete elimination of sexual violence. To that end, DOVE Center continues to engage in education, focusing on youth and young adults, that promotes mutual respect, personal accountability, and enthusiastic consent in intimate relationships. This education is greatly needed as rates of sexual violence are consistently higher in Utah than they are nationally.

Society in general, including here locally, is still banking on preventing sexual violence by teaching (mostly) girls how to behave and what to wear in school, at parties, at dances, on dates, at work, everywhere, in order to avoid or prevent their own sexual assault. It’s awkward because it’s a very fine line between “risk reduction” techniques and victim blaming.

The outcome of this approach over the years, is the inadvertent acceptance that boys will hurt girls; and girls may bear some responsibility for that harm because they, fill-in-the-blank. Over time, boys come to think or know that sexual aggression is expected (“boys will be boys”) maybe even desired; and girls come to think or know that aggression means affection (“oh, he wouldn’t act like that if he didn’t like you”). It can be confounding for everyone. Especially when enthusiastic consent is not a central part of conversations about relationships.

But just like exhaustion from #MeToo, many teens and young adults are sick-to-death of hearing about consent. They practically roll their eyes when it comes up, “I mean, enough already, we get it!” But do they?

Time and again, those accused of sexual assault or misconduct respond by insisting the conduct was consensual, invariably referring back to behavior or verbal expression that was taken as consent. But this “excuse” is given so reliably, that it’s hard not to be cynical about it and dismiss it as a lame attempt to avoid accountability and justify egregious behavior. Especially in light of current events and a multitude of awareness campaigns centered on consent education. But in spite of these campaigns and greater awareness than ever before about sexual misconduct and abuse, rates of sexual violence are not declining.

One possible reason why is a deep and abiding misunderstanding about consent. It seems so basic, so straightforward, yet it’s not. A recent article in the New York Times (“45 Stories of Sex and Consent on Campus”) chronicles the “so-called gray zone of miscommunication, denial, rationalization and, sometimes, regret” in the stories of real-life college students attempting to navigate consent. Read the article, it’s enlightening. It helped open our eyes even wider to the need for more specific and realistic info about giving and receiving enthusiastic consent in sexual encounters.

These things are on our minds because, well, reality; but also because we have just wrapped up another academic-year’s worth of prevention education in area schools where we were reminded first-hand that students are thirsty for knowledge and information about relationships. It’s so cool that they find the info compelling and want more!

This academic year we presented our Healthy Relationships curriculum in 10 different intermediate, middle, and high schools in the district; and to over 1,500 students. In each class we talk about speaking up, respect, compromise, support, and privacy. We identify specific abusive behaviors, and provide resources to get help if needed. We also talk with students about ways to safely interrupt when they see potentially abusive situations. We also talk about consent. And if this year has taught us one thing, it’s that teenagers have questions about consent -- how to ask for it and how to give it; how to say no, even if you’ve said yes before. It’s a tricky maze they’re navigating, and we want to help enlighten their way through it.

We end each presentation with a Q&A session to respond to questions submitted anonymously by students. They ask it all, everything from “How long have you worked at DOVE Center?” to “If you don’t speak up and say no, is it considered rape/sexual abuse?” or “What counts as sexual assault?” or “How do you get out of an emotionally abusive relationship?” and “When is it okay to report sexual assault in a relationship?”

We know that education is ultimately the only way to truly end domestic violence and sexual assault. Our vision at DOVE is to cultivate an informed community, free from domestic and sexual violence. Prevention education provides one avenue to affect social change, and we embrace this ongoing opportunity.

We’ll be talking more about issues surrounding consent in the weeks ahead, particularly societal influences that hinder the ability to profoundly understand personal boundaries, personal accountability, and consent. We invite you to stay tuned and learn with us.