Content Notice for Sexual Assault
As was recently brought up by Emily Nagoski on The Dirty Normal in response to that tea/consent analogy, among many other excellent points, there is no evidence that consent education actually prevents sexual violence. It may well be that consent education may not work to directly prevent rape.
It will be a while before we have the adequate numbers from enough studies to know whether or not this is true. Regardless of the outcome, I honestly think that doesn’t matter for one reason alone: Consent education isn’t for rapists in the first place. While it may not directly prevent rape, consent-centric sex ed is not for the benefit would-be or actual rapists, but rather for people who actively want to understand consent or whose bizarre empathy for rapists needs to be quenched. The former group is composed of mostly painfully self-aware socially-inept types, while the latter consists of people who can’t, don’t, and/or won’t understand the mindset of a rapist, which paradoxically leads them to rape apologetics.
For those who want to learn what consent is and what it looks like out in the real world, open conversations about consent are invaluable. Most of the messages conveyed by porn and romcoms, even the more sophisticated among them, are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Certain things are taken to be a given, including but hardly limited to the proceeding ideas.
- Penile erection, vaginal lubrication, nipple stiffening, and/or an orgasm signals consent (or, in the case of more gonzo-type porn, retroactive consent).
- Lack of the above automatically signals a lack of interest or consent.
- Women need to be coaxed or even coerced into any sort of non-platonic activity which they will eventually like. Meanwhile, men don’t even have to be asked once.
- Blowjobs are the ultimate end-all be-all in pleasure not only for the receiver, but for the giver.
- Cunnilungus is so rare that it’s practically or actually non-existent.
While most people are smart enough to know that movies do not equal reality, not everyone is socially adept enough to figure out what the reality might be before they have to put the knowledge to the test. These are the people who directly benefit the most from consent-centric sex ed. They can learn how to effectively give and receive affirmative communication on consent. Not only does this clarify to them what rape is and isn’t, it also makes for happier sex-havers.
I fall into this group, as I didn’t date until I was nearly eighteen years old and was raised without any expectation that, let alone education on, dating. Thanks to the Internet, I thought that all men wanted sex but also that I was the kind of woman that men settled on rather than were legitimately attracted to. I was to find out later, of course, that not all men want sex all the time and there exist people of all genders who consider me attractive rather than some sort of attainable sexual consolation prize. Along the way to those realizations, however, I said yes and was told yes to mediocre sex that would not have happened had at least one of the two of us had realized that the assent was based on assumption rather than enthusiasm. This isn’t to say that I was raped or raped anyone, but more that my sexual experiences as well as those of my partners over the years would have benefitted from a more explicit rather than implicit understanding of consent.
As for the people who can’t, don’t, or won’t comprehend the mindset of a rapist, to the point where they insist that rape must be the result of a lack of education or some kind of misunderstanding, consent education would get them to, at long last, shut the everloving fuck up. These people, if not a majority in society, represent a very vocal and populous group. It’s almost impossible to have a conversation about sexual assault, rape, or consent without one of them showing up to remind other participants that maybe the rapist didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. If consent education were standard, the assumption on which their stance is predicated would be invalid, and we could finally move on to addressing other matters.
As the piece in The Dirty Normal says:
Consent education is mandated for new students on college campuses, and this wouldn’t be a bad starting place for lots of schools. It could well be that consent education helps bystanders recognize the precursors of violence with reduced ambivalence or ambiguity. Helping people recognize the precursors of interpersonal violence is one of the goals of bystander education, along with teaching them strategies for responding and supporting them in feeling personally responsible for doing something.
And it could well be that consent education like this is part of changing the cultural discourse around sexual violence, placing responsibility solely on the perpetrator as the one who didn’t get that you’re not allowed to just make people do things they don’t want to do.
This is the benefit of consent-centric sex ed that appeals to me the most. The world would be a better place without as much lukewarm sex, to be sure, but moving on from rape apologetics is a far more important goal. Allegedly well-meaning yet definitely awful people who defend rapists with interjections of “But they didn’t know it was wrong!” would no longer be able to cling to that excuse. The reality, i.e. that some people simply don’t care about other people’s agency, would be much more clear. This would enable us, as a society, to move forward with the much-needed conversations and actions around sexual assault.
That’s enough for me to advocate for consent-centric sex ed. Whether or not it prevents rape, it will help people to understand that rapists aren’t “clumsy Romeos” but rather people who legitimately do not care about consent so that we can deal with rape prevention and prosecution more appropriately. Chipping away at this particularly stubborn aspect of rape culture is well worth it.