A college rape prevention program sounds like a good idea. Everyone’s heard about the sexual assault epidemic plaguing college campuses; this type of program seems like the right response to an issue that has long gone ignored. A rape prevention program that is effective and that decreases the likelihood of rape and sexual assault is a welcome step forward. But a rape prevention program that is specifically for women takes the wrong approach. The program recently undertaken at the University of Calgary focuses on ways women can protect themselves, such as the “buddy system,” self-defense, and consent. Could this program be effective if it did not solely target women? I think it would be even more so.
The New York Times article about the research addresses the concern of treating all women as potential victims instead of facing the perpetrators—this type of program ignores the source of the problem of sexual assault: the perpetrators. Why is this so disconcerting? First, it is exclusionary from the outset. The parameters of the program present sexual assault as only a woman’s problem. The fact is, men get raped too. Having a rape prevention program only for women ignores those experiences. Secondly, rape is not only a man-on-woman crime. This program only addresses the narrative of men preying on women, thus ignoring every other possible type of sexual assault. This is, frankly, a big blind spot for a program that hopes to prevent rape on college campuses. Rape prevention should not be the sole responsibility of the victim.
Unfortunately, I do understand the reality of the situation, particularly for women. I personally make sure that I am not alone when I go out or drink and I try to be hyper-alert. I don’t have a pepper spray key chain, nor have I taken self-defense. (I’m not sure if that means I’m naïve or that I don’t like to preempt victimhood.) Yes, it is more common for women to get raped, but if we’re constantly telling women they need to be prepared for the possibility of getting raped, doesn’t that create a cycle of victimhood? If you treat someone a certain way for long enough, it’s hard for that person to get out of that mindset and think of themselves outside of the label. So if you constantly treat a woman like a future victim, how is she supposed to feel empowered? If the program was targeted around understanding the complexities of consent for everyone, I would get behind it. The problem of rape concerns everyone.
One of the most important parts of any rape prevention program is to address the c-word: Consent. This discussion should honestly be with and for everyone on campus, regardless of gender identity. Consent is everyone’s issue. Why is this crucial? Agreeing upon and learning the definition of consent is one of the hardest things to do for anyone at any age, in particular for young people. Some people do not even realize they were raped until after the fact. Most of the conversations we’ve had about consent have provided a black-and-white approach, not the direly needed nuanced and detailed approach. As a society, we need to stop perpetuating the myth of the stranger rapist hiding in the alleyway, especially when the majority of rapists are people the victim knows. Violating someone’s consent occurs when the victim is pressured into engaging in sexual activity that they are not comfortable with. Pressure could be physical, like inappropriate touching or violence, or verbal through snide jokes, abuse, and peer pressure. The bottom line is, don’t pressure someone into doing something they do not want to do.
How do you know someone wants to have sex with you? That person will say so. If that person is not able to give you an answer—if s/he is incapacitated for any reason—silence is not an affirmative answer. Yes Means Yes is the best approach: if s/he wants to have sex or be intimate in any way, s/he will let you know! Yes, it is that simple.
Conversations about consent are important for everyone, therefore they should be open to all. When everyone on campus is clear about what consent looks like, acts that violate someone’s consent can be more easily avoided. The claim of not knowing that the other party did not give consent will no longer be accepted. It’s simply a healthier way of understanding how to respect each other in intimate situations.