"This is not what a rapist looks like." This sign was recently held by University of Warwick student George Lawlor in a photo protesting a consent training session he was invited to on Facebook. The trouble, however, is that this completely misses the point of the training session — and worse, it ignores exactly why it's important to teach consent to everyone, no matter who they are or what their background might be.
The problems with the sign are myriad, but let's start with this one: It suggests that there is such a thing as "what a rapist looks like." But there is no such thing. A rapist can be of any gender, race, orientation, or class. Furthermore, although it isn't always the case, a rapist is usually someone the victim knows and trusts enough to be alone with — not necessarily someone who would spark suspicion at first glance.
Second, the sign reflects the belief that any decent person intuitively knows how to practice consent. That would be nice, but again, it's not necessarily the case. There is so much grey area. Roughly a third of male college students do not know what actually constitutes rape, according to research published this year in the journal Violence and Gender. According to RAINN, 68 percent of rapes go unreported. A 2007 Department of Justice survey found that 35 percent of sexual assault victims didn't report the crime because it was "unclear that it was a crime or that harm was intended." And on and on and on.
"I don’t have to be taught to not be a rapist," Lawlor wrote, elaborating on the issue in The Tab. But we all need to be taught to practice sexual consent, because we've all been taught by society, the media, or simply the people around us that consent is not important, or that it's anything less than an enthusiastic "yes." Men are taught to pursue sex at all costs, and only take "no" as a "no" (if even that), and women are taught that they are not capable of violating anyone's boundaries, so they don't even need to think about it.
Like Lawlor, I am not a rapist, but I can attest that learning about affirmative consent helped me improve my own sexual conduct. As I learned about what consent meant from attending college workshops and reading feminist publications, I realized that certain behaviors I had exhibited — like trying to change a partner's mind or acting upset after they said they weren't in the mood — were not the hallmarks of a healthy, consensual sexual relationship.
I'm not the only one has has benefited or could benefit from education about consent. Here are some facts proving that we all could.
1. Men Are More Likely To Say They'll Rape If They Don't Consider It Rape
In the previously-referenced survey published in Violence and Gender, 32 percent of college men said they would have “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if ‘‘nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences." Only 13.6 percent of these men said they would have “any intentions to rape a woman” in the same situation. This suggests that when we teach people to recognize rape as rape, they're less likely to do it. It's easier to justify something to yourself if there's not an incriminating word attached to it. By teaching students that the definition of rape is broader than they may have thought, consent classes and workshops make it more difficult for anyone to say they forced someone into sex, but didn't rape them. And given how high 32 percent is, it's not safe to assume that any given student is exempt from this education.
2. 33.1 Percent Of Women, 39.1 Percent of TGQN People, And 8.6 Percent Of Men Experience Nonconsensual Sexual Contact During College
While past research has shown that there are fewer rapists than victims, since rapists tend to target more than one victim, more recent research published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015 found that 10.8 percent of college men had committed rape in either high school or college. That's a significant proportion — too large to just be considered a fringe population or a reason not to educate everyone about consent. On top of that, add those who have engaged in sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct that would not be considered rape. Then add people who haven't done anything criminal, but who may have unknowingly made partners uncomfortable and need to work on practicing consent. People who need to learn about consent are not the exception; they're the rule.
3. 18 Percent Of College Students Think Someone Has Consented As Long As They Don't Say "No"
This statistic comes from a poll conducted by The Washington Post between January and March of 2015. It's proof that students need to know that, on the contrary, there are many reasons someone might not say "no" other than that they consent. They could be afraid to further aggravate a rapist, they could feel pressured to go along with what another person wants, they could be incapacitated (in which case, initiating sex with them is rape even if they say "yes"), or it could all be happening too quickly for them to even think.
In addition, 22 percent of college students in the same survey said that if someone "engages in foreplay such as kissing or touching," they are consenting to "further sexual activity," and a whopping 47 percent said that someone is consenting to further sexual activity if they take off their clothes. This is not the case. Someone may engage in those activities for their own sake. Consenting to one thing isn't necessarily consenting to anything more, and the only way to know if someone wants to do something else is to ask. Again, a lot of assaults could be prevented if people knew what constituted assault.
4. Victims Say They Didn't Report Their Sexual Assaults Because They Didn't Know They Were Assaulted
35 percent of sexual assault victims in a survey conducted by the Department of Justice in 2007 said they did not report the crime because it was “unclear that it was a crime or that harm was intended.” These victims did not understand that it is always a crime to engage in sexual contact with someone without having given their consent. Harm does not have to be intended. While there are many other obstacles to reporting sexual assaults, like lack of sympathy from police and campus authorities, teaching people to identify assaults committed against them could increase the chance that perpetrators will be convicted and won't be able to commit more crimes.
For all these reasons, we need to teach everyone about consent, starting even before college. Everyone is capable of engaging in sexual misconduct if they're not taught otherwise, and beyond that, anyone can be a victim, and these programs help victims, too. Even if you wouldn't become a rapist without consent training sessions, you can still benefit from them.