There’s been a lot of media and social-media talk lately about rape. There are the ridiculously offensive comments from men about “respectable” women, how women dress, who women are out with. These are usually followed by (warranted) intense outcry about victim-blaming and repeats of the should-be-obvious-by-now statement that nobody deserves to be raped. There are the reports of how to stay safe, how to prevent or fight off an attack, the importance of talking to the police. These are sometimes followed by the same victim-blaming outcries, but more commonly by nodding heads and “thanks for the advice”. There are the voices of reason talking about how most victims know their attacker and you should be more alert about the ‘nice’ men (and women) in your life than about taking your groceries to your car in broad daylight. This is an important voice to be heard, but again, everybody is talking to the potential victims. Even if it’s just to tell them that’s it’s not their fault, they’re still talking to the victims. Or they’re talking about punishing the perpetrators. Why aren’t we, the parents, teachers and citizens, talking about stopping people from becoming perpetrators in the first place?
On one of the online communities I’m a member of, another woman pointed out to me that:
Ask a man, ‘Would you rape a woman?’ and you don’t find many who’ll say yes. Ask him, “Would you have sex with a woman so drunk she could barely stand?” and you suddenly find what guys will admit to.
Which is why I have written this, the list of ten things I hope to teach my son when he is older, ten things that I hope will help him to respect women and to be a member of a society that works from every angle to prevent rape and sexual assault.
1. No means no. It’s obvious, right? It’s the one we’ve all heard. Still, nothing wrong with getting back to basics. If they say no, that doesn’t mean “I’m playing hard to get” or “convince me”. That means no.
2. Give her** an opportunity to say yes. The absence of “no” does not equal “yes”. If a girl is too drunk to stand, she’s probably too drunk to clearly indicate to you that she doesn’t want you doing that. The night I lost my virginity, the words from my then-boyfriend’s mouth were “are you sure?” It’s a good line! Use it! Ask if she’s sure she wants to do it, because a) it gives her the chance to very clearly and definitively say yes or no and b) it shows her one more time that she’s making the choice to be with someone who respects her.
3. Hand stuff counts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a penis, a finger, a vagina or a mouth, there is no hierarchy of right and wrong here. It’s a violation of her body, it’s a sexual crime and it’s wrong. You want to do it, you need consent.
4. Refer to women by their names. If you don’t know their names, don’t talk about them. If you want to discuss my bum, my legs, my clothing or any other thing about me that happens to turn you on or off, you’d better know who I am first. Because I’m a person, and it will be a person telling you they don’t want to go any further, not a pair of breasts.
5. If you think you need help, ask for it. You hear it from the mouths of uncles convicted of raping their teenage nieces, of priests convicted of assaulting children, of serial rapists who attack strangers. “I’m sick. I needed help.” I hate to think about it and I really hope you’re not one of them, but some people in the world will be sick. They will need help. And nobody is going to give it to them, nobody is going to know that they need help unless they reach out and ask for it. Make an appointment and talk to a mental health professional. Admitting your thoughts out loud is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do, but it’s a lot less difficult than hurting somebody and later having everybody you know find out that you’ve done it.
6. Compliment her smile, her sense of humour, her intelligence. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how provocatively women dress and how it makes it difficult for men to control themselves. And you know what, I agree. Teen girls do have a nasty habit of wearing what I refer to as “denim underwear”. That still isn’t going to make it their fault, but I can appreciate that it’s not much fun for the guys who have to keep looking away and pushing down a hard-on. Here’s the thing: they’re dressing that way because they want to attract your attention (or, in this country, because it’s too stinking hot). That is not the same thing as wanting you to have sex with them. They might find you attractive. They might want to feel attractive. They might want to be your girlfriend. They might just want to know that someone else wants to be their boyfriend. The solution, for society as a whole, is to stop using sex as our commonest measuring stick of what makes a person attractive. This isn’t a task that falls solely on the guys, of course, but this list is about what you can do. So, my challenge to you is to show her that you think her worth is in more than her boobs or bum. Because I know you do and she needs to know it too.
7. Talk about the non-sexual stuff with your mates. As above, this isn’t a short-term “in the moment of temptation” thing, it’s a long-term attitude developing thing. We need to get rid of this societal idea that relationships are just about sex. Every time you sit there with your friends talking about the girl you like and how big her breasts are, you’re reinforcing this idea to yourself, to your friends and to the girl. Why is it any less masculine to talk about her shared interests (some of which you presumably share with your friends as well)? I’m not saying you have to go really sensitive and start telling all the stories of times she stood up for you or how she makes you feel gooey inside or whatever. But let’s say you’re both into horror movies. Talk about how cool it is that you’ve found a girl who can appreciate your favourite film. Or a joke that she told you. Something your friends can appreciate that doesn’t make it seem like all you do is make out and fondle each other.
8. Be realistic about yourself and your limits. It’s hard for a young guy (or girl) to have a lot of self-control when they get going. Don’t rely on your impeccable knowledge of when to stop, when a shove is playful and when it’s serious. Don’t rely on your date being ready to bring out a full-on scream for help to indicate that she meant it when she said “I think we should go” earlier. This might sound counter-intuivite, but privacy is not always your friend. I’m not saying go around having big public displays of affection in front of your friends or get them in to watch. I’m saying give yourselves an easy out. Plan your dates for somewhere others might walk past or hear you. If you’re both willing to take it further, you’ll both be able to move somewhere more appropriate.
9. Expect sex to be good. Expect it to be with someone who is getting involved in foreplay, who is kissing you back, who might whisper your name. Expect it to be with someone who undressed herself, or helped undress you and smiled at you or kissed you while she did it. Expect it to be with someone else who wants to have sex. It will never be exactly as you imagined or the movies show it, but don’t settle for sex with someone who isn’t engaging with it.
10. See sex as a gift. A few weeks ago, the pastor at my church said this of sex: “You can either see it as God, see it as gross, or see it as a gift.” Don’t worship sex like God. Don’t see it as something you deserve – no one ever owes you sex, not for buying them dinner, for helping them out of an awkward situation, for telling them that you love them, even for being married to them. Don’t treat it as a victory, an achievement, the meaning of life or the path to your self-worth. But don’t treat it as something gross, something taboo, something to never talk about. That’s plain unrealistic and you’re setting yourself up to fail. Treat sex as a gift. I believe it’s a gift from God to be had in certain circumstances (marriage) only, but even if you don’t share that view, at the very least believe it is a gift from your partner. It’s something they don’t have to give you, something they are using to display how they feel about you. Giving a gift to someone should feel good. Accept a gift that’s given to you with dignity and politeness. You can tear the paper off if that’s ok with them, but wait until it’s been given to you, don’t just snatch it from underneath the Christmas tree. Treat sex as a gift – one you both give and receive.
Parents, talk to your kids. By all means, teach them to travel safely, to watch what they’re drinking, to dress modestly. But make sure you also teach them to respect people, to know when things are getting out of hand, to see themselves and each other as deserving of better.
**For flow of writing style and because it’s a list “for my son” I’m just referring to the potential perpetrator as “he” and the potential victim as “her”. I’m aware that sometimes women rape men or other women and sometimes men rape men.