Consent, #MeToo and Sexual Assault: What Do Guys Think?
Originally Published: April 24, 2020
Revised: April 24, 2020
After a series of high-profile sexual assault allegations in 2017, the #MeToo movement rose up to draw attention to how common sexual assault is. One out of every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, according to the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 1 out of every 10 rape victims is male, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The #MeToo movement encouraged women and men to speak up about sexual assault, which often gets brushed under the rug. A national discussion about the prevalence of sexual assault has been a long time coming.
In the wake of these public discussions about sexual assault and consent, there are people, including many guys, who aren’t sure what this all means and how it will affect their relationships. Some guys are threatened by the discussion of sexual assault. I wondered how young men specifically make sense of consent in their lives. How do they approach relationships given the conversations happening about sexual assault?
Guys Make Sense of Consent
I spoke with Jackson, 19, of Valencia, CA, and Casey, 17, of Philadelphia, about the ways in which consent affects their relationships with partners. Jackson tells me that consent was stressed in his high school sex education class. As a result, he says he always “checked in with partners and obviously talked about if doing certain things was OK….” He felt like while the #MeToo movement was a reminder of the importance of consent, it was something that was emphasized with students at his school.
Casey tells me that he does feel like he pays extra attention to what he’s doing in relationships because of the #MeToo movement. “I kind of feel like I could be doing something wrong and wouldn’t know it,” Casey explains. “Like I ask and stuff, but I’m worried if someone said yes just because she felt like she should say yes, that I would go ahead anyway. I don’t know.”
While some people feel like all of the talk about consent just reinforces what they have already been learning about respecting boundaries and how to have conversations with their partners, others are not learning about consent. And whether consent is addressed at school or not, it can be really stressful when you don’t know what your partner is thinking and feeling and you’re worried you might hurt them.
It seems part of the solution is making sure partners keep communicating and err on the side of caution, never assuming they know what their partner feels or wants. At the same time, both partners have to feel safe and empowered to express what they do or don’t want.
Threatened by Addressing Sexual Assault
While some people’s response to all this talk about sexual assault is to take it more slowly and communicate with a partner, others feel attacked. One mother even tweeted that her son was afraid to go on “solo dates due to the current climate of false sexual accusations by radical feminists with an axe to grind.” But there is no “climate of false sexual accusations.” Only between 2 and 10 percent of reported rapes are determined to be false, according to one study, which is consistent with other felonies like robbery. And many rapes go unreported.
I ask Jackson about this. “It makes me really sad honestly,” he says. “Like as much as I was horrified by the prevalence of rape, I was horrified by how many people didn’t seem to care or think it was their issue.” I ask him how he thinks men should make it their own issue. He tells me, “I think speaking up and not allowing people to degrade women or speak lowly of them. I think you need to strive for equality in all sectors.”
Addressing Rape Culture
But it’s not always easy to speak up when the people degrading women are your friends. Mitchell, 18, from Princeton, NJ talks about the tension between himself and other men (often friends) who don’t seem concerned about the prevalence of sexual assault. “It causes me a lot of discomfort because the people who are nice to me are probably very vile to women, and I’m not sure how to identify them most of the time,” explains Mitchell. This brings up an interesting issue. How do we engage with people who degrade women and create an environment where it’s OK to hurt them?
Mitchell tells me about a friend of his who often makes comments about women’s bodies while they are walking or out. “I don’t really know how to deal with it,” he says. When I speak to Jackson Katz, Ph.D., who runs Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), he explains how his trainings address dealing with these situations. Katz “talks through his ethical decision-making process, his responsibilities to women, to the guy who made the sexist comment, and to himself.” In moments where men objectify women or talk about women’s bodies like they are objects, Katz emphasizes that men have a responsibility to speak up. He tells me a man in Mitchell’s situation could “say something, like ‘Come on man, you know that’s not cool,’ or say nothing in the moment, but bring it up at another time when his friend might not react as defensively.”
Degrading women or treating them like sexual objects isn’t OK, whether or not the woman can hear you. Behavior like this is often subtle, but it creates a world where it’s OK to treat women and girls as if they are less than human. Katz emphasizes in his work that rape culture, a culture which allows for such prevalent rates of sexual assault, is played out in small-scale, male-male interactions or in the quiet notions that it’s acceptable to treat women badly. Katz’s idea of masculinity is one that supports women rather than degrades them. This version of masculinity makes the world a safer place for everyone. The more guys respond to sexual assault by insisting their friends and other guys treat women with respect, the better for all of us.
Got questions about consent? Check out “Consent 101:A How-to Guide.”
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