What Does Consent Look Like?
Originally Published: April 1, 2014
Revised: April 1, 2014
Just so we’re clear, not all rapists are offering candy to little kids or lurking in an alley, ready to attack. Too often, we imagine rape or sexual assault only involving violence or child predators. But 66 percent of rape victims knew their rapists, and 38 percent of the rapists were even friends of the victim, according to a 2005 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Forty-four percent of rape victims are under the age of 18, so sexual assault unfortunately is an issue teens should know about. Everyone has to understand that rape can affect children, teens and adults and if a person does not or cannot consent or agree to have sex, then it’s rape. And it doesn’t matter if the rapist is a stranger, friend or a significant other. If sexual boundaries are crossed, rape is happening.
Rape can range from having sex with someone at a party who is too drunk to consent to having sex with someone under a certain age (even if they consent) to forcing a significant other to have sex against his or her will. In order for sexual behavior to be consensual, a person must have the capacity to consent or agree to sex, which means they are not mentally disabled, under the influence of drugs or alcohol and are of legal age to be able to consent.
If we understand what consent does or doesn’t look like, we can speak up and help prevent sexual assault.
Intoxicated Partners Cannot Consent
A look at the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, rape case paints a telling picture of how rape can happen among teens. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond had egos larger than life; these rising football stars didn’t see an issue with fingering a drunken, incapacitated girl—all while posting the acts on social media. They probably thought, It isn’t rape if she’s letting it happen, right? Wrong. Sexually forcing themselves on a drunken girl who can’t consent is not her “letting it happen.” This is illegal, and it’s rape.
It would be easy to tell teens not to get drunk. While this advice makes sense, the solution to preventing rape goes much further. Instead of blaming victims for getting too drunk, the responsibility lies with the rapist(s) and his or her friends to prevent the situation from occurring. Friends need to tell each other that it’s not OK to exploit someone who’s drunk at a party. It can be hard for friends to be authoritative with each other, but when a potential rape is in the making, they owe it to the victim to have the courage to intervene by stopping the potential rapist and getting the potential rape victim to a safe place.
Seventeen-year-old Jim from Princeton, NJ, says, “When I stopped my friend from hooking up with a drunk girl, he yelled at me for ‘cock-blocking’ him. But the next morning he thanked me for stopping him from making a huge mistake.”
Jim’s actions prevented a terrible rape for the victim and serious legal trouble for his friend. Just as I imagine the victim of the Steubenville rape looks back feeling traumatized and wishing she had never been sexually assaulted, Mr. Mays and Mr. Richmond sit in juvenile hall as registered sex offenders. I guess they wish a teammate had stopped them from abusing a girl that night.
Coercion Is Not Consent—Even If You’re Dating
We know that exploiting someone who’s drunk and can’t consent is rape, but it is hard to imagine that intimate one-on-one time with a significant other could lead to rape as well. The truth is that coercing a partner to have sex is rape. However, through communication from both partners and a respect for each other’s limits, nonconsensual sex can be avoided and the relationship can grow in a healthy manner.
Sarah, 17, of West Chester, NY, says, “Of course it’s important to discuss with your significant other what boundaries you’re both willing to go to—that’s just the recipe for a healthy relationship.”
Anyone who discusses boundaries prior to engaging in intimate behavior should be applauded. It takes a lot of maturity for partners to talk about sexual boundaries, and this is the clearest way to establish consent. If you and your partner are starting to advance sexually and you sense any discomfort or hesitations, you should stop and talk about how you and your partner feel. Communication is essential for setting clear boundaries and avoiding any misinterpretations that could lead to sexual assault.
People need to understand that their significant others don’t owe them sexual favors. Just because you treated your partner to a free movie ticket and dinner at Friday’s or that you’ve been dating for a few months doesn’t mean you “deserve sex.” When it comes to relationships, “No,” means no, just as it does in any other setting.
Too Young to Consent
But what about cases of statutory rape where two teens consent to sex? For example, in some states, if anyone age 18 or older engages in sexual activity with someone under age 16, it’s rape. Depending on specific birthdays, a senior in high school could be 18 years old while his or her boyfriend is a 14-year-old freshman or sophomore in high school. Even though it is completely normal for couples to be two or three grades apart in age, it may still be considered rape in certain states for this couple to engage in sex. Although this couple may feel like they are consenting, the younger partner is legally too young to consent. If high school students get familiar with their state’s statutory rape laws, they can be sure they aren’t breaking a statutory rape law they might not have even known about. In the U.S., all states have a legal age of consent, whether it’s 16, 17 or 18.
Rape has serious emotional and legal consequences. Just ask 17-year-old registered sex offenders Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond and the girl they raped. Rape is a serious issue, and it can happen at a party or within a relationship just as it could happen in a dark alley. The blame can’t be put on the victims. It is up to bystanders to speak up if they see a guy at a party trying to get an incapacitated girl by herself or someone clearly pressuring someone else. We have to take the initiative to stop the potential rapist immediately and get the at-risk person to a safe place. It is up to us as a society to understand consent and never ever stand for anyone forcing, manipulating or bullying another person into having sex. If we understand what consent does or doesn’t look like, we can speak up and help prevent sexual assault.
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