In 2007, my husband and I went to the first parent-teacher conference for our daughter, Beatrice (not her real name), who had started Kindergarten a couple months before. I was eager to hear about my smart little girl. Because of Beatrice’s advanced language skills, we had decided to send her to a private international school with a Spanish immersion program. Although we are native speakers of English, this meant she would be learning in Spanish subjects like reading and math. Naturally, I wanted to know how she was adapting to her new school–the immersion part, the academics, and to some extent the social life.
We sat down at one of the tiny tables that dotted the classroom and the teacher said to us, “Beatrice is doing great!” I heaved a sigh of relief and looked at my husband and smiled. Clearly, we had made the correct decision sending our daughter to this school.
The teacher then continued (somewhat exuberantly): “The boys love Beatrice. They always want to sit or stand right next to her. They hold her hand. . . .”
By now, my feminist mom mind had switched on a very bright lightbulb over my head. When the teacher finished with her description I asked (somewhat diplomatically), “Is Beatrice ok with that?”
The teacher didn’t hesitate: “Oh yes, she loves it!”
Hmmm…I thought. But does she? Does she really?
We did at that point go on to discuss how Beatrice was adapting to foreign language immersion and academics, but the question hung in the balance. Beatrice had always been a joy–a natural entertainer to whom people, adults and children alike, were drawn. If someone was down, she would comfort or try to cheer him or her up. I wondered if perhaps the teacher’s assessment of her interactions with her male classmates did not reflect how Beatrice genuinely felt about all that attention, including the touching part of it.
So I went home and asked her. Beatrice was only five years old and had little self-awareness but I knew my daughter well enough to see that she found the routine invasion of her personal space by the boys–at the very least– annoying. In any event, it clearly wasn’t something that she loved or wanted as the teacher seemed to infer (and enthusiastically at that).
Consent. It is actually so simple (Yes means Yes; No means No; unconscious people are incapable of consent–see this video about tea to drive home the point):
Yet, young children are so innocent we don’t tend to think that sexual consent is an issue at that point. The problem is that teachers like my daughter’s, when they put a positive spin on a boy’s impulse to touch a nice, pretty little girl, send a potentially dangerous message that both the boy and the girl may bring with them into adulthood. The message that the boy gets is that he has carte blanche to touch girls. The message that the girl gets is that she has to suck it up and pretend it doesn’t bother her.
These messages are dangerous, particularly when coupled with a culture that is–face it–absolutely saturated with messages that women are not in control of their own bodies; that unwanted touching is something to be endured without complaint; and that if a woman does dare to complain about unwanted sexual contact (e.g. rape) she will be the one who is blamed, shamed, dismissed, and worst of all, even when believed, her rapist will get off with little more than a wink and a nod.
Growing up in this culture–the so-called “rape culture”–in this country makes for future men who may see “no” as just an inconvenient roadblock to move out of the way through verbal or physical coercion or brute force, or that believe if a woman is sexually assaulted on a college campus she is not a rape victim but merely an inconvenient roadblock to a college man’s bright future. It makes for little girls who think it’s ok for little boys to invade their personal space because the teacher (who is, after all, a product of rape culture herself) thinks it’s cute, even if it is actually annoying to the little girl, who just wants to be left alone.
The problem is that teachers like my daughter’s, when they put a positive spin on a boy’s impulse to touch a nice, pretty little girl, send a potentially dangerous message that both the boy and the girl may bring with them into adulthood. The message that the boy gets is that he has carte blanche to touch girls. The message that the girl gets is that she has to suck it up and pretend it doesn’t bother her.
Therein lies the rub:
When schools have stringent dress codes that specifically target girls, this sends the message that girls are responsible for making sure that boys are not attracted to them, thereby serving as a distraction, and further implies that boys do not have the responsibility to learn and practice self control when around girls.
When matters of women’s bodies and health are routinely decided by male lawmakers rather than the woman herself and her doctor, this sends the message that women are not in charge of their own bodies.
When campus sexual assault is routinely “dealt with” outside the confines of the criminal justice system, that sends the message that a man’s future and the reputation of colleges and universities are more important than a woman’s health, safety, and physical and psychological well-being.
When the “song of the summer” (Robin Thicke’s hit song “Blurred Lines”) is all about “no” maybe not really meaning “no” and claiming that really there are “blurred lines” in the context of sexual consent, that sends the message that it’s ok to coerce or force a woman into sexual activity or ignore a woman’s state of consciousness; and further, that women don’t even know what they want sexually so men should just go ahead and decide for them.
When the hottest bestseller and movie (Fifty Shades of Grey) romanticizes the story of an older man who refuses to take no for an answer from a college woman and enters into what is an essentially physically and emotionally abusive relationship with her, this sends the message that relationships such as that one are normal, healthy, and desirable.
When a woman is brutally raped and assaulted by a college student (Stanford swimmer Brock Turner) who is convicted, yet receives a three-month jail sentence because the (male) judge is concerned about his future (and–“Hey-he is an amazing swimmer”!), that sends the message that even if a woman goes forward with a criminal rape case and is believed, her life and self-worth as a victim of rape is not worth as much as the convicted rapist’s future.
On the other hand, slut shaming puts society in the position of judging a woman’s exercise of certain freedoms by invariably identifying with the male perspective. American women should be as free as men, however, to make their own choices in life. Thus, when an adult woman consents to sexual activity with an adult man, that is her business. She can make these decisions for herself, and it isn’t the place of a man or anyone else to make them for her.
Incidentally, having consensual sex doesn’t make a woman a “slut” or a “whore,” any more than it makes a man who decides to have consensual sex with a woman a “_______” (fill in the blank, because there is no male version of the term “slut” in our rape culture lexicon). It doesn’t mean a woman is asking to be raped when she dresses in a way that some men might happened to find alluring. Women should not be responsible for men’s lack of impulse control, however. Boys and girls need to learn this from an early age before it becomes “normal” and accepted adult behavior.
One more time everyone: “no” means “no” and “yes” means “yes.” There is no secret language that exists–at least outside of our culture, which at every turn glorifies male sexual domination and control, equates masculinity with sexual conquest, and excuses men from wrongdoing because, well, a man has a powerful desire to do something wrong to a woman. Put differently, sexual consent is no different than consenting to drink tea–the only difference between these two scenarios is that men (boys) have really strong urges at times to have sex with women (touch girls) but care a lot less about tea drinking.
It’s high time that we see our rape culture for what it is and make meaningful changes to it. Our young children–both and boys and girls–are watching, and listening, and learning.