The May 2016 Teaching Resistance column in MRR frankly reflects on doing the necessary (and difficult) task of teaching young students what consent means, and how that teaching is impacted and must be informed by the existence of very real structural and socio-economic schisms in society as a whole. The column's author is Sam Dillinger, a sexual violence prevention educator and advocate for survivors in the Bay Area. Sam can be emailed directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rotten Agenda
When I was in school, we didn't talk about rape, at least not in any educational context. We may have watched the news, overheard our parents talking about what “that poor girl” was wearing, or how much she had to drink, and lament the fact that their daughters would be advised of the safety precautions so they would never fall prey to becoming victims of their own ignorance. Consent, as it applies to sex, wasn’t a concept I was familiar with until my late teens, which was long after I had become sexually active. Rape, as far my peers and I knew, was something that happened to girls and women who didn’t know how to protect themselves, and was always perpetrated by an obese, pedophilic creep who would inevitably chop us up into little pieces afterward because he hated his mother (Any of you who were also raised by Jewish women can probably recall this familiar anecdote). This notion often led to confusion, however, as it seemed that anytime an act of sexual violence was perpetrated by one of our peers, it was almost always met with the age-old idiom, “boys will be boys.” Of course, no one ever mentioned that boys were victimized too.
At some point, our paradigm for discussing rape started to shift. Adult women grew tired of having their outfits, sexual history, alcohol consumption, and curfew policed and started demanding that we begin to hold rapists accountable for their actions rather than teach people how to avoid being raped. Straight men became sick of having their masculinity questioned every time they didn't want to have sex, or having their experience of sexual assault disregarded entirely. Still, based on my job title, people often assume that I teach rape prevention techniques that include self-defense, the buddy system, and how to ensure that no one spikes your drink. Rather, I teach a comprehensive curriculum that includes topics such as boundaries, consent, and date rape. To put it bluntly, I teach kids how not to be fucking rapists.
What We Do is Secret
I am a prevention educator and an advocate at a Bay Area Rape Crisis Center. As previously mentioned, I teach sexual violence prevention, and I also advocate for rape victims, which can be anything from accompaniments to forensic exams (known colloquially as “rape kits”) to assisting with emergency shelter. Most of the time, the education component of my job is fun as hell, but one of the biggest challenges that we face as educators is to confront the different ways that gender, culture, privilege and economic disparity all greatly affect how curriculum are received by our students and their ability to apply it to their own lives. Most of us in the Rape Crisis biz are cheerleaders for prevention but sometimes it feels like while we're patting ourselves on the back for all of our important work, we lose sight of a simple but important fact: Our curriculum needs to be effective in order for it to be meaningful. It's not enough to hand kids the legal definition of consent and expect them to know what to do with it, and it's not enough to tell them that rape is bad because most of them already know that. As educators, we have a responsibly to make our curriculum applicable to the lives of our students. Essentially what we're teaching is empathy, while simultaneously combating the institutionalized sexism, racism, and classism that they have been exposed to their entire lives.
The places where I teach span a wide range of demographics. The county where I work harbors some of the most elite and privileged youth in the Bay Area, as well as some of the most disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged. The schools that I go into are predominantly white and affluent, and the students in my juvenile hall groups are primarily black and Latino. A person enjoying a great deal of societal privilege is going to respond differently to prevention education than is a person who views the world from an opposing vantage point. The privileged person may have difficulty feeling empathy because they have never needed to in order to be considered a “good person,” while the disadvantaged person may struggle because they likely haven't felt as if anyone has been empathetic towards them. I am generalizing here, because this is not to say that privileged folks are never empathetic and that less advantaged folks are all callous. I'm only illuminating the fact that it's human nature to have our capacity to feel for others entangled with our own life experiences.
So, the big question is, what are the implications of this for prevention educators? How do we cater to students' sensibilities while being careful not to preemptively assign their responses to them based on their socioeconomic status? I don't fucking know, but I can make an educated guess. The primary difference between fortunate and less fortunate youth is this: Privileged kids have a hard time accepting the fact that sexual assault is prevalent in their affluent, well-to-do communities. Under privileged kids, on the other hand, are well aware of the sexual assault in their communities, but they find it hard to care about it because they face so many other problems that actually affect them more directly. Ignorance and apathy have both long been the peaks of the systemic plague concerning sexual violence, and it's imperative that they be addressed systematically but separately.
Hey, Little Rich Boy
Rich kids like rules. Well, maybe they don't like them, but they fear and understand them. Consequences can seem more severe to people who have never had to experience them. If I tell a classroom full of upper-class teenagers the definition of legal consent, they're more apt to pay attention if they think there will be legal ramifications if they inadvertently break the law during a sexual encounter. Most of their questions begin with, “Will I go to jail if...” and then they plug in some really obscure scenario. Conversations can continue with these types of hypothetical questions for an eternity if I don't eventually redirect and tell them we need to move on. Moreover, most of these kids are, conventionally speaking, “good students.” To them, that means participating and listening just enough to ace the rape-myth exam we administer at the end of every presentation. I have to wonder though, what are they really getting out of it?
Sometimes I have presentations that felt super productive, and then during the last fifteen minutes we'll do “anonymous questions” and my cardboard box will be filled with little pieces of paper written on in teenage boy scratch that say things like, “ur hot” and “do u like 2 choke on dick.” In those moments I think, god damn, what is the fucking point? It's frustrating to be sexually harassed by a little pissant teenager whose knowledge of sex doesn't span further than the porn he watches on the new iPhone his parents bought him, literally seconds after you committed the last two hours of your life thinking that you're doing your part to dismantle the patriarchy. But then, in that same class, there can be the girl who approaches you afterward with tears in her eyes, asking for help because a boy texted naked pictures of her to the entire school, or the boy who had never been told that women could rape men, and he wants to talk about the sexual assault he endured at age twelve. For every twenty teenagers that I want to cause grievous, bodily harm to, there's always one or two that make it worth my time.
Still Out of Order
The County where I work is not very diverse, but the groups that I facilitate in juvenile hall are predominantly comprised of black and Latino residents. These participants tend to be more respectful than the aforementioned demographic, but they often have a strict set of ideologies pertaining to sex, sexual orientation, and gender roles. It can be difficult to combat the ideas that they have about men and women, and who is allowed to engage in what kind of behavior. Again, this group can generally agree that rape is bad, but the challenge is getting them to understand that the way society functions as a whole contributes to the high rates of sexual abuse. It's not very labor intensive to explain the extremely high rates of sexual abuse in the United States; the task is asking them to think about why.
Most of these kids are not strangers to gender based violence, but likely have not considered the ways in which our attitudes and language largely contribute to the normalization of this epidemic. I usually ask them to think about ways in which they've been discriminated against based on stereotypes about their gender, race or class. Most group members can recall multiple times when they were treated differently from their white peers or had their morals or intelligence questioned by authority figures. We almost always talk about law enforcement's affinity for getting trigger happy with black and Latino kids, and I ask them to consider why these officers are seldom help accountable. They generally don't have to do much pondering before they realize that our list of discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes are the foundation of race and class based violence. This initial conversation sets the framework for these kids to begin to draw the same conclusions about gender based violence and sexual assault. They start to dismantle their own biases about gender and sexuality, realizing that the societal rules that they've learned only reinforce the status quo which, in turn, reinforces their own oppression. Once they realize that conventional, narrow-minded attitudes about gender, sexual orientation and sexuality are the rule, they become much more interested in breaking it.
Everything I've written about so far really only scratches the surface of the dynamics and implications of prevention education. The suggested strategies for implementation are based only on my own observations. Moreover, I'm only recalling the best case scenario moments and what has worked; I have little insight to lend to all of the times that my techniques have been met with apathy and blank stares. The outlying factors are just too numerous to count and analyze. It would be naïve to think that two hours or eight group sessions with these kids is going to eradicate a lifetime of being exposed to implicit messages about gender and sexuality that are misleading and harmless. Sometimes my line of work feels thankless, but only insofar as its effectiveness is immeasurable.
I assume that many of these concepts are redundant to a lot of MRR's readers, however, I'm in the punk scene too, and I know how easy it is to become complicit when we begin to feel like we're preaching to the choir. We might think, Well, my community doesn't hang out with rapists or I'm not sexist or a bigot, and while those are commendable attributes, it's not enough. Anyone who goes out into the world is quickly acquainted with the stark reality that rape apologists, sexism, and bigotry are the norm. We are often confronted with these ideologies and the people who embody them, but we rarely take the opportunity to educate because if they're not in our scene, then they're simply not worth our time. I'm not suggesting that we leap to our soapboxes every time we hear someone make a joke about “surprise sex,” but we all might benefit from reinvigorating some of that political angst that we felt so strongly in our teens. Apathy and complacency are the pillars of a system that upholds the acceptance of sexual violence, and taking a moment to remember what drew us to this scene in the first place or occasionally standing up for our beliefs won't entirely dismantle this institution, but it might be a good start. --Sam Dillinger