I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column “When the Rapist Doesn’t See It as Rape” with a heady mix of revulsion, familiarity and gratitude that such a widely read and respected journalist had devoted white space to this issue. Kristoff drew on Jon Krakauer’s new book Missoula to call attention to the discrepancy between the public’s perception of rapists as menacing strangers and the much more common reality of rape committed by acquaintances who often don’t perceive their actions as rape at all.
The cognitive dissonance that resides in many perpetrators’ minds is hardly news to those who have advocated, educated and fought to end rape and sexual assault for decades. This latest commentary brought to my mind a three-year-old Reddit thread in which rapists told “their side of the story.” Predictably, the collective effect of thousands of comments was chilling. Men (primarily) described plying women (nearly exclusively) with alcohol and physically overpowering them, and they excused their behavior by blaming peer pressure, biological necessity and, above all, the women they assaulted, whom they perceived as sending mixed signals.
While reading rape apologia ad nauseam can seemingly lead to nothing but despair, once you cut through the victim-blaming, I believe these accounts do a better job of laying bare the nature of our rape culture than many erudite feminist analyses. It is hard to deny the pervasiveness of gender double standards, biological determinism, slut-shaming and a good old-fashioned “boys will be boys” mentality when faced with such firsthand accounts.
So how should we respond? I believe that sexuality educators can and must play a fundamental role in dismantling rape culture by addressing these issues head on in the classroom. A good place to start is with age-appropriate discussions about gender and power. For example, educators working with elementary school students can ask students to reflect on the types of toys and clothing marketed toward boys and girls as a way to introduce the concept of gender roles and societal expectations about gender. In middle school, students will be ready for discussions about gender roles and stereotypes in friendships and romantic relationships. These conversations lay the groundwork for more detailed lessons for high school students to analyze the ways gender roles and expectations influence young people’s ability to refuse or consent to sex, negotiate condom use and set and maintain boundaries.
High-quality sex education can and should equip young people with the language and tools to understand and critique the roles of gender and power in their friendships and romantic relationships. Creating safe classroom spaces for students to explore these topics can begin to create cultural shifts in gender norms and related behaviors. Research shows that sex education that addresses gender and power is more likely to have positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Given that greater than ten percent of high school girls and four percent of boys report being forced to have sex, and more than 14 percent of girls and six percent of boys have experienced sexual dating violence, educators have an imperative to incorporate discussions of sexual violence into their curricula. Only by openly addressing these issues and laying bare the discrepancies and dissonance that underlie rape culture can we begin to create a new paradigm in which victims are believed, boundaries are respected and healthy relationships are established.
If you would like to learn more about teaching about healthy relationships and addressing the unique needs of boys in the sex education classroom, check out our online workshops Boys and Sex Ed and Relationship Skills for Teens.