The current spotlight on campus sexual assault will no doubt raise awareness among college students of their legal rights and obligations. One hopes that it will also hold universities accountable for the social cultures they tolerate, if not create, on their own campuses. But difficult conversations about sexual responsibility need to be raised well before our children head off to college. As a law professor who has taught rape for more than a decade, and as a father of teenage boys, I believe that if we want to change behavior, we need to train young men to recognize sexual assault when it occurs and to internalize norms against it. Our conversations about rape need to start in our homes, at our dining room tables.
Raising responsible and respectful men requires having difficult conversations with them about sex and gender roles. On these topics, being a criminal law professor has made me a better father, and being a father has made me a better criminal law professor. By performing each of these roles simultaneously for several years, I have learned the following eight lessons about how we can help young men better understand sexual assault.
As parents and teachers, we must recognize dismissive behavior toward women and girls and take corrective action when it occurs, whether it is between classmates on the playground or siblings at the dinner table.
First, there is a communication deficit between men and women. I have observed this in my own classroom. A female student may make a comment that is immediately dismissed or minimized by a male colleague, but if a male student makes a similar comment the point is taken more seriously by other men in the room. The habit of not giving a woman’s words their full weight explains why some young men misinterpret a woman’s reluctance to have sex as “playing hard to get,” rather than exactly what it is: lack of consent. As parents and teachers, we must recognize dismissive behavior toward women and girls and take corrective action when it occurs, whether it is between classmates on the playground or siblings at the dinner table.
Second, “no means no” is not a useful guidepost anymore to help boys understand rape. Sometimes silence, passivity or equivocation means no. In many states, intercourse is considered sexual assault if it occurs without permission by words or conduct. A jury can find a defendant guilty of rape even if the complainant did not physically or verbally resist, if it is determined that she was unwilling to engage in that act. In order to protect themselves and their intimate partners, young men need to be taught not to have sex unless they have absolute clarity about their companion’s intentions.
Third, consent may be withdrawn at any time. A woman’s behavior or words during intimacy might reasonably point to her interest in having sex, but if those signals change during foreplay (or even during intercourse), continued sexual penetration is a crime. Our sons need to understand that stop means stop.
Fourth, alcohol and drugs impede reliable communication. When your partner has ingested either, the onus is on you to get express verbal permission before engaging in sexual activity, because intoxication impedes both judgment and clarity.
Fifth, it is possible for someone to be so drunk that the law considers them incapable per se of consenting to sex. In most states, if you have sexual contact with a minor, or an unconscious or disabled person, that is rape. So too, if you have sex with someone who is so intoxicated that she is wholly insensible. If your partner is slurring her words, unsteady on her feet, unaware of her surroundings or incapable of removing her own clothes, she is probably too drunk to legally consent to sex.
Sixth, young men need to understand that, even if they are honestly mistaken about their sexual partner’s willingness to have sex, they may still be guilty of rape. Some states like Massachusetts do not recognize mistake as a defense to rape. Even in states that recognize the mistake defense, a defendant’s intoxication will be no excuse for failing to recognize the victim’s lack of consent if a reasonable sober person in the defendant’s situation would have realized that she did not want to have sex.
Peer pressure among young men to engage in sexual “conquest” has contributed to our current epidemic of campus sexual assault. We now need equal and countervailing pressure among young men to behave respectfully toward women.
Our sons must have the courage to stand up and intervene when they observe a situation likely to lead to sexual assault. Peer pressure among young men to engage in sexual “conquest” has contributed to our current epidemic of campus sexual assault. We now need equal and countervailing pressure among young men to behave respectfully toward women. When a college student observes a drunk and sexually aggressive male carrying a helpless woman out of a basement fraternity party, he needs to step in, separate them, and escort one of them home. We need to teach young men successful strategies for bystander intervention if we want to prevent sexual assault. It’s simply not okay to look the other way.
Finally, we need to teach young men that they, too, are entitled to reject unwanted sexual advances. Studies show that one in five women and one in sixteen men will be the victims of completed or attempted sexual assault while in college. By discussing rape around our dinner tables as only a crime against women, we potentially silence young men by marginalizing their experiences. Our sons need to be taught not only that they have the right to refuse sex, but that they should not be ashamed to report it if ever they ever fall prey to sexual violence.
As a law professor and the father of boys, I believe that the best way to prevent sexual assault on campus is to teach our sons not to be rapists before they get there.