Promoting the Positive: Prevention Education

I often think about how to promote the positive in my life—eating healthy, getting outside and being active, and building healthy relationships with my family and friends. When you work at a Rape Crisis and Prevention Center you have to be very intentional about making more space for the good things than the bad things. Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean ignoring the reality that people I love, people in my community are experiencing sexual violence at alarming rates and that violence has a huge effect on their health.

As a prevention educator and someone who is known for working at Our VOICE, people often ask me: “How can I have (or continue) these conversations with people who are important to me, who are uncomfortable with or don’t want to have these conversations, without alienating them?”

I believe the best answer to that question is to promote the positive. Some of my friends and family may not be interested in or comfortable with talking about sexual and intimate partner violence or rape culture. But if I can engage the people in my life by talking about consent and the other elements of healthy relationships, I believe I am still doing my part.

If we want to get folks involved and committed to ending violence in our community and beyond we have to give folks the tools, language, and skills to create the community they desire. We cannot only say NO to what we do not want (i.e., sexual violence, rape culture, racism, transphobia, homophobia) but we have to actively decide upon and seek out what we do want in our lives and communities. Experiences of privilege and oppression play a huge role in how much ability a given person has to set boundaries and have those boundaries respected. However, as individuals we can do our personal best to communicate our own boundaries and respect others’. Modeling that kind of behavior will only help the people around us to feel safe and to reflect on their own boundaries, desires, and relationships.

For example, when I watch television shows with folks like this, I try to point out moments between characters that are consensual or demonstrate healthy communication. To be clear, conflict is a normal part of relationships. And conflict can be both healthy and unhealthy. So when I see healthy communication and conflict on TV or in movies I point it out! I say: “Wow they did such a great job working through such a difficult issue.” Or: “That was sexy/awesome/impressive… the way he just asked what they wanted and if they were comfortable!”

When I listen to songs on the radio I try do the same thing. One beautiful example of consent in a song is in Primetime by Janelle Monáe featuring Miguel, who sings, “Bang bang, I’m calling your name. You’re like a fire the world can’t tame. I wanna riot ‘til the stars come out and play. Is that okay?” Is that okay? What a beautiful example of making consent sexy and approachable. Consent and healthy communication are not easy. They both require constant learning and practice (and mistakes! Lots of awkward mistakes).

Although it can be more difficult, pointing out these moments IRL is just as important. (Apologies, I work with middle schoolers. IRL=In Real Life.) If you have a friend struggling to communicate their needs with an intimate partner, offer healthy suggestions, encourage them to feel empowered to set their boundaries. And if they try it out, give them constructive feedback. Say: “You are so brave for communicating your needs. Maybe next time you could be a little clearer about this one part. I’m so glad you feel safe to talk to your partner about this issue.”

Preventing sexual violence doesn’t have to always sound like “DON’T RAPE.” Although, duh. It can also sound like supporting the difficult processes that make up healthy sexual encounters and relationships. And as I’ve pointed out, media plays a HUGE role in modeling appropriate and acceptable (or unacceptable) behavior. Absolutely, call out sexual violence and rape culture when you see it. But let’s also celebrate the moments when our culture doesn’t fail us. When the teen show Beauty and The Beast shows a young woman communicating that her and her boyfriend will only have a healthy relationship if she is able to have alone time and time with her friends separate from him. (Not so guilty pleasure, I love YA media.)

And, if you’re into sports, celebrate the moments when athletes do the right thing. When they stand up for a cause that you believe in. When UFC Fighter Ronda Rousey tells young women and girls that they can be whatever they want outside of traditional (and often harmful) gender norms. Whatever they dream of being. Empowering individuals to live healthy, whole, authentic lives is just as much a part of dismantling the systems of privilege and oppression as holding perpetrators accountable. And this kind of empowering can feel so much less alienating (if at all) to folks who don’t think they are ready to hear about sexual violence and the necessary eradication of it.

–Erin is the Rape Prevention Educator at Our VOICE.

Only YES means YES: Navigating the waters of consent education

I teach a lot of students about the root causes of sexual violence and consent. The other day I was in a high school classroom and I said something to the effect of “the absence of NO does not mean YES. Consent must be a verbal agreement between both people.”

Immediately I saw a student’s hand go up. The simple question they asked has been on my mind since then. “What if the person cannot verbally say YES?” Now, I know that those that are deaf or unable to audibly express themselves can certainly give enthusiastic consent in other ways besides verbally. However, this question got me thinking about the ways we teach about sexual violence and consent and how we can begin to make this type of education more culturally specific, contextual and sensitive.

Each time I go into a classroom I learn something new from students and while I know we can always improve as prevention educators, here are a few things I think are important to address:

Power dynamics
Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within a complex social structure that benefits some social groups more than others. All forms of violence, sexual violence included, are buttressed by a foundation of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and many other types of power over that drive, normalize and make perpetration socially acceptable.

While conversations about power dynamics can be challenging to bring up in the classroom, they are extremely necessary. Power, control and entitlement are the main motivators of all forms of sexual violence. These conversations should be the foundation for dismantling systems of oppression, transforming social norms and creating a culture of consent.

Intersectionality
Intersectionality has become such a buzzword of late. It has become a buzzword, however, precisely because of its importance to social justice and social change. Statistics prove that people with more intersecting oppressed identities are more likely to experience sexual assault and violence. Starting at a perspective that allows us to understand that each individual has been shaped by society in unique ways based on their complex identities, allows us to:

  1. 1. Acknowledge each persons’ experiences as true and valid for them, and to
  2. 2. Recognize the need to describe oppressions as interconnected phenomena that cannot be examined separately

Our prevention programming should aim to engage students in conversations about intersectionality, because it translates directly to students’ lived experiences.

Language
As Prevention Educator, the language I use in the classroom when talking about sexual violence and consent is extremely important. For example, I cannot say, “verbal agreement,” and end the conversation there, when I know not everyone who is capable of consenting to sex is able to make a verbal agreement. I can engage and challenge the students with language by saying, “consent needs to be an enthusiastic, verbal agreement between two people. But what are some ways those who cannot verbally express themselves might express consent?”

Language and the ways we use it is one of the main ways we become blinded by our privileges. As educators, we will inevitably make mistakes with language over and over and over again. But it is okay; breathe. By acknowledging, learning from, and integrating those language considerations we can include and empower more students each time we teach.

Involving youth
This one may seem like a no brainer; of course we want to involve youth in consent education. But what I mean, is for sexual violence and consent education to be truly transformative, we must engage young people in what is important to them. This of course is easier said than done, but it all starts with listening.

Listening is the first thing we teach advocates working with survivors of sexual assault. It should also be the first thing we learn as educators. Listening to the lived experiences of young people and validating those experiences without judgment can be a powerful stepping stone to preventing violence and shifting social norms.

Focus on the perpetrators
Finally, the bottom line for prevention education is to shift attitudes and behaviors and this involves a lot of undoing conditioning around victim blaming. Our focus on prevention needs to be understanding predatory behavior and stopping perpetration of violence. Our culture’s focus on victim behavior, language, dress and actions creates shame and guilt for survivors of sexual violence. Through education we can empower students and community members to recognize perpetrator behavior and stand up and speak out against it.

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Much more could be said about education for the prevention of sexual violence and the creation of a culture of consent. We still need a lot of research around consent education, bystander intervention, perpetrator psychology and other topics related to the field. There are still some big, complex questions that require deep reflection and analysis. How is consent truly negotiated between two people willing to engage in sexual activity? Can those in marginalized positions truly give their consent? While sitting with these huge questions, it is comforting to know and be able to teach young people that no one deserves to be raped, that everyone has the right to decide when, how and with whom to have sex, and that anyone who has experienced sexual assault has options for healing available to them.

–Matt is the Prevention Education Coordinator at Our VOICE.