The White House released new guidelines on sexual assault Tuesday with a strong focus on bystander intervention programs and prevention education. Earlier this month, TIME spoke to college men about how sexual assault awareness changes their approach to sex.
One night during my freshman year of college, I was in the room of a male pseudo-friend-pseudo-love interest, doing what college kids do when they’re drunk and into each other (we weren’t playing Settlers of Catan). In the middle of a fully clothed, lukewarm makeout, he suddenly pulled away. “Do you, uh, consent?” he said. We hadn’t even taken our shoes off. “Um, yes?” I said. Frankly, the question was the most shocking thing that happened all night.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. When 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college, the conversation around rape has veered away from what women can do to protect themselves (advice which can quickly turn to victim-blaming) and has instead focused on what young men can do to make their campuses safer. Since many college men are just as concerned about sexual assault as their female classmates, that’s a step in the right direction.
But there are so many different prevention strategies that sometimes the messages can contradict each other. On the one hand, guys are warned that clear communication about consent can help prevent sexual assaults. On the other hand, they’re reminded that sexual assaults are acts of violence, not misunderstandings. “I don’t think that most rapes are the result of a miscommunication,” said Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. “I think they’re intentional acts in which the criminal knows what he’s doing.”
It’s easy to see how young men might be less than sure-footed. Research shows that only 6% of college-aged men admit to forcing or coercing a girl into sex, and those who do tend to be repeat offenders. But what about men who are not serial rapists but are still steeped in the hyper-nuanced conversation about assault prevention? When boys are told that sexual assault is everywhere, that it’s hard to identify and that everyone is at risk of crossing a line, some of them begin to wonder: could I have done something like this? Or even come close? It’s a minefield of mixed messages and blurred lines, leaving boys wondering where they fit on a spectrum that includes everything from “hookup” to “jerk” to “criminal.”
Dylan Munro, a sophomore applied math major at Harvard, explains it this way: “There is an inkling in your mind, especially when you first start to talk about that, to think ‘oh my god, did I ever do this? Could I have ever made someone feel uncomfortable accidentally?’” he said. “It makes you question things you’ve said to people in the past, whether anything could be misinterpreted.”
“Just being a male, it’s natural to think ‘oh I hope I’m not that kind of guy.'” Munro said. “And then you quickly realize, ‘oh whew, it’s okay, I’m not that kind of guy.'”
The changing definition of “consent” fuels a lot of this anxiety. Ben Murrie, one of the producers of a traveling campus assault education program called Sex Signals, says his program defines consent as “present, active, ongoing, freely given, and sober,” in an attempt to move away from the old “no means no” idea of consent. But to a literal-minded college student, that means anyone who willingly has sex after a couple beers could be a rape victim, and anyone who doesn’t hear “please continue with intercourse” could be a rapist.
Matthew Kaiser is a Washington D.C.-based lawyer who often represents male students who have been accused of sexual assault, and he says there’s “substantial ambiguity” about the definition of crime in college handbooks. “It’s not clear who’s understanding of the moment matters, if you’re in a situation where one person reasonably believes that the other person is consenting, but the other person does not believe they’re consenting,” he said. “In a lot of schools, the student code just doesn’t answer whether that’s a sexual assault or not.” That’s also something the new White House guidelines are trying to address, with an increased focused on school transparency and accountability.
To add to the confusion, there’s not a lot of common ground between the awkward communication encouraged by campus counselors and the rip-your-clothes-off sex that students see on TV.
Jonathan Kalin is a senior at Colby and former captain of the basketball team who helped found Male Athletes Against Violence and Party With Consent, two organizations that help college-aged men discuss consent and sexual assault prevention. He says he and his friends have noticed that most of the sex in the media is totally wordless, without any conversation at all. “Whether it’s a music video, a song, a movie, pornography, there’s usually an understanding that you have sex and there’s no talking going on,” he said. “Every single person who goes on the screen has signed consent forms, but when we see it it’s just silence.”
But there are times when silence—from either gender—can be just as misleading. In a particularly confusing assault prevention skit we saw freshman year, a girl went to a guy’s room, willingly took off her clothes, and they had (simulated) sex. She had a momentary hesitation, but never said “no,” or offered any kind of resistance, or tried to put her clothes back on. It looked like a regular scene from Sex & the City. When the prevention counselors asked at the end of the skit whether this was sexual assault, the room filled with a resounding “yes” Because the girl had not explicitly said that she wanted to have intercourse, it qualified as non-consensual sex.
So even if young people (kind of) understand the official definition of consent, they’re not always that good at communicating with each other in the moment. And who is? A candid conversation about consent doesn’t match most people’s idea of pillowtalk. Sometimes, especially when it’s just a casual hookup, the situation is awkward enough already, and explicit clarity about consent just makes things weirder. “Who’s job is it to initiate the conversation? There’s no universal for that,” Kalin explained. “It’s a taboo for a guy to just say ‘hey do you want to have sex with me?’”
But even among the mixed messaging and the self-doubt, most college age men want to do everything they can to keep campus safe for their female classmates. “A lot of people who are good guys know they’re good people, but it’s dangerous to get in a self-congratulatory state,” Munro said. “You can be a nice guy, but you also have to be a good ally and a good friend and look out for people who aren’t such good guys.”
That’s why many sexual assault prevention programs are beginning to focus on bystander intervention just as much as consent, to mobilize the majority of “good guys” (and girls) to help stop the bad ones. The White House’s new guidelines include a recommendation that more universities start bystander intervention programs like the ones at University of New Hampshire or University of Kentucky. Murrie says that teaching other students to step up to prevent rape is much more effective than “risk reduction” messages about drinking and self-defense that could make women feel like being raped was somehow in their control. “Those messages are wonderful, but if it comes with the tagline of ‘if you didn’t do this, it’s your fault’ then it doesn’t belong anywhere,” he said.
Murrie’s on the right track, since research shows that bystander intervention programs actually work. A study at UMass found that men who’d had bystander intervention training were 26% more likely to step in to stop an assault than ones who hadn’t. So in the murky bog of sexual assault prevention, the importance of interrupting bad situations (from girls as well as guys) may be one of the only things that’s becoming clear.
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