I wrote this post about boys and consent in April of 2013. I was in the midst of researching my book Boys, Sex & Media and the Steubenville and Rehtaeh Parsons cases had both made headlines. How unfortunate that this post is relevant again in Ontario, thanks to our new government’s decision to repeal a sex ed curriculum that taught consent.
My heart goes out to these young women—one who is scarred for life and the other who decided that her scars cut too deep and the pain could no longer be endured.
Raped, then publicly humiliated, verbally abused, laughed at, and blamed for the crimes of others. The abject cruelty involved—not only in the assaults but in the broadcasting of them and continued attacks—is incomprehensible, but it has raised important questions, chief among them: what is going on with boys today?
The outrage generated by these two cases has placed the spotlight squarely on boys and the people who raise them. The concerns are many:
- How can boys who commit acts like these not understand that what they are doing is rape?
- Even if they are murky on the definition of rape, why on earth do they think it is acceptable to publicize pictures of young women in this type of situation?
- Worse still, how could they ever find humour in the suffering of another person, much less feel the need to prolong that suffering with ongoing harassment of a girl? (This last question applies equally to the young women who feel it is their right to torment a victimized girl with words like “slut.”)
- And, perhaps most importantly, why did no one intervene?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about media, peer culture, and the influence of parents on the sexual attitudes and behaviour of adolescent boys. All three of these forces act on a young man in sometimes complex ways, framing his ideas about what sex should be:
- Media affects each child differently, with some young people being more vulnerable to negative messages than others.
- Peers are extremely influential, which might explain why multiple boys were involved in these two cases and why no one stepped up to stop the assaults from happening.
- Parents also play an important role. In fact, the more parents talk with their sons about their emerging sexuality and communicate their own values about sex, the less likely it is that their sons will act like the boys in Steubenville and Cole Harbour.
But few parents have those conversations with their sons. A big part of the problem, as I see it, lies in the stereotypes many people hold of boys as tough and independent. As reports I’ve read have indicated, many adults think that when it comes to sex, boys don’t need a lot of talk. Rather, the thinking goes, they’ll just figure it out—they’re young, their hormones are raging, and nature will take its course.
But boys don’t all figure it out, at least not in the way that they should. In the absence of guidance from a parent, another caregiver, or a teacher or other trusted adult, they may rely on friends who are just as uninformed as they are. They may also turn to media, which offers far more negative messages about sex than positive ones. And I’m not just talking about porn here. Mainstream music videos and “lad” magazines are replete with misogynistic imagery of sex and stereotypes that position men as sexual aggressors and women as willing, submissive playthings.
Actually, I should correct myself. Boys will figure out the act of sex—that part does come naturally to them as it does to girls. But they need more than just basic instinct. They need to learn about consent and boundaries, neither of which is emphasized in sex ed classes, in the popular culture from which some boys and girls receive their first lessons about sex, nor, I would wager, in the stilted conversations some parents have with their sons about the “act.” (Steubenville and Cole Harbour may change this though.)
Clearly, the majority of boys are not rapists but these two cases demonstrate that, even among those who do not commit rape, consent is neither valued nor entirely understood. If it were, onlookers would have stepped in, not laughed at the victim or posted pictures on Facebook. Actually, let’s take it back one step further: if consent were valued and understood, those boys would not have raped “Jane” and Rehtaeh in the first place.
This confusion about consent is common and is a major component of rape myths: she didn’t say no, so she must have meant yes; she said no, but didn’t stop me; she was drunk but I knew she really wanted it so I went ahead.
A recent article about a new sexual education initiative for LGBT youth noted that discussions of consent and communication are “completely overlooked in sex education now.” (That article was from Xtra magazine but the link is no longer available.) For kids who get their sex ed from television and film, messages about consent are also basically nonexistent, as a writer at Toronto’s York University noted in an article posted today:
“…how often is sexual consent given in film and television? And extending from whatever the probable answer is (hint: almost never), what does it mean?…What’s shocking is the lack of statistical documentation about this. There hasn’t been a single study done on approach and consent in film. It’s simply there, and taken for granted, which is intensely troubling.”
As I said earlier, the media is not the only influence on adolescents but there is evidence that safe sex messages in popular TV shows can influence attitudes,* so maybe the presence of clear discussions of consent would help too. Such messages would certainly be a good starting point.
I am not the first to talk about consent, of course, but I will join the chorus calling for more emphasis on consent in sex education classes and popular culture because it is so incredibly important. If the boys in Steubenville and Cole Harbour had known to ask for consent and understood what consent actually sounded like, two young women would not have suffered in the terrible ways they did.
Consent and boundaries go hand in hand. When you ask for consent, you respect boundaries, and people who respect boundaries respect the individuals those boundaries protect. Consequently, they do not make jokes when someone’s boundaries are violated, nor do they continue the humiliation of another person in social media or in school hallways.
As one commenter on Facebook noted about the Rehtaeh Parsons case, it is a complete failure of society. True. And educating our sons about consent, boundaries, and respect is one way of ensuring that things get better instead of continuing their downward spiral.
For more on culture and consent, read this post from Jennifer Shewmaker. http://jennifershewmaker.com/2013/01/05/steubenville-and-sexualization/
And for a great post about Steubenville and the importance of “total sex ed”, read this one from Henry Rollins. http://archive.henryrollins.com/dispatch/detail/dispatch_03-17-12_los_angeles
*Farrar, Kirstie M. “Sexual Intercourse on Television: Do Safe Sex Messages Matter?” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 50, no. 4 (2006), p. 645.