Over the past few years, sexual assault has gone from something in an after-school special to a very real problem plaguing college students across the country. While it's a widely accepted truth that parents and teachers must do a better job teaching young people, and in particular young men, about sexual consent, every time an assault happens, we are reminded of how badly these young men need coaching on what to do when the lines may be blurred.
Never has the need for this coaching become more apparent than two weeks ago, when the news of former Stanford athlete Brock Turner's crime, in which he assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, sickened the nation. In her powerful statement, Turner's victim reveals that "the night after it happened, he said he thought I liked it because I rubbed his back. … Never mentioned me voicing consent, never mentioned us even speaking, a back rub."
Is it possible Turner had never explicitly been taught the importance of getting a clear “yes” from a partner? Or did he learn but chose to ignore it? The victim's account got me thinking: How many men in this country know better, and how many just don’t know at all?
With Turner's case as the catalyst, I set out to capture a snapshot of the way men were taught about the concept of consent, and when they learned it. Through Twitter, Facebook, and email, I was able to connect with 48 guys, aged 18 to 49, in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. about when or if they formally learned about consent—and the numbers paint a grim picture of the state of sex education. Of the 48 surveyed, more than three quarters said that before college, they hadn't even heard the word "consent" or been given an explicit explanation of how you must ask for a partner’s permission. And of the remaining 11 who said they were taught about consent, most reported learning from parents or siblings.
Paula Madrigal was not surprised by my findings. She’s the assistant director of a sex education program at Buffalo State University in New York, and each year she meets young men and women embarking on their adult lives. In a 2015 episode of the podcast This American Life called “Birds & Bees,” you can hear Madrigal begin a conversation with her students about the concept of consent.
“It doesn’t sound right, it’s like you’re messing up the mood if you ask [for consent],” one student comments on the podcast. But Madrigal says that she has far bigger concerns than teens worrying about the mood.
"From what we have seen, it doesn’t appear as though they are familiar with what the basic premise of what consent even means," Madrigal told me in a phone conversation. And by the time they reach her workshops in their late teens, many students—particularly the male students—aren't able to see why this lesson is so profound.
Madrigal recognizes an education gap between the sexes about consent. But even more pronounced, she said, is the perception gap. "Statistically, men are typically the perpetrators [of sexual assault], and women are statistically the victims. So it’s almost natural that once you start talking about this, men are going to get defensive…It’s not so much from an educational standpoint, it’s that they start to personalize things. They’re not necessarily looking at the larger picture.”
A culture of male entitlement
For many of the men I spoke with, the void created by the absence of formal education on consent and how to treat a partner was filled in by their peers—and the result was rampant misinformation, and a culture of dangerous male entitlement.
Richard, 33, who grew up in the Bay Area, says he could remember when he started attending house parties in 8th grade, where drugs, alcohol and unsupervised spaces were readily available. This was the period of time when boys like him were becoming men, their sexuality awakening, and their views toward women were being molded—in other words, the time when a conversation about consent would have been crucial.
But alas, that conversation never took place, and the young men were left to figure out how to approach sex amongst themselves, leaving too much room for error.
“Some guys laughed off the idea of asking their girlfriend, "Is it okay if I do this?" And that was the start of seeing the dark, bad side,” Richard told me in an email. “You’d have a friend or hear a story about someone’s cousin or buddy who liked to get a girl high or drunk to make his sexual advances easier…he’d talk her into it or just force his will.”
He recalled these stories getting more unsavory through high school and into college, “with more guys admitting to crossing that line.” He saw how alcohol made it difficult for his female peers to consent, and how easy it made for the young men to defile them.
Another man, Alec, now in his late 20s, looks back with shame on how he, too, watched a culture of toxic masculinity and sexual impropriety develop around him and did nothing to stop it. Growing up Mormon in Orlando, Florida (he’s no longer practicing), he recalled being both wildly undereducated and yet totally exposed to sex. “I knew the mechanics of sex, but I was never taught that consent was a thing that must be given before sex can occur,” he told me in an email. “Sex just happened—usually between spouses, and that's all I knew.”
Alec and his brothers were taught by their deeply religious parents that sex before marriage would result in “grave consequences”—but once a couple was married, they were told, the wife was there for the husband’s taking. However, this foreboding didn’t stop the unmarried young men in his community from wanting sex and having it.
Being nice and an attentive partner were points or chips that a guy collected until he had enough to cash in for sex. Rape was seen as a violent act that a woman actively fought against. If a girl wasn't screaming and pushing you off her, she was not being raped. No one was teaching us this. No adult was broaching this subject. It was something that bubbled up in the cultural ether, something that became codified through whispers, innuendo, and tales of conquests. Clueless teenage boy teaching other clueless teenage boys what sex was, how you get it, and what actions are acceptable in the pursuit of getting it. Thus, vile rape culture became highly normalized. It was the only perspective I had, so I just accepted it—even though I was not having sex at this time. I was still complicit. I still laughed and joked and helped codify it further.
It wasn’t until Alec moved away to study theater at a liberal arts college that he finally understood the underlying concept that was so sorely missing from his early sex education. “I developed an understanding of active consent, of actively asking for consent, of how consent is impossible when a person is drunk or impaired, of how consent can be rescinded at any time and for any reason,” he said.
The fact that consent is a concept left unlearned by so many men until college is obviously problematic. Many freshmen orientations include a segment focused on safe sex—one man, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled that when he first attended Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College 13 years ago, the school offered a program called “Red Zone,” which focused on sexual assault, consent, and safety. (The term also refers to the first few weeks of freshman year when women are most likely to get sexually assaulted.) It’s hard to imagine that young men hearing about consent for the first time from a bunch of upperclassmen in khaki shorts and polos are going to take the lesson to heart. Like Brock Turner, at that point, a majority of their sexual attitudes have already been formed.
Learning the hard way
For some men, their misunderstanding of consent happens far too early. One man, who we’ll call Jay, confided in me that as a 10-year-old boy, his 15-year-old female neighbor had forced him to have sex over a period of months “under the guise of playing doctor.” When their respective parents found out about it, they sat them down, vaguely explained why it was wrong, and he said it was never spoken of again. He knew at the time that he’d been violated, but he didn’t know the word “rape.” And he definitely didn’t know the word “consent.”
He told me the series of incidents confuse him to this day, and it wasn’t until eight years later when he reached college that he finally understood what it meant to give consent—and how, as a young boy, he wasn’t given the chance to do that.
“There was a rape by a football player [in college]…that went wholly unpunished, and was the worst kept secret at the university,” Jay recalled. “I talked to a girl friend I had a crush on about it, and that's when our talk on consent first happened, and I heard face-to-face from a woman for the first time about what consent was…She also said that consent is given in different ways by different people, so it's important to have a conversation that outlines what a 'yes' is to that person.”
He added: “Those first few conversations with different girls about what consent was to them definitely led to some awkward situations, but it beats the hell out of the alternative by a wide margin.”
The lucky ones
Some men were fortunate enough to have learned at a young enough age how important it is to get a resounding “yes” from a partner, and it’s obvious from their tone that they understand how lucky they were to get this seemingly simple but deeply profound lesson early. They also realize that they’re the minority.
Ryan, 29, grew up in rural Vermont, just across the border from Hanover, New Hampshire, the home of Dartmouth College. He spent his high school years in the early aughts traipsing around Hanover and soaking up the culture that spilled over from the Ivy campus, which included a fierce anti-rape movement at the time.
“It was really common to see ‘Consensual sex is HOT’ T-shirts around campus and Hanover,” he told me in an email. “That was definitely the first time it stuck with me that sex requires consent; since I was just becoming sexually active around that time, sex was certainly on my mind, so this really put it in the open. Furthermore, I remember thinking that the mere existence of those kinds of T-shirts implied that there must have been a problem with sexual assault on Dartmouth’s campus.”
When he went off to college in another city, he realized that sexual assault wasn’t just a Dartmouth problem but a college problem. But lucky for him, he was informed enough to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Perhaps most eye-opening was hearing from Levi, who started his note to me by saying, “I'm only 18, but can perhaps offer insight into attitudes/approaches in the present.” He was right.
The Missouri teenager told me that when he started dating his current girlfriend a year and a half ago, once his parents caught on to the relationship, they knew it was imperative that he understood the concepts of respect and consent. After a few months of dating, his dad engaged him in a conversation about his relationship and how he should comport himself.
More or less, as something of a piece of advice for that moment and not really life in general, he said to keep steady, make intentions clear before acting on them and if I detect any sort of hesitation or discomfort to stop without protest. Ended with him telling me never to feel entitled to something because I feel like I'm at a different point in my relationship than she might. I felt sort of belittled at the time because I figured it was common sense, but in retrospect it was formative to have someone like my dad, who has been happily married for 38 years and always seemed to have healthy relationships with women, give me that lesson instead of my old lady health teacher.
For Joaquin, 30, his lesson on consent came as a result of an experience in his father’s past and his hope that his son would never find himself in a similar situation. “He had an experience from his teens that he questioned whether there was actual consent, and he always thought about that person,” Joaquin told me in an email. “He wanted to make sure that I never even approached a similar [situation]. He explicitly told me ‘Just because you don't hear the word no, doesn't mean you have the green light.’ Never forgot that.”
This was the first of a series of conversations from age 11 to 17 in which Joaquin’s father would teach him important lessons about sex and relationships, and distinguishing right from wrong. These are the lessons that all men need, and so few seem to adequately get.
What's the solution?
So how do we do better? How do we prevent a generation of Brock Turners from taking over high school, college, and beyond? While it’s evident that sex education in schools must be overhauled, Madrigal said that parents and teachers must teach the general concept of giving “consent” early and often. Whether it's when they're playing with toys, kissing a friend hello or goodbye, or consoling someone, these are opportunities to learn how to say yes and how to say no.
For Nate, 28, who grew up in Connecticut and doesn’t recall formally learning about consent, agrees with Madrigal that it’s never too early to starting teaching young men. “Ideally, as soon as they're cognizant, they should be getting lessons that consent in all walks of life is important,” he told me via Facebook.
Matt, 31, said he remembers learning about consent around age 15 from his parents. He was told that women were not to be taken advantage of, that both people had to be ready, and that you would never want to do something to jeopardize your future. In an email, he told me: “I believe the lasting impact has been that I view consent as permission.”
But not all men are lucky enough to absorb this lesson early on—and as a result, far too many women continue to pay the price.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.