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Mar 26 2013

New Required Reading: The Day I Taught Not to Rape

Part of my revulsion over the phrase “common sense” is because I am aware (acutely, in many cases) of the number of monstrous things that inform the background ideas that we don’t necessarily question. It is, for example, “common sense” that religion makes people more ethical. After all, if you’re aware that you’re being watched by a supernatural being and you don’t want to be punished with hell, if course you’re going to behave better! It’s just common sense! Of course, we know that the truth is quite  a bit more complicated than that.

White supremacy was (and continues to be, albeit in more palatable language) a “common sense” position. Homophobia is a “common sense” position. The Iraq war was started because of “common sense” reasoning about being greeted as liberators and a ridiculous abstraction of the world into “axes of evil”. “Common sense” is essentially shorthand for “I don’t want to think this through”. The problem, of course, is that we don’t see the world through a common set of axioms, and we don’t share a common set of life experiences. “Common sense” is how the majority justifies the continuation of the status quo.

In the wake of the Steubenville rape conviction, a number of people have been forced to contend with their “common sense” notion of the definition of rape and the concept of consent. Those who have derided those who point out our rape culture are, all of a sudden, realizing that their “common sense” approach does not comport with law or basic ethics. The following is a story of just such a realization:

It is a strange thing about looking into the face of a 15-year-old, to really see who they are. You still see the small child that their mother sees. You see the man or woman they will be before they graduate. They are babies whose innocence you want desperately to protect. They are old enough to know better, even if no one has taught them.

I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused. “How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.” These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied.

It is uncomfortable to think that some of the students you still call babies have the potential to be rapists. It is sickening, it is terrifying, but it is true.  It is a reality we have to face. My students have lived in a world for fifteen years where the joke “she probably wanted it” isn’t really a joke, they need to unlearn some lessons that no one will admit to teaching them.

The problem, as the author notes, is that rape culture is “common sense”. It’s “common sense” that a woman consents to sex unless she clearly says ‘no’. “No means no” is common sense, but the other half – “only yes means yes” – hasn’t quite filtered into the realm of the obvious. And it won’t, says the author, as long as we refuse to talk about it:

What happened in Steubenville makes me sick, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that it is not representative of what is happening in basement parties after the homecoming game all across America. Our kids want to talk about it. They need to talk about it. We need to have conversations about consent that are not centered around what should have been done, but are instead centered on what will be done in the future. Our teens can handle it, I promise they can.

A strong understanding of consent as an enthusiastic and unequivocal yes is essential to reversing the culture that our teens have grown up in. The amazing thing is the way my students responded to the conversation. Our students want a better way, it is our responsibility to show it to them, even if it is scary, especially when it might make us uncomfortable.

The full article is definitely worth reading in its entirety, and I strongly suggest you do so (hence the title of the post).

Bad ideas that have existed will continue to exist unless they are critiqued strongly. Our failure to counteract misogynist ideas about who is entitled to women’s bodies, and sexist ideas about compulsory male sexual behaviour, have made it “common sense” that a man is a better judge of whether a woman consents to sex than she is herself. Nobody had to sit down and teach the young people in the author’s class that an unconscious girl was de facto consenting to sex – it was “common sense”. The fact that someone did have to teach them that rape is rape suggests that we need to be uncompromising in our opposition to rape culture. The fact that they accepted the right position over the “common sense” one means that we might just prevail.

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Update: Steubenville, Ohio is still full of truly disgusting people, who have wrapped their loving arms around the coach who tried to cover up the rape.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    mythbri

    The problem, as the author notes, is that rape culture is “common sense”. It’s “common sense” that a woman consents to sex unless she clearly says ‘no’. “No means no” is common sense, but the other half – “only yes means yes” – hasn’t quite filtered into the realm of the obvious.

    And outside of the “common sense” that consent is the default assumption until a person says “no”, assuming consent and requiring a hard “No!” is a tactic among PUAs. There are people out there who advise men to do just that.

    Real consent is more than just gaining an enthusiastic “Yes!” It’s about respecting boundaries, and making sure that people know that it’s okay to set boundaries. It’s about making sure that people understand that non-verbal refusals are not suddenly ambiguous in a sexual situation, when they’re hardly ever considered ambiguous in other normal interactions. It’s about letting people know that it’s okay to talk about sex, especially with the person you want to have sex with (with their consent, of course).

  2. 2
    carlie

    I read that earlier, and although the confusion about consent was disheartening, I was quite hopeful at how quickly and vocally the girls in the class took to it and defended the concept.

  3. 3
    dukeofomnium

    “common sense” is a phrase that means, “I’m right, and you know I’m right, even if you say you don’t; and I don’t have to prove it, so there!” As such, I snicker at anyone who appeals to “common sense” as an argument.

  4. 4
    doublereed

    Yes yes! This whole idea of “common sense” is idiotic and destructive. It’s frustrating that it’s so pervasive in almost all circles nowadays. We can’t always guess the right answer.

  5. 5
    John Kruger

    In regards to the link in the update, I was very disturbed to see how many people were using the coach’s religiosity to exonerate him and ignore his actions. I’ll have to file that under “What is the harm? This is the harm.” I can only hope the internet continues to shine light on dark places like this to bring them into modern times that include basic human rights for everybody, including women.

  6. 6
    Peggy

    To be fair, Ms. Norman, the author of Crommunist’s required reading, is also religious. So, good people can still be good, religion and all. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a force for good in many (most?) situations, though. However Ms. Norman credits her virtues, I’m glad she’s in her classroom. What a wonderful teacher.

  7. 7
    Kevin

    [TW-rape]

    You’re right that this isn’t an isolated incident. In my neck of the woods, there’s a town going through the exact same scenario. Football players, a passed-out girl who was “passed around”, and the repercussions of all that. Several teens charged with rape.

    The difference is that the incident was reported immediately, with no lying or hiding by the football coach. Maybe that’s why it didn’t make national news. Or the fact that the football team wasn’t one of the BEST IN THE STATE!!!! It’s odd how ability to excel at a sport earns you privileges that others don’t enjoy — even over and above less-capable teams/individuals.

  8. 8
    John Horstman

    Our kids want to talk about it. They need to talk about it. We need to have conversations about consent that are not centered around what should have been done, but are instead centered on what will be done in the future.

    Unfortunately, this will not – cannot, really – happen in an environment where ‘abstinence’ is the only ‘correct’, talked-about option with respect to teenage sexuality. Perhaps the biggest failure of abstinence-propaganda programs is that they literally cannot discuss healthy models for sexual relationships – including any discussion of consent – because the only allowed model is to not have sexual relationships, and enthusiastic consent is explicitly forbidden. Abstinence-only programs strip sexual and bodily autonomy from people; they are a federally-funded, frequently-state-mandated part of rape culture.

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