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Shifting the Center: My Dad’s Simple Condemnation of Sexual Violence

Trigger Warning: Discussion of sexual violence and rape culture
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My dad is a wonderful man – kind and quiet and thoughtful and generous. I can say with confidence that in many ways, I am the man I am because of my father.

When I was a teenager, he gave me an uncomfortable number of sex talks – he saw it as his duty as a physician papa to talk about STIs, condoms, waiting until marriage, etc. Years later, though, as we were sitting together in the mountains of Colorado, I asked him about something that was never mentioned in any of those uncomfortable conversations.

“Dad, in all of those times you talked to me about sex, why did we never talk about consent?”

He thought for a moment, then replied, “Well, I assumed it was a given.”

A given.

God, how I wish that consent was a given, something we didn’t need to talk explicitly with young people about. How I wish we lived in a culture of consent where we breathed in consent and respect and accountability in the way that we presently do rape culture.

But we don’t live in that world. As some people come into clearer awareness about sexual violence by hearing of the lenient sentence given a White rapist from Stanford University and through reading the statement from the survivor of that attack, we see once again the ways that our systems bend over backward to protect rapists (particularly White rapists).

But rape culture is about more than a single viral incidence of violence.

Rape culture is evident in the startling fact that every single one of us knows multiple survivors of sexual violence, yet so often we don’t know that we know survivors.

Rape culture is evident in the truth that just as many of us know perpetrators of sexual violence, perpetrators who will never be held accountable in any way.

But this short post isn’t meant to be about rape culture. This post is meant to be about the ways we can shift those around us to speak out, to act, to work to end sexual violence.

I don’t think I have had another conversation with my dad about sexual violence since that short talk about consent many years ago. I have tried; it just never went anywhere. But I realized this morning that even when we weren’t talking, he was listening.

Last night, my dad sent me this email:

Hi
Should be in bed at 1145 but became pulled and wanted to read the whole article about the Stanford student written by Lindsey Bever in the Washington Post. Definitely  a reading that shows the pain and struggles of sexual assault. She will never be he same but is trying to make that journey back to some normalcy in her life. Very touching. I have a hard time reading a lot of your posts on Facebook but can really appreciate your passion. Sex always has to be  consensual and if one is impaired one cannot give consent.
Take care Jamie.
Love Dad

His email is simple. It’s not a nuanced condemnation of heteronormative patriarchal violence or a stirring call to action for all men.

And yet I sit here in tears. Because it’s my dad.

And my dad spoke out to condemn sexual violence and to remind me that “sex always has to be consensual.” And my dad did so in the context of the Stanford rapist’s father defending his son in such a public and disgusting manner.

That means more to me than I can ever tell him or ever hope to convey here to my readers.

And his words are a reminder that the center is shifting – more and more men are realizing our responsibility to act, to change ourselves and the ways we view the world, which will in turn change our relationships and our communities.

And as I reflect upon this shift, I am forever grateful to those who lead the movement to force a shift, a movement led primarily by cis-women, Transgender people of all identities, and Gender Non-Conforming people, a movement led by survivors and their allies.

The work is far from finished, but this morning I feel just a little bit more hope than I did yesterday.

And I feel thankful to my dad.

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Podcast: Strategies for Sexual Violence Prevention on College Campuses

I normally don’t like to post on Saturdays, as fewer people are likely to see the article/video/rant that I post that week.  But I really wanted to wait this week for something to go public, and it happened to go public on a Saturday.

This week’s Everyday Feminism podcast is a conversation between Sandra Kim, founder of Everyday Feminism, and myself about preventing sexual violence on college campuses.  It is by no means comprehensive, but it’s meant to be the beginning of a conversation on how to do more than simply respond to sexual violence as it takes place on college campuses where 1 in 4 and 1 in 8 men are sexually assaulted.

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With rare exceptions, no one who is throwing a party spends the time, energy, and money so that people will get assaulted. Yet, the grim reality is that at least 1 in 4 college women are survivors of sexual violence, and our institutions are not doing enough to stem this terrible tide.

Here to discuss this phenomenon and offer advice on how to begin the change is Jamie Utt, sexual violence prevention educator and Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. In this podcast episode, Jamie will distinguish between preventative and responsive approaches, discuss the recent rise in sexual violence on college campuses, and will paint a picture of what a sex-positive campus might look like.

Based on our articles How We Can Address Sexual Violence on Campuses and Booze, Booty Shaking, and Backroom Hookups: Making College Party Culture Sex-Positive, Jamie offers tips for students and educators alike!

Click here to read the transcript.

In this episode, we will discuss:

  • Statistics and research regarding sexual violence on college campuses.
  • The different approaches to sexual violence response, prevention and education on college campuses.
  • How to implement the different approaches to sexual violence.
  • Common questions to consider when dealing with sexual violence education on college campuses.
  • Resources for sexual violence response and prevention.

Resources

Listen to the podcast at Everyday Feminism.

Booze, Booty Shaking, and Back Room Hookups: Making College Party Culture Sex Positive

I get to participate in some pretty awesome conversations as part of my work.

One of my favorites, though, is when I get to talk to college students about what makes for a mind-blowing, talk-about-it-for-years party.

I ask the question, and students just start shouting out things like:

“The perfect DJ!” “Everybody’s dancing!” “Booze.” “Drugs.” “Some non-alcoholic drinks/mixers.” “Sexy ladies!” “Sexier men!” “No drama.” “Food.” “Sex!”  “Everybody’s gettin’ lucky!” “SEX!”

Let’s be honest: By and large, one of the only things that college students love more than partying and sex is talking about partying and sex.

What’s phenomenal about this conversation, though, is the opportunity it provides to extend the dialogue beyond beer bongs, booty shaking, and backroom hookups.It provides an entry into a conversation about positive sexuality and sexual violence prevention.

With rare exceptions, no one who is throwing a party spends the time, energy, and money so that people will get assaulted. Yet there is a clear connection betweencollege party culture and sexual violence.

After all, 74% of perpetrators of sexual violence on college campuses were under the influence of alcohol when they committed the assault, and 55% of survivors of sexual violence on campuses were under the influence of alcohol when assaulted.

Unfortunately, on college campuses,  this dialogue translates too often into shaming and blaming of survivors for their decisions to drink or approaches to“prevention” that place the onus on potential “victims” to keep themselves from getting raped.

And to mitigate the risk, most colleges simply take a punitive approach (with varying levels of alcohol education – which is fantastic – thrown in) to alcohol on campus.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In fact, we need to see college partying and the terrifying link to sexual violence as an opening to a different kind of conversation about the social time our young people are spending on college campuses or anywhere for that matter.

Shifting to Sex Positivity

Most of the college students that I work with have never heard of the concept of sex positivity.  I know I sure hadn’t when I started college.

But in any conversation about sex with young people, when I introduce the definition I work from, the tone shifts considerably, no matter how we were discussing sex before.

Here’s the definition I’m working from:

Sex positivity refers to positive, affirming, consensual sexual relationships, characterized by open, honest communication and attention to the needs and desires of oneself and one’s partner(s).

Sounds amazing, right?

Well, most of the young people I get to work with on college campuses all over the US think so, too!

So when I tell them that it’s possible to make simple changes to your average party environment that make it more sex positive, they are pumped!

But every now and then, I have the skeptical workshop participant (usually a dude, but not always) who says something to the effect of “It sounds like one giant cock-block to me.”

But without fail, whenever this sentiment is expressed, I don’t even have to respond!

Last time this happened, a young woman explained, “Unless you’re looking to rape somebody, this sounds like the opposite of a cock block. Nothing sounds hotter than dancing with someone at a party only to learn that they are a great kisser who asks first!”

Undoubtedly, we have to spend some time and energy thinking about the worst case scenario, understanding and exposing predators, and taking preventative precautions.

But sexual violence prevention, particularly as it relates to parties, can (and must)be so much more than that!

What Does Sex-Positive Partying Look Like?

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Thinking Comprehensively: Preventing Sexual Violence

There is a parable used often in education to describe the reforms that are needed to better serve those students who are left behind or pushed out of our educational system:

A man and a woman were having a picnic along the river outside of their village. As they were eating, they heard a baby crying and, looking around for the source, saw a baby floating down the middle of the river.

The woman waded out and caught the baby and passed it to the man, only to realize there was another baby coming. The man ran to the village to get help, and before long, there was an organized party who were forming a chain across the river to stop the ever growing number of babies who were floating down the river. They saved a lot of children, but the number of babies was too many, and they could not save them all.

Then a young girl walked away from her duties on the riverbank and marched upstream. People yelled at her, “Where are you going!? We need your help!”

She replied, “I’m going to find who is throwing all these babies in the river so that we can stop them!”

Here’s the lesson for any social justice cause: If we don’t get to the root of the issue, all we’re doing is pulling some individuals to safety while losing others to the river.

In combatting sexual violence, undoubtedly, we must work to help survivors heal, seek justice, and find the “new normal” in their life, but that cannot be our only work.

We must prevent sexual violence before it happens. But how do we do that? What does it look like?

Expanding Who We Think of As Survivors

We can start by changing how we think about who experiences sexual assault.

In most prevention and response work, the focus tends to be on cisgender, straight women as victims and cisgender, straight men as perpetrators.

And there’s good reason for that: The vast majority of survivors are straight, cisgender women.

And with limited resources (especially in these times of austerity), those who work to prevent violence and support survivors tend to focus on that majority in order to best serve as many survivors as possible.

But to prevent sexual violence, we must acknowledge the incredible diversity of survivors and perpetrators.

Read the rest of the article at Everyday Feminism.

How We Can Address Sexual Violence on Campuses

Everyday FeminismThis week’s post is published over at the incredible Everyday Feminism.

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On every single college campus in the United States, there is a powerful, committed group of feminists and feminist allies who are working to prevent sexual violence and respond to the needs of survivors.

These incredible coalitions of students, professors, staff, administrators, and wider community members are working every single day to ensure that survivors have the support they need while working to prevent further sexual assaults.

Too often, though, they are working against institutions and campus environments that shame survivors, protect perpetrators, and reinforce the rape culture that is endemic in our society.

The grim reality is that at least 1 in 4 college women are survivors of sexual violence, and our institutions are not doing enough to stem this terrible tide.

It is time that more of us join these committed activists in transforming the culture and climate of our college and university campuses.

Whether you’re a parent, a student, an alumni, or simply a concerned community member, here are a few ways that you help:

1. Change How We Talk About Sexual Violence

The messages that are sent to women and men about sexual violence on college campuses tend to be misguided at best and downright dangerous at worst.

Whether the message is delivered formally through a New Student Orientation program or through norms and mores, the traditional wisdom for sexual violence prevention on college campuses can often be boiled down to:

“Ladies, be careful so you don’t get raped.”

Whether we tell women to go out in groups, watch their drinks, or never walk across campus alone at night, the conversation is the same – the responsibility for preventing sexual violence is on women.

But considering that the VAST majority of rapes are committed by men, we can’t afford to leave men out of the conversation!

To place the responsibility for sexual violence prevention on women not only completely ignores those who perpetrate the majority of sexual assaults, but it lends itself to victim blaming.

“You shouldn’t have been dressed that way.” “You shouldn’t have gone out alone.” “You shouldn’t have been drinking.”

Thus, in both our informal conversations and as we look to change how our institutions address sexual violence, we must shift the conversation to ones of positive sexuality, enthusiastic consenthealthy masculinity, and support for survivors.

First, if sex and sexuality is talked about openly and honestly, we can begin to have more accountable conversations regarding positive sexuality.

We can introduce the ideas behind and methods for realizing enthusiastic consent. We can encourage healthier relationships and healthier sexuality in all their forms. So that people of all genders understand what healthy and consensual sexual relationships can and should look like,

Secondly, we must also end the culture of male sexual entitlement, disrespect, cat calling, and objectification that protects perpetrators of sexual violence.

Men, women have been trying to tell us these things for ages. It’s time for us to be the leaders in ending sexual violence. We, as men, need to work with other men to change how we talk about and practice sex.

Third, we need to change how we talk about sexual violence so that it reflects reality and not myths about rape.

A good place to start is changing where we place the onus for prevention. The only person responsible for a sexual assault is the perpetrator. Plain and simple. From there, we can do a better job of supporting those who experience sexual assault.

Finally, we have to make sure that our conversations don’t accidentally silence survivors who don’t fit our understanding of “normal.” Any person of any gender or any sexual orientation can experience sexual violence. 50% of transgender peopleexperience sexual violence and approximately 8% of all men (by conservative estimates) are raped by a former partner.

Often, conversations around rape focus solely on straight relationships, but lesbian, gay, and bisexual people commonly experience sexual violence too. Further, 1 in 10 survivors of sexual violence are men, and we need to have resources that support male survivors.

Lastly, we need to expand the conversation around sexual violence beyond rape (forced sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration) to other types of unwanted sexual contact and coercive sexual activity (including forced kissing, groping, forced hand jobs, non-consensual kissing, etc).

Otherwise, those who experience sexual violence that they would not call rape may feel like their experience is not legitimate or worthy of attention. But they often still experience trauma like rape survivors because it was still not consensual.

In short, we can make our conversations more inclusive, and we can push to make our campus programming more inclusive.

2. Transform Party Culture

Read the rest of the article at Everyday Feminism.

Preventing Sexual Violence – Rethinking Lisak & Miller

My friend Dave and I have a unique connection. Both of us work with young men in the effort to build more inclusive, less violent understandings of masculinity.  As a former sexual assault survivor’s advocate and someone who travels the country to talk to young people about healthy sexuality (among other subjects), I value the opportunity to talk to men like Dave, who regularly works with middle school or high school boys and men to re-envision masculinity.  I was anxious to get Dave’s opinion about a controversial subject I’ve been mulling over for a while: the oft-cited Lisak & Miller 2002 study.

Me: “Do you think it’s possible that 96% of rape is committed by 4-8% of men?

Dave: “It just doesn’t seem possible! Nearly every single man is brought up in a culture where we are taught to objectify, speak disrespectfully about, and sexualize women.  I, like many young men, learned about sex from porn and locker room culture.  How can someone be conditioned in this way and not be a risk for committing sexual violence?  We are not taught how to have responsible, healthy sexual relationships!  When I was young, I literally couldn’t conceive of a respectful sexual encounter because I had never seen one.  Until I was mentored to understand a more non-violent masculinity, I very well could have hurt a woman in a way that we would describe as sexual violence, though no particular memory comes to mind.  Until we teach young men how to understand sex through the lens of communication and non-violence, we won’t stop the problem of rape.”

Much has been said about the Lisak & Miller 2002 study (and Predator Theory in general), particularly in the wake of the “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” piece at Good Men Project and the subsequent criticism, most notably over at Feministe.  In particular, many have argued that it’s impossible for someone to commit rape without setting out or intending to do so because, in the words of David Lisak, “the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by serial offenders who, on average, have six victims. So, this is who’s doing it.”  This has left me unsettled, so over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time reading and rereading the Lisak & Miller study and the work that uses it to extrapolate the number of men actually committing rape.

My conclusion? Lisak & Miller and all of the studies they cite (as well as the McWhorter study cited in the phenomenal piece by Thomas Macaulay Millar at Yes Means Yes) are vitally important for understanding and isolating the “undetected rapists” who are committing a tremendous number of rapes.  As Millar points out, “We need to revoke the rapists’ social license to operate.”  We must change the culture of our social spaces, our parties, our relationships (particularly men’s relationships with men) so that those committing the kinds of rape discussed in the scholarship of Lisak & Miller have the rug pulled out from under them.

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In the words of my friend Sara, a former career sexual violence prevention specialist and survivor’s advocate, “It’s really important to think about the historical significance of Lisak’s work. He was doing this work back when ‘date rape’ was a new word and the common belief was that rapists were in the same category as psychopaths and murderers. The idea that a seemingly ‘normal’ man would prey upon women in social settings was a BIG deal for people that worked in victim services.  His study gave a voice to women who had been assaulted by men like the ones he interviewed and gave law enforcement a broader picture of who perpetrates rape. This was a big step in our understanding about the power and control dynamics of rape.”

That said, does the Lisak & Miller 2002 study (and similar research) describe all of sexual violence?  No.  Are there forms of sexual violence that are not and could not be captured by the study and the others that support its claims?  Definitely.  And to ignore this fact is tremendously dangerous, particularly if those who are adhering so closely to the findings of Lisak & Miller are the ones doing the daily, on-the-ground work to end sexual violence.

Limitations of Lisak & Miller 2002

“Several limitations of this study bear mention . . . Because of the nonrandom nature of the sampling procedures, the reported data cannot be interpreted as estimates of the prevalence of sexual or other acts of violence” (Lisak & Miller 2002).

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Want the Best Sex of Your Life? Just Ask!!

Originally published at The Good Men Project.

“Sex just isn’t fun any more.”

“What!?” I exclaimed.

“I dunno. I just feel like its gotten to the point where if I want to sleep with someone, I should get a notarized, written statement of their consent. It’s just gotten crazy!”

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I cannot tell you how many times I have had this conversation. As a sexual violence prevention educator, one thing is very clear to me: we suck at talking about sex.

I mean, for most of us, our only real models for learning about sexual communication are porn and television. Yet sex is a huge part of most people’s lives. Many of us learn along the way (usually from a patient partner) how to communicate well in sex, but with as many as 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, it’s clear we need to completely revamp how we talk about sex.

When I was a teenager, I probably had 10 wildly embarrassing sex talks with my dad. They basically went like this:

“Jamie, being Catholic, we would obviously prefer that you wait until marriage. But as an OB and family physician, I know all too well the consequences of sex outside of marriage, so if you’re going to have sex, please be safe. If you need me to buy you condoms, I will. Just be careful.”

That’s it. About ten years after my first chat with my dad, I asked him, “In all of those awkward sex talks we had, why didn’t we ever talk about consent?”

His response? “I guess I didn’t think of it.” Nowhere was there even a hint that consent is an important part of sex. And certainly not the idea that we should be equally or more intentional about than traditional understandings of “safer sex.”

But I don’t blame my dad. No one ever taught him how to have that conversation.

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In her treatise on love and relationships, All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks notes,

Our nation is…driven by sexual obsession. There is no aspect of sexuality that is not studied, talked about, or demonstrated. How-to classes exist for every dimension of sexuality, even masturbation. Yet schools for love do not exist. Everyone assumes that we will know how to love instinctively (xxviii).

Her remarks about love are dead on, but despite the robust conversation about sex in the United States, there is one area of sexuality for which there are still too few schools: consent.

Too often, the conversation about consent (if it happens at all) goes like this:

Women , make sure you communicate what you want with a simple “Yes” or a “No.” If he doesn’t respect that, kick him in the balls.

Men, listen to what women tell you. No Means No!

While well-intentioned, thinking about consent in this way frankly sucks. First, it presumes heterosexuality (because sexual violence never happens in Queer relationships, right?). It also presumes that the only people that need to communicate their needs and desires are women and that women are the only people who might experience unwanted sexual advances or contact. It says little of asking, only of listening. It assumes the only answers are yes and no. Plus, it’s BLAND and it’s BORING!

And when something so important to our sexual relationships is only taught in bland, boring ways, is it any wonder that the rates of sexual violence are so damn high?

I mean, the vast majority of sexual violence happens between two people who know each other, often between people who have or have had a sexual relationship. Sexual violence is not exclusively a problem of serial-rapists, roofied drinks, or someone jumping out of the bushes—though those things happen and must be addressed. Many of those committing sexual violence don’t set out or intend to commit the act, and many are so out of communication with their partner that they don’t even realize they’ve done anything wrong!

Clearly, sexual violence is a problem of communication.

If we hope to prevent the sexual violence that affects so many of those we love, we have to change the conversation. While consent should be about preventing sexual violence, it is about so much more. It is also about creating healthy, fulfilling sexual relationships!

I want my consent to be fun, freaky, sexy, silly, seductive, creative, captivating! I want it all, and I want it healthy and mutual! What’s wonderful, though, is that it can be ALL of these things and more. Studies have shown that healthy, open communication leads to better sex. And who doesn’t want better sex?

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