(WOMENSENEWS)— While advocating for schoolgirls to lower their hemlines, singer-songwriter Erykah Badu set off the Twitterverse recently when she tweeted, “I am aware that we live in a sex-driven society. It is everyone’s, male and female’s, responsibility to protect young ladies.” She then went on to say, “But do I think it is unnatural for a heterosexual male 2b attracted to a young woman in a revealing skirt? No. I think it is his nature.”
Badu’s phrasing indicates we live in a “sex-driven society” but fails to note we are raising children in a pervasive rape culture.
Embracing the notion of a consent-based discussion would relieve us of the victim-blaming and slut-shaming that arises out of the oppressive talk about “appropriate” and “presentable” dress for young women and girls.
Sexual violence is not just an issue of men preying on girls. The public outrage around Badu’s tweets lacks nuance on multiple fronts as it does elsewhere in the public conversation. Sexual violence stems from a desensitized rape culture, misplaced blame, patriarchal gender norms, undiagnosed power dynamics and lack of education around consent.
Moreover, it is unreasonable to blame a child for being assaulted when children cannot legally give consent for anything from a routine dental cleaning to sexual activity with another child or adult. We know the United States has a serious issue hypersexualizing young women. Children are left powerless in the face of sexual abuse, and reckless commentary about what a child is wearing can be fatal.
Our society is experiencing considerable confusion over whether yes means yes; or a short dress is an invitation or simply a fashion statement. A Planned Parenthood survey last year made that clear and underscores the need to create a culture of consent.
The national sampling survey of 2012 adults shows:
-48 percent of women strongly disagree with the notion that women wearing revealing clothes at a party are “asking for trouble,” compared with 35 percent of men who say so.
-27 percent of women agree consent should be given at each step of a sexual encounter, while 19 percent of men agree.
-75 percent of women say one-time sex doesn’t mean consent for future encounters; 64 percent of men say so.
If only we held college campuses, family members, church clergy, college presidents and school superintendents to the standard to which we hold celebrities such as Badu when it comes to rape culture and predatory behaviors of men against girls. If we did, we might actually affect a paradigm shift that prioritizes a culture of consent over one that criminalizes how a woman dresses or manages the impact of the male gaze.
We cannot talk about how long a student’s skirt should be or how much a female co-ed should drink, for example, before addressing the subtext that underwrites what is really at stake: rape, sexual violence and child sexual abuse. Campuses here and around the globe are working to determine whose responsibility it is to take up some issues.
In fact, it is the responsibility of everyone to learn, practice and teach consent.
This discussion is long overdue because head-scratching cases of sexual violence in high schools continue to emerge. Groups like Safe BAE work to educate high school students around rape culture and sexual harassment, but many of them are not culturally specific programs, which can decrease their impact.
Steps to Take
Still, there are steps we can take to fully spread the ethos of consent among children and adults: We should educate our athletic teams about the culture of consent, continue to engage anti-rape awareness on college campuses and in sex education early on and shift the discourse from victim to perpetrator in our high schools.
Teen Vogue’s Not Your Fault campaign, launched in April, is working to raise awareness about consent campaigns across the country, as colleges and universities continue to grapple with the issue of sexual assault.
And certainly TeenVoices at Women’s eNews has been highlighting the problem, with stories of sex harassment going unpunished in high school and middle school, faculty being clueless about sex-harassment rules and teens, both male and female, being interested in self-defense classes.
At Kansas State University, after a group of fraternity members were excused from rape allegations, two students started pushing back against the policies that refused to protect them. Then there’s the Mattress Girl saga of 2015 highlighting the issue as protest and performance art.
On the culturally specific front: Ahmad Greene issued a call to action to black men in reaction to the trial of former Oklahoma cop Daniel Holtzclaw, convicted in 2015 of assaulting black women he thought too poor and compromised to ever speak up.
And a recent article called “Black Boys Need Two Talks” reveals how sitting black boys down to discuss consent is just as necessary as talking to them about safely interacting with police. The Planned Parenthood findings back this up, highlighting how parents speak to their daughters much differently from the way they do with their sons regarding sex and consent. Also, the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a public platform for survivors to end sexual violence in New York City, held a “barbershop talk” this year to discuss how black men can promote a culture of consent.
Abandon Old Tropes
While rape and sexual assault are universal issues, we know the experience of black women and girls with sexual violence is emblematic of a greater need for American society to abandon, once and for all, moldy old tropes about females and sexual attention. Sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before age 18, according to a Black Women’s Blueprint study.
Among students of all races, of 74 percent who dated in the year before being surveyed, 10.3 percent had been hit, slammed or injured with an object or weapon on purpose by the person they dated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found. Such violence was more likely to be perpetrated upon girls (13 percent), including white girls (12.9 percent), black girls (12.3 percent) and Hispanic girls (13.6 percent).
Rape culture and sexual violence in high school and college also leaves us hanging onto gender binaries that diminish the experiences of trans and gender-nonconforming youth. They present another set of experiences that uniform, boy-girl, anti-sexual violence protocols do not address. In fact, we all need to practice consent, not just male-identifying individuals. Politics of dress, sex education curricula, as well as power and oppression frameworks are counterproductive without considerable material on consent practices. Not one of them is isolated nor should be discussed in silos.
As the Planned Parenthood survey shows, there’s strong support for teaching the ins and outs of consent at the middle and high school levels: 75 percent surveyed said consent should be taught in middle school, and 88 percent said consent and sexual assault issues should be taught in high school.
Knowing the facts, we cannot fail women and girls by opting out of cautioning them about the risks of exercising their agency and bodily autonomy. Knowing the stories, we are doing them more harm by causing them to believe they are at fault.