The following is a guest post by Alane Miller Howell, Ph.D.
Imagine you are a man in a deserted area. You see a woman walking naked and drunk down the street. Nobody is around. Nobody will know. Do you rape her or help her?
Chloe, a college freshman, goes to a fraternity party and passes out from drinking. She is raped by three fraternity brothers. When she returns home, her father and older sister say she was “asking for it.”
Chloe was in therapy for six months before going away to college. Her brother, with whom she was very close, was dying of cancer. She struggled with the decision to go to back East for school and miss what would likely be his last weeks. He wanted her to go. She decided to go. Four weeks after going to college, Chloe’s mother was driving home from the hospital late at night when she was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Chloe returned to school after the funeral and went to that fateful fraternity party to try to “be normal.” It isn’t clear whether she drank a lot, or whether she was grieving, sleep-deprived and hadn’t eaten. Either way, she was passed out when they raped her. She was far from “asking for it.”
When a girl who has been date-raped comes into my office, she has often been asked why, but the wrong “why?”
Why were you walking alone? Why did you go that party? Why were you dressed like that? Why were you alone with that boy? Why were you drinking?These “whys” reflect our desire to believe that we, as women, are in control and can prevent rape – but they also infer that women are responsible for the aggressive behavior of a man.
Instead of those “whys,” we need to be asking, “why are women and girls still held responsible for rape?”
Our media is full of stories of young men assaulting young women. Teenagers at parties that “got out of hand.” But while there are many articles discussing what we should or should not tell our girls, there is little said about teaching boys to manage their sexual feelings – to understand what is and what is not consent, and to tolerate feeling rejected or frustrated by a girl.The following scenarios are meant to help us challenge our long-held cultural beliefs that hold girls responsible for sexual assault. I would like to encourage moms everywhere to share and discuss them with their children.
1. You are a generous person. You let several people borrow your car in the past few weeks for various reasons. These are people you trusted to take your car. One day you go to get your car and it’s gone. Your neighbor took it. When you confront him later, he says you let other people borrow the car so it was obvious you wanted to let him take it too. How do you feel?
Kaitlyn is 14 years old. She was at a party playing truth or dare. Matt, an older boy who she has a crush on, was dared to kiss her. The next round he was dared to touch her breasts. She is scared and unsure, but she thinks he likes her. She allows Matt to touch her. Within a few seconds several boys are holding her down and each takes turns touching her breasts. She feels violated. The mothers of the boys are especially vocal about how it was not their sons’ responsibility. Her girlfriends tell her she was “asking for it.”A woman’s past choices do not affect whether or not it is sexual assault. We should be LESS likely, not more likely to accept this reasoning with a girl’s body than with a car. It is irrelevant who a woman lets touch her or who she has sex with and how many times. It is her decision to allow you to touch her or have sex with her or not. Always.
2. Your cousin, who you really like, asks to borrow your car. You realize you have led her to believe she could borrow the car if she asked. Now that she is actually asking, you realize, for some reason, any reason, that you are not comfortable with her taking the car. You say no. She takes your car anyway, because you led her to believe it would be okay. How do you feel?
Zoe is 16 years old. She has been dating Nick, who she really likes, for three months. He has been pressuring her lately for sex and blow jobs. She is not ready for either and has told him so several times. He keeps pushing. Nick invites Zoe to the school formal and takes her out for a nice dinner. He hints at wanting the night to be “special.” Zoe isn’t exactly sure what he means, but she does consider that he is expecting sex. She does not say no ahead of time. Nick has stopped when she said no in the past. Nick arranges for everyone else to be dropped off by the limousine first. When they are alone in the limousine they start to kiss. This is pretty typical. They really like each other. However, this time when Zoe says no Nick uses force. He’s stronger than Zoe and she cannot stop him. Afterward Nick says she led him on and she should have known it was going to happen.If you are allowed to say no to somebody borrowing your car, why wouldn’t you be allowed to say no about having sex? When we give the message that she should have known, or was asking for it, we give the message that a woman does not have the right to control her body on a case by case basis. This is still assault.
3. You let your best friend borrow your car to run errands several times in the past few weeks while his car is in the shop. He takes your car for an errand and drives to Mexico for the weekend. When you confront him he says he just got carried away in the excitement of the moment. How do you feel?
Olivia is a 19 year old college student. She and her boyfriend, Zach, have been dating for a month. They have been alone in her room. They hook up (make out) on her bed. Olivia is a virgin. She doesn’t know if she may be ready to lose her virginity with Zach. She does know she’s not ready yet. Zach is not a virgin. One night they go to a party and end up back in her room. They both had a couple of drinks. Zach pressures Olivia and then eventually forces her to have sex. Afterward Zach says Olivia turns him on so much he couldn’t stop himself. Olivia should take it as a compliment.
It does not matter how excited the man is. The woman must still agree to sex. If it’s not okay to take someone’s car to Mexico without permission, how is okay to have sex with someone without consent?
Sex without consent is always rape.
4. You told your sister she can borrow your car Saturday. On Friday, your other family car breaks down. You have a very important work commitment on Saturday. You call your sister and tell her you need to work something else out because you need your car. Your sister says it’s too late – you told her she could have the car and now you must give her the car. How do you feel?
Jennifer and Troy are recent college graduates. They have been dating for a month. They are ready to take their relationship to the next level. They go away for the weekend. Troy books an expensive hotel room. They go for dinner and a walk on the beach. They are having a great time. They go back to the room. Things progress. They are both still having fun. Then just before they have intercourse, Jennifer says she can’t. She thought she was ready, but she isn’t. Troy becomes enraged. After hitting her several times and making her nose bleed, he then forces her to have intercourse, because she “told him she would.”
Women sometimes think they are ready, or want to have sex. Sometimes they aren’t. That does not allow a man to “hold them to their word” and force sex.
A woman’s body is more precious than a car, but there are some rationalizations about why teenage boys sexually assault teenage girls that are so ingrained in our culture, it is hard to question them.
What can we do?
Teenage boys need to understand the concept of consent. They need to be taught ways to handle being turned on and frustrated. It’s our job to help them see that the girl is not rejecting them; she’s just not ready, and that girls sometimes change their minds.
Boys are often surprised that girls are traumatized by date rape situations. Help them understand the betrayal and trauma that girls experience. And though it may feel good in the moment for the boys, the aftermath of date rape can also tear their lives apart. Rape is an act of violence. It is not boys being boys. The effects tear apart girls, boys, friends, families, teams and communities.
Of course, girls also need to understand the importance of giving clear messages to boys. They need to understand that drinking can put them at greater risk of sexual assault. That it is good advice to avoid walking alone at night.
We do a pretty good job of teaching girls ways to avoid sexual assault but we need to do a better job making sure these messages never hold a girl responsible for being sexually assaulted.Note: All of the examples above are real situations. The names and any identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of the teens and young adults that I work with.Alane Miller Howell, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist who specializes in work with adolescents and young adults. She has been in private practice in West Los Angeles for 22 years. You can contact the author at alanehowellphd.com