Cultivating Consent Culture
This sermon, “Cultivating Consent Culture,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on October 1, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Erin Kotch
This is the story of how my career as a musician was ended. A number of you know that I played a long time ago, but I don’t play now. When people ask what happened, I usually kind of dance around it with allusions to tendinitis, or academic burnout… in truth those things were there in the background, but neither was the driving force that made me a college dropout.
I was good, very good. Julliard was a realistic option for me. I opted for UC, another top 5 program, because the clarinet teacher came highly recommended for my playing style. I liked him personally when we met over the summer. When classes started I got a few little red flags: “why are you taking chemistry? It will just lower your GPA… girls aren’t really made for that sort of thing.” (I was simultaneously studying molecular genetics). But I had heard so much worse so many times, I let it go.
Then I was left off the invite to the reed making master class… he didn’t feel like girls would really be interested in tools, you know. I explained how he was wrong on that and was reluctantly invited to the class. Again, annoying, but I could deal with this. As we worked together he determined that I needed to focus on my embouchure (how I held my mouth), without the distraction of the rest of the instrument. The focus on embouchure was legit, though I had never heard of not playing the instrument at all before… I lost my seat in ensembles over this. Soon the only “performance” class time I had was with him, in private lessons. Private lessons are held in the professors’ sound-proofed office, door often locked to prevent interruptions. Standard practice. And it was here, after isolating me academically from my peers, and physically from the rest of the school, he got grabby. I did whatever I needed to do to not “fight” in that moment, knowing the risks of escalation, and when the lesson was over, got my butt out of there and never turned back.
All of that is awful, but it is not what ended my career. I went to the dean, explained the situation, and asked to change teachers. He refused, claiming it would be too hard to change schedules at this point in the term. When I asked what action I could pursue against the professor, he explained it to me this way: “You know, he’s pretty well respected in the music community, at this school. He has a family, a career. Do you really want to ruin that for him? Just think, you won’t get anything out of it except a lot of attention and pain. Everyone will hate you for what you are doing to him. No one will believe you because you have no proof.” And so I quietly walked out of his office, and my musical career ended at 17.
I know many of you are now thinking: but you let it happen! You chose to walk away instead of fight. Even why didn’t you kick the crap out of him in that office?! The reason is, I had been groomed to walk away. Not just by this professor (though yes, he was very calculating in how he groomed me), but my entire life I was taught how this really works. I knew there was no hope of anything changing – I knew it before I went to the dean.
And way, way too many of us become victims in college, one way or another…
- 1 out of 5 women will be victims of sexual assault in her college career
- 1 of 4 transgender students will be victims of sexual assault in their college career
- 1 in 3 bisexual women will be victims during college
And by the way, over our lifetimes, fully half of bi women will be assaulted. It’s astonishing. And I would be remiss if I didn’t include men; I found estimates ranging from 2% – 20% of men are sexually assaulted. So, if you think you don’t know anyone who’s been sexually assaulted, you are terribly mistaken. The reality is, you just haven’t been privileged to hear their story.
So, let’s talk about how this is possible…
How rape culture is built
This illustrates how sexual violence escalates and is supported on a foundation of normalization and degradation. All these layers together are rape culture. Though most people think of only that little top section as rape, and thankfully most people never personally experience that, the reality is Removal of Autonomy, the next section down, can be nearly as devastating for the victim and is far more common.
Meanwhile Normalization and Degradation are a daily reality for many women, and we are set up as a culture to not only let it happen, but at times glorify it. This morning I want to discuss how we build Rape Culture, and what we can do cultivate a culture of Consent in its place.
Whose body is it, anyway?
It starts early, even before the pyramid actually…Let me set a scenario for you (taken from a blog I wish I could remember where, so sorry for plagiarizing!):
You’ve had a great time at a party, eating and drinking merrily. You’ve made some new friends as well as catching up with some old ones. The party comes to a close and just as you head towards the door the host tells you “you can’t leave until you kiss my friend and let him touch you”. You don’t want to be touched by this man, least of all feel his lips on yours, but your friend forces you. “Come on, be a good girl”, “show some respect, it isn’t nice to say ‘no’”. You can’t believe your friend is forcing you to be touched by somebody you don’t want to. What sort of a friend would force you to have somebody’s hands on your body against your wishes? If your friend really cared about you they wouldn’t just accept it when you said “no”, they would protect your decision.
But don’t we do that all the time? To our kids? How many of us “HAD” to kiss grandma goodbye? Even though she licked her lips to make it an extra slimy icky kiss and you swore that you would eat every last morsel of that disgusting green bean casserole if that meant you didn’t have to get anywhere near grandma’s super slurpy smooches… yeah…
When we force kids to physically greet/part with others, they learn that:
- Others’ demands are more important
- Our bodies belong to others
- They practice suppressing discomfort in the face of pleasing others
And really, how good have we gotten at this ourselves? How often do you find yourself sucking it up when you offer that executive from another office a handshake, but he goes in for the hug?
Wouldn’t it be better to…
- Give children the option: “It’s time to say goodbye to grandma. Would you like to give her a hug or blow her a kiss?”
- Our bodies are our own
- Discomfort is a signal we should listen to
When we talk to our kids about this, we need to make “No” and “Stop” important words. And that means mom and dad, too! If you are tickling and they laugh/squeal “stop! Stop!” you STOP! Check-in, make sure it is OK to continue, and jump right back in. And kids should be taught to respect others’ refusal to touch as well. Our bodies are our own: we get to decide who touches us, how, and when.
Now we’re going to get onto the pyramid…. When I was little, maybe 5 or 6, my neighbor had a party for his 5th or 6th birthday. He invited all boys, except for me, the lone girl. Running around predictably turned to roughhousing and from there escalated to let’s grab various parts of the girl. Now despite all the run-ins with grandma’s slobbery kisses, I was still pretty good about speaking up when someone did something I didn’t like, so at some point I yelled for help and eventually got the birthday boy’s mom’s attention.
Everything up to this point, while not good, is not crazy or horrible… little kids do dumb things and lose control especially in big groups. These are moments to teach our kids how to be respectable people. But what his mom did made this a defining moment for me, and maybe those boys… she kicked me out of the party because my presence was causing disruption. While I understand the inclination (I could walk home, removing the girl would remove the target…), it was so completely the absolutely wrong message!
She taught us that:
- The victim is at fault for inciting the problem
- Boys should not be expected to control themselves
And we know this is perpetuated at school…
- Dress codes where girls must cover up because they are a “distraction” to the boys
- Playgrounds where girls are chased, hit, tackled… because “he likes you”
- Snapping the bra in class – seriously why is so hard for a teacher to understand that just as it would NEVER be acceptable for one her students to snap the adult teacher’s bra, it is equally UNACCEPTABLE for him to do that to the female student sitting in front of him?!!
We really do start ’em young and provide ongoing education in normalization…
We are putting the blame in the wrong place, saying victims are responsible for their perpetrator’s behavior. And every time they hear us excuse bad behavior as Boys Being Boys, kids learn that boys are above the rules and cannot be expected to control their impulses. The phrase “He only does that because he likes you” should never cross our lips when our kids are being teased or hurt. It reinforces the idea that love equals suffering and that it’s okay to hurt others. Not only could this contribute to intimate partner violence later on, but it also teaches kids that their own desire for attention is more important than the feelings of the person they like.
Boys will be
boys held responsible for their actions
How do we do better? Whether you are talking about a little boy, or a grown man acting with the self-control of a little boy, make this your new mantra: Everyone will be held responsible for their own actions.
And while we’re talking about those various influencers on our kids (on us for that matter), we really do have to include the media. Yes media, including kids’ media, is hypersexualized, but that’s not even close to the worst of it. At the risk of angering some fervent Star Wars fans in the room, I have to talk about Princess Leia.
We all remember this kiss from the Enterprise Strikes Back, right? This is where she finally drops the hard-ass façade and admits to herself that she loves Han Solo. What a beautiful moment! Does anyone remember what leads up to this moment? She’s actually in the middle of trying to fix something, when he stops in to “help”. He begins by standing behind her and putting his arms on either side of her…
This is the action 30 seconds before that kiss… she physically shoves him off of her. He then grabs her. She tells him to Stop. She tells him to Stop again… so he does what any hero would do when faced with a reluctant maiden: he presses her into a wall and kisses her, at which point she relents and is clearly enjoying the romantic encounter. And this is hardly the only example of when at first she clearly says no, try, try again.
… I’m not saying we need to ban all the movies, but we have to talk about these moments when they come up.
Try, try again
You know one kids’ movie that gets it right?
Yeah… Frozen. Do you remember how this kiss goes down? Anna gives Kristoff a gift, and he says, “I love it, I could kiss you!” and starts to wrap his arms around her, then drops her with sudden embarrassment… his dialogue is then clumsy and stumbling… “I could… I mean I’d like to… may !? I mean, may we?” … Anna then gives him a peck on the cheek and says, “we may.” Then Anna and Kristoff kiss EACH OTHER. This is what consent looks like.
Consent: another context
And here’s another little video to watch with your kids, to talk about consent!
Provide sex ed for your kids
A little more on explicitly teaching our kids… we need provide their sexual education. Do not rely on school to do it. There are currently only 20 states that require sex-ed to be accurate, and no OH is not one of them. Incidentally, Harmony is exploring the possibility of bringing a program here. Our Whole Lives (OWL), developed by joint UU-UCC efforts, is designed to provide participants with the tools to make informed and responsible decisions about sexual health & behavior via curricula for Kindergarten through adulthood.
Back to people who didn’t get OWL class (or the tea video) … I had a classmate in high school who wouldn’t’ take no for an answer. He asked me to every dance, called me nightly, left a love note in my locker every day, made me more mix tapes than I care to consider, followed me to class, and bought me flowers for every holiday. Over the 4 years I dealt with him, I asked for help from my parents who insisted that I just wasn’t being clear… I asked for help from my guidance counselor… “you know, it wouldn’t hurt to give him a chance.” So very helpful. Eventually I warned him that if he bought me flowers again I would rip them up in front of him. Of course, he bought me flowers again, and I lived up to my promise: in the school lobby I tore them to shreds. From that point on, to our classmates, I was the bitch who just didn’t know when to give in. And I was the student who had to spend time with the guidance counselor to learn respect and boundaries.
Is it any wonder we often try to de-escalate rather than ask for help when we encounter degradation? This kind of attention is threatening and can be scary, but it is rarely considered a serious offense. And unfortunately too many of us know how quickly this can escalate to the next layer on the pyramid…
In high school I had unwanted attention from two boys. The second, though, was quickly no longer satisfied to corner me with words. Sophomore year, his religion class was across the hall from mine, at the same time. And he would come up behind me in the hall and grab me. I would push him away, but he would just get more forceful. And this was a big guy: offensive lineman, varsity. Some days he was so violent that I would be slammed into the lockers and emerge with bruises or missing buttons. And this was in the hall between classes. How many kids and teachers could have stopped it right there? Instead they all looked away and pretended not to see. When I begged for help, the guidance counselor told me two things:
- He sees you kissing your boyfriend before school… why wouldn’t he expect you to kiss him too?
- We really don’t want to risk a problem with his college football career over a little scuffle in the hall, do we?
And so, I learned that even up to this third layer in the pyramid, my role was to walk away. My job was to de-escalate. To avoid. And when I couldn’t, I just hadn’t tried hard enough. Is it any wonder I walked away from college the way I did?
Normalization and degradation are constant
I would like to close with an excerpt from a piece by Gretchen Kelly in The Huffington Post. It is part of her plea for us all to actively work to build a culture of consent:
We have all learned, either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable. How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.
It doesn’t feel good. It feels icky. Dirty. But we do it because to not do it could put us in danger or get us fired or labeled a bitch. So we usually take the path of least precariousness.
It’s not something we talk about every day. We don’t tell our boyfriends and husbands and friends every time it happens. Because it is so frequent, so pervasive, that it has become something we just deal with.
It’s the reality of being a woman in our world.
It’s laughing off sexism because we felt we had no other option.
It’s feeling sick to your stomach that we had to “play along” to get along.
It’s feeling shame and regret that we didn’t call that guy out, the one who seemed intimidating but in hindsight was probably harmless. Probably.
It’s taking our phone out, finger poised over the “Call” button when we’re walking alone at night.
It’s positioning our keys between our fingers in case we need a weapon when walking to our car.
It’s lying and saying we have a boyfriend just so a guy would take “No” for an answer.
It’s being at a crowded bar/concert/insert any crowded event, and having to turn around to look for the jerk who just grabbed our ass.
It’s knowing that even if we spot him, we might not say anything.
It’s walking through the parking lot of a big box store and politely saying Hello when a guy passing us says Hi. It’s pretending not to hear as he berates us for not stopping to talk further. What? You too good to talk to me? You got a problem? Pffft… bitch.
It’s not telling our friends or our parents or our husbands because it’s just a matter of fact, a part of our lives.
It’s the memory that haunts us of that time we were abused, assaulted or raped.
It’s the stories our friends tell us through heartbreaking tears of that time they were abused, assaulted or raped.
It’s realizing that the dangers we perceive every time we have to choose to confront these situations aren’t in our imagination. Because we know too many women who have been abused, assaulted or raped.
Erin Kotch is a member of Harmony UU.