"Does it count if she's drunk?"
"If she changes her mind while you're doing it, is that still rape?"
Are you serious? Of course it is rape.
"If she invites you into her room, that means she'll let you do whatever you want, right?"
Do people actually think that?
We are sitting around a bonfire in July. Sparks rise into the sweet summer air, illuminating the faces of our friends as we chat and roast marshmallows. The conversation takes a serious turn when our male friends, all high school seniors, begin to ask questions about what constitutes rape. After a few questions like those above, it is sadly clear that they have no idea what qualifies as rape or what it means to give and receive consent. They are not bad people. They have simply never been taught the answers to these questions.
This conversation sparks something in our minds. We conclude that if our friends do not understand, the rest of our fellow students likely do not either. We decide that if we do not take action, we could be looking into the dimly lit faces of future rapists or victims of rape.
Four months later, we meet with the principal of our New Jersey public high school. We discuss ways to bring awareness and improve education, armed with our health textbook as evidence of our outdated curriculum's shortcomings. The book gives handy tips on how to dress to avoid becoming a rape victim, yet says nothing about the responsibility of the perpetrator. Our notes sheets ask, "Is date rape really rape? Why or why not?" We implore our principal to help us make a change. He warns that any actions we take could result in angry phone calls from parents and retaliation from our peers. We press on anyway.
As our plans near fruition, we spend hours brainstorming, compose countless emails, and search relentlessly for ways to bring change to our school. We contact Katie Koestner, Executive Director of the Take Back the Night Foundation, an organization working to end sexual violence, and she agrees to speak to the student body. We hang controversial posters with messages such as, "Steps to avoid rape: 1. Don't Rape," which are promptly ripped down by our ignorant adversaries. Friends who agreed to help us with our plans back out, fearing that their involvement would damage their reputations. We hear comments like, "Rape doesn't happen in high school, why are they doing this?" We know that these baseless criticisms could not be more wrong. We know that we must educate students early before the independence of college puts them to the test.
We create an organization to bring awareness of sexual assault to our school, modeling the group after the White House initiative It's On Us. We make a short video inspired by It's On Us and involve students from various grades and activities, aiming to spread the messages of bystander intervention and victim support. The video airs for the entire school to see during our Week Of Action, during which we share several public service announcements relating to sexual assault. The week culminates with Katie Koestner's presentation. She shares the moving story of her personal experience with rape, first to the underclassmen and then to the upperclassmen, and we know she has made an impact when she receives a standing ovation each time.
High school is a critical venue for discussing sexual violence and the increasing prevalence of campus rape in the media. We dream of living in a world where victims receive support and never blame for their ordeals, where bystanders intervene, and where sexual violence ends. We have only just begun to take strides toward creating that world, and we will continue to advocate and educate until our dream is realized. We urge all fellow dreamers to do the same.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text "loveis" to 77054 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.