As the brother of a sexual assault survivor, seeing the mainstream media, the federal government, and the public at large begin to engage in a conversation on sexual assault and rape is encouraging. Everyday we see new ideas and proposed guidelines aimed at preventing this horrible crime. Our society finally appears willing to confront this issue beyond saying "No Means No" and "Don't Rape." But are we approaching this problem from the wrong angle? It is not our universities, nor our military that has an exclusive problem with this issue... it is our society in general.
Most young adults learn about dating, intimacy and sexual decision-making way before they arrive on a college campus or enlist in the military.
If our society desires to lower sexual assault on college campuses and in our military, we must be more proactive at younger ages -- transforming the way individuals view intimacy and relationships. We need to teach respect for one's self and one's partner. Believing each person deserves to be given a choice before sexual activity occurs is an essential act of respect and affection. For this reason, teaching specific how-to skills on consent must happen before dating habits are developed.
This transformation does not need to be a herculean effort. By simply asking a partner "May I kiss you?" and honoring the answer, we are showing partners that we value their boundaries, and most importantly we are giving them a choice in the situation. Every person deserves for each sexual experience to be consensual (requested, freely given, and wanted between two people of legal age and sound mind).
Our country needs to take early steps in teaching our youth that healthy intimacy requires a strong desire from both parties. There has to be complete clarity about the age of consent -- for both people to be of an age to fully comprehend their choices, to be able to verbally communicate likes and dislikes, be of sound mind, and to honor the answer of their partner when they do request intimacy.
Ask Moms and Dads, "Do you hope that when your child gets to the point in life when he/she is going to be sexually active, that your child will always have a choice before a partner ever touches him/her sexually?" Every parent I've ever met around the world adamantly answers either, "Yes" or "Of course!!"
Yet how do most people currently choose whether to keep sexually touching a partner? Sadly by "Going for it" -- assuming what the partner wants and then engaging in the sexual contact without ever asking first. "Going for it" is an act of arrogance and an abuse of power over another person.
Regardless of what dating books try to teach, people cannot guarantee they are accurately reading the precise detailed thoughts inside the mind of a partner. "Asking First" is the only approach that seeks to find out first. "Asking First" is an act of respect and confidence. The person asking discovers what the partner wants, honors the partner's boundaries, and respects whatever response is given.
For those who say, "Asking seems awkward," those individuals are proving how we have failed to give people the confidence to talk about their sexual wants, dislikes and boundaries. Before ever engaging in sexual activity, every person should be able to comfortably state what he/she wants.
Also, we must address the connection between alcohol consumption and sexual assault. This topic has been the elephant in the room among recent discussions on sexual assault. The focus has been wrongly placed on telling people how "Not To" be a victim instead of teaching everyone to stop the predator. Statements to college students like "If you get drunk, you are putting yourself at risk for rape" only result in survivors being unfairly and incorrectly blamed for the actions of a rapist.
Our educational system has failed to teach bystanders to take an active role in protecting each other from sexual predators. The sexual predator is the one at the bar looking to find a person who is not of sound mind with the one goal of engaging in sexual activity with that person. Teaching students bystander intervention techniques increases the chances of preventing such a crime from happening, and empowers students to defend those who are not of sound mind - to stop the predator. These specific skills must be taught prior to children seeing friends in these situations (at least as early as 5th and 6th grade).
The language society uses to refer to this crime is causing further harm. Calling an alcohol-facilitated sexual assault a "drunk hookup" or "being taken advantage of" is a passive acceptance of sexual assault, it minimizes the trauma of the crime, and results in few people doing anything to intervene when it occurs. Being sexually active with a partner who is not of sound mind is rape/sexual assault!
Instilling these reforms in society ensures that students are taught the foundational concepts of a healthy approach to dating with an emphasis on consent and respect for your partner. While legislation in California (SB 967) addressing "Affirmative Consent" is a good start for campuses, society needs to ask why such legislation doesn't exist for K12 education.
If we really want to reduce sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, the lessons of respect, consent and bystander intervention need to be instilled in elementary education through high school.
The national conversation on this topic is only beginning. My hope is that we as a society can use this moment to reflect on how we can transform our culture for the better, and truly put an end to this crime.