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‘Don’t Rape’ Should Trump ‘Stay Safe’ When We Talk About Campus Sexual Assault

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In August, female college students get bombarded with message after message reminding them that as soon as they move back to school, they have a laundry list of things to do to keep themselves from getting raped. A far more important message than that, though, that seems to be missing from all the coverage, is this: Hey, guys! Don’t rape people!

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Young women heading off to college are told everywhere they turn not to go to parties, not to get drunk, to use the buddy system, to be careful after dark, to take self-defense classes, even to arm themselves to keep themselves from being assaulted:

The talk parents are having with their college freshmen as they head off to the campus this fall includes more than pleas to get to class on time and call home every once in a while.

That’s old school.

Increasingly, the lecture includes a discussion on how to avoid campus rape. With good reason.

Let me take another stab at that. How does this sound instead? Increasingly, the lecture includes a discussion on how to avoid raping people on campus. With good reason.

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It may sound flippant to suggest telling young men not to rape – doesn’t everybody already know that? But the horrifying campus sexual assault statistics of late certainly suggest otherwise. At the very least, even if “don’t rape” is on the radar, are we sure that young men understand what “rape” means? We’ve been so busy telling our daughters to check their drinks and carry their keys between their fingers and put pepper spray in their purses that we’ve let our sons off the hook for understanding what, exactly, it means for their classmates to be able to give consent, and to have the space to safely say no. Of course men are raped too and women can also be rapists, but let’s not forget that in the majority of cases, whatever the gender of the victim, the people committing these crimes are men.

So where are the pre-college lectures to young men explaining what consent is, why it matters, and how long they’ll be in jail if they don’t get it? Where are the earnest open letters from parents talking about how they sat down with their sons and explained to them that a drunk woman cannot give consent, that an unconscious woman cannot give consent, and that a woman who feels coerced cannot give consent? And if those letters do exist – do they explain these topics in terms of the women’s bodily autonomy, or in terms of “Don’t throw away your future! Think of your career!”? (Not that that’s always a concern these days, either.) When do I get to read a newspaper article explaining to young men how consent can be revoked, or how not to “get themselves into a situation” where they rape someone by failing to maintain “constant vigilance” about not being a rapist?

If you have a son or a daughter heading to college this fall, you should talk about whatever you need to in order to make sure they feel safe (as long as you can do that without veering into victim-blaming). But you should also make sure they’re moving out with more than a passing idea of real consent, and maybe also the radical concept that female students are people and not textbook-toting sex objects.

(Images: University of Lethbridge; Amazon)

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