FROM DR. CLAIRE VANSTON
Lets teach kids that a
single "no" is enough.
Recently I was vacationing in San Diego and took the opportunity to see how others in the field of sexual health education and consultancy teach the content I teach. All the usual biology material was there: A survey of birth control methods, sexually transmitted infections information and prevention. From here, the similarities ceased. Teaching refusal strategies were listed as part of the lesson plan in one high school class. For those outside the field, refusal strategies are the many different ways a person can say no to sex (if one way doesn't work, try another). Once considered useful in high school sex ed., it is now recognized by many of us for what it is – condoning a culture that tacitly accepts sexual harm. But how do these two things connect?
In the olden days (read more than five years ago), standard practice in many high school sex ed. classes was to teach content that focused on victim education and victim prevention. Class time would be dedicated to all the things a person could do to prevent being sexually assaulted or victimized. We are now much wiser. We are now more compassionate. Back then, while we were busily educating how not to be a victim, we were missing a huge part of the problem. We were missing the absolute importance of teaching how not to be a perpetrator of sexual harm. After all, if no one is inflicting sexual harm, no one is being victimized.
Holding the victim somehow accountable for a crime that happened to them re-victimizes them, and does nothing to address the actions of the perpetrator. This realization reflects a large shift in sex education philosophy. Now in many places, high school sexual health education addresses the potential perpetrator. We teach: Do no sexual harm, and more specifically, "What can I do so that I never, ever sexually hurt another person?" There is much material to work with here. Consider these topics: Sexual consent; that virginity deserves to be respected; that sexual pressure is hurtful; that we are solely responsible for controlling our own sexual urges; that if someone is drunk, high or passed out, we take care of them and we don't take advantage of them; and that family values about sex deserve acknowledgement and respect.
We are now much wiser. We are now more compassionate. Back then, while we were busily educating how not to be a victim, we were missing a huge part of the problem. We were missing the absolute importance of teaching how not to be a perpetrator of sexual harm.
When we teach kids refusal strategies - that they need many different ways to say no to sex - we are quietly telling them that a no is not a no at all; that a no is not enough. We teach them that a no actually means, "Convince me". Refusal strategies teach our kids that putting pressure on someone to have sex is fine. It teaches that a no can mean many different things, except no - That a no is a negotiation. We inculcate the message that sex is a competitive sport with a winner and a loser.
Let's consider another approach, an approach that works better and protects our kids and others. Let us teach kids that a single no is enough. That no is a complete sentence. It is not a negotiation or a compromise, and it certainly doesn't mean, "Convince me". If someone says no, they get their way. The message then becomes that we can prevent some sexual harm by understanding that sexual pressure is hurtful and unethical; that we respect a no.
What about a yes? Well that's the easy part. There is only one yes for sex, and it's just that. A yes. A yes that is clear, verbal, voluntary, happily and enthusiastically given. Every time. It is a yes given without influence of drugs or alcohol. Silence is not a yes. Hesitation is not a yes. Clothing, dancing and a ride home are not yeses either. We teach there is just one affirmative word to agree to have sex, and it is a yes. After all, isn't a yes what we really want anyway? Isn't sex about good feelings, romance, caring, relationships, kindness, compassion and love? Isn't it about mutual pleasure, mutual respect, mutual intimacy and mutual consent?
When we teach kids refusal strategies - that they need many different ways to say no to sex - we are quietly telling them that a no is not a no at all; that a no is not enough.
Recently, in response to allegations of sexual assault by a third party, a U.S. politician stated, "It's a very scary time to be a young man (in America)". I offer a different view. It is actually not scary at all. The rules and ethics around sexual consent have never been more clearly or more vociferously stated. People are familiar with terms like "consent culture" and "#Me Too", "yes means yes". University campuses offer classes and departments dedicated to ending campus sexual violence (for example University of Victoria's Anti-violence Project). Consent is taught at school.
All that said, if a person is still worried that they might be accused of sexually assaulting someone, I offer the following suggestions (Probably the most obvious suggestion here is to simply not have sex at all, but if that is not an option, consider these):
- Date for a long time before ever even considering sex.
- Get to know your partner well. Find out about their values, their family, their life history, their previous relationships, and their friends.
- For any sexual contact with another person, ensure first there is clear verbal sexual consent. Make sure it is given happily, freely, voluntarily and enthusiastically.
- Make a commitment to protect and care for younger teens. Be clear that sex with an underage person is an abuse of power and trust. Moreover, it's illegal and psychologically messed up.
- If someone is drunk, high, passed out or asleep ensure they are safe and okay. Take care of them, not advantage of them.
- Commit to mutual sexual pleasure. If a partner wants the sex to stop, or if they become physically withdrawn, stop having sex with them.
- Avoid "hook up" sex. Acknowledge you do not know that person well enough.
- Always be in charge of your sexual urges and know you can control that power at all times.
- Sexual harassment hurts people. Know what it is, and do not do it. Be an engaged bystander by speaking up when you hear it happening.
In the end, when it all comes down to it, the basics of sexual assault are quite simple: It really doesn't matter what a person is wearing, whether they have been drinking, where they are, or what time of the day or night it is. No one will ever be sexually assaulted unless there is someone who is willing to do it. There are no victims when there are no perpetrators.
About the Author
Dr. Claire Vanston is the owner of Evidence-Based Education, and is an award winning sexual health education consultant. She is based on Vancouver Island but also works internationally (Hong Kong, Japan, China), and locally in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. She earned her PhD (psychology/human sexuality) from Simon Fraser University in 2005, and has been the recipient of four national-level research scholarships. She is also a published research psychologist and was recently honoured with a Ministry of Justice Crime Prevention and Community Safety Award for her work promoting sexual consent and sexual ethics to youth. She previously held a faculty position at Capilano University for many years, and is a member of the Canadian Sex Research Forum. This is her website: www.drclaire.ca.