Teaching students ‘consent is sexy’ won’t address the campus rape epidemic

Men don’t rape because they don’t think consent is “sexy” enough, they rape because they think they will get away with it.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated that she intends to rescind Obama-era policies addressing the way Title IX should be used to adjudicate college campus sexual assault cases. The Obama administration policies — best expressed in the “Dear Colleague” letter that reminded educational institutions of their obligations to victims under sex discrimination law — provided hope to survivors who have too frequently had their rapes ignored and covered up by school administrators, or who have been blamed for their own victimization.

In the last decade, activists have focused heavily on the issue of rape on campus, justice for survivors, and sexual violence prevention — in 2015, a documentary called The Hunting Ground, which looked at the rape epidemic on campus and the obstacles survivors face to get justice, pushed the issue even further into public discourse. We can no longer deny that rape on campus is an epidemic. We know that the perpetrators of these crimes are not monsters, but ordinary men, and that we need not only to teach young men to fight rape culture rather than perpetuate it, but also to start holding them accountable for their behaviour.

Considering all this, why has “consent is sexy” become the dominant way to advocate against rape culture on campus?

Since its emergence, back in 2011 (notably, the same year SlutWalk launched), the slogan has taken over: it’s on posters at colleges and universities, on signs at anti-rape culture marches, and (naturally) it’s been turned into an underwear line. Even Amy Ziering, a producer on The Hunting Ground gave a talk recently at the University of Redlands called (what else?) “Consent is Sexy.” (A surprising name for the event, given that The Hunting Ground firmly demonstrated that the problem of rape on campus has nothing to do with whether or not students think consent is “sexy.”)

The aim behind the slogan makes sense — marketing something as “sexy” is an easy way to make it seem more appealing. But is the message that fighting rape culture has to be sexy in order to be successful really the most effective way to challenge male violence against women?

“Consent is sexy” started showing up on signs and bodies at SlutWalk marches early on, and was quickly popularized on college campuses, as the “no means no” model of consent education was abandoned in favour of a “yes means yes” model, grounded in the notion of affirmative consent. A US-based “sexual rights awareness” campaign called “Consent is Sexy” also launched around 2011, targeting students in high school, college, and university. The campaign aimed to promote consensual, safe, and respectful sex to students. Similar campaigns launched in Canada, India, and Australia.

While these campaigns have been effective in terms of gaining the attention of young people and the media, the question of whether “consent is sexy” could possibly challenge rape culture and the failures of college campuses to hold perpetrators to account is an important one. In particular, we need to determine whether this slogan is beneficial for women and girls, who make up the vast majority of sexual assault victims, and whether it challenges male power, the reason behind sexual assault.

Yes, consent is important. In fact, it’s mandatory in any sexual encounter. But framing this message as “sexy” not only obscures broader issues within our culture, but it promotes harmful ideas about women. Rather than challenging men who rape and the roots of rape culture, this slogan risks reinforcing the message that women, above all, need to perform “sexiness.”

The Hunting Ground is arguably the most in-depth exposé of contemporary rape culture on American colleges, and what it revealed was not that rape occurs because consent isn’t appealing enough, but because perpetrators felt they could get away with it. The problem was shown to be these men’s feelings of entitlement, exacerbated through administrators and a Greek System that systematically protects perpetrators from accountability. The biggest indicator of this entitlement is surely the high numbers of repeat offenders — something Ziering and director Kirby Dick themselves stress. In an interview at Huffington Post, Ziering refutes the idea that rape “just happens,” saying that, rather, it’s a “highly calculated, premeditated crime” and that date rape should more accurately be named “target rape.”  Considering this, how will teaching young people that “consent is sexy” stop the kind of men who believe they can commit rape with impunity, especially when they have institutions and communities protecting them?

If consent really is sexy, why are some men still so interested in violating consent? Six years after “consent is sexy” entered public discourse, “revenge porn” has become a common way to target women, young men have taken up a practice called “stealthing” (wherein the condom is removed non-consensually), the porn industry is ever expanding, and older men paying young women for sex has been reframed as “sugar dating,” and potentially empowering for women.

In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that our culture “bombards [young people] with images that imply that lust is the most important appetite and hotness the most impressive virtue.” As evidenced by Gail Dines, author of Pornland, we live in a “porn culture,” meaning that hypersexualized images of women dominate in the media and girls learn to model their sexuality on pornographic ideals — ideals that reinforce the subjugation of women by positioning them as passive objects for men to dominate.

Levy’s observation, made over a decade ago, that “adolescent girls in particular” are “blitzed with cultural pressure to… seem sexy” still rings true. I was 10 years old when Female Chauvinist Pigs was published, and women my age continue to experience this cultural pressure. As the generation who grew up with social media, we have instant access to a deluge of perfectly-crafted images — not just of celebrities, but our own peers, compelling us to constantly scrutinize ourselves in comparison with each other. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian have taught us that nude selfies are cultural capital, and that displaying and being validated for displaying our sexualized bodies is “empowering” for women.

In the context of what Levy calls “raunch culture,” is “consent is sexy” really a message that young women need? They are already taught by culture and the media to perform their sexuality for the gratification of others, rather than to inhabit it authentically. Teaching them that consenting is a sexy thing to do, rather than a fundamental assertion of their own agency, does nothing to challenge that.

There are other limitations to “consent is sexy,” too. In Pornland, Dines writes of female college students in the US, who employ what they call the “hookup trick,” where they don’t groom their pubic hair before going out as a way to guard against hookups. When asked why they don’t just say “no” if they don’t feel like having sex, these young women told Dines that “once you have a few drinks in you and are at a party or a bar, it is too hard.”

In other words, consent isn’t as straightforward as we’d like it to be. Evidently, social pressures and expectations placed on young women complicate the question of what legitimate consent looks like for women under patriarchy. How does “consent is sexy” address a reality wherein debates on issues like hookup culture, “stealthing,” and “sugar dating” demonstrate that our generation doesn’t share a clear, unified idea of what constitutes consent? Teaching young women that consent is “sexy” is pointless if they’re still only consenting out of a sense of obligation or coercion. In an ideal feminist future, consent would only come from real, authentic desire. We need messages that can take us to that future by asking, “What does real bodily autonomy look like?”

“Consent is sexy” ignores the broader context in which sexual assault occurs: a hypersexualized, patriarchal culture, wherein men are socialized towards entitlement rather than accountability. When consent is presented as something simple and when sex education is reduced to a fun slogan, the systems of power that shape women’s sexuality are erased.

Historically, what has been most effective in challenging rape culture has not been reframing consent to make it sound more appealing, but a deep examination of patriarchal power structures. Sexual assault — like all male violence against women — both relies on and reinforces women’s subordination to men. During the second wave, feminists like Susan Brownmiller and Kate Millett argued that male violence against women was a political problem, rather than a personal one. Indeed, the feminist movement has interrogated the very foundations of patriarchal power as a means to address all forms of male violence. Second wave feminists created rape crisis centres and shelters for battered women. Internationally, they fought for and won important legislative reforms like the criminalization of rape in marriage, rape shield protections, and affirmative consent laws. Worldwide, more than anything else, it is the mobilization of independent feminist movements which have had the largest impact in terms of addressing violence against women.

The feminist movement also made it possible for survivors to speak out, access support, and advocate for systemic change. Indeed, Alexandra Brodsky, one of the rape survivors featured in The Hunting Ground, said it was politicizing her experience that helped her the most. Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, the victims turned activists who are the primary subjects of the documentary, offer a contemporary example of women working to stop sexual violence on campus. By filing a Title IX complaint against their colleges for failing to handle their rape cases properly, these women used the framework that second wave feminists helped implement to argue that their institutions’ failures were an issue of sex discrimination. They also formed a network of survivors to pass their knowledge onto others, and hold institutions accountable. The history of the women’s movement demonstrates that progress against sexual violence has been achieved by feminists who challenge broader power structures and the institutions which uphold them.

But while in the 70s, Millett explained that sexual domination is “perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power,” today the dominant message challenging sexual violence is “consent is sexy.” The contrast is stark. Where are the perpetrators in that message? Where are the victims? Betsy DeVos’ statement of intention demonstrates that feminists have further challenges ahead. We need to continue the strong feminist activism demonstrated in The Hunting Ground to ensure that the hard-won victories of survivors aren’t undone, and that survivors can continue to hold perpetrators, and the institutions that protect them, accountable.

Given the current situation on college campuses, education about consent is crucial for young people.  Presenting consent as mandatory, rather than “sexy,” is just the start. We also need to move beyond a focus on “consent” and address the systems of power that position women and their sexuality as something to be objectified, commodified, or conquered. After all, what good is “yes means yes” if women feel like saying yes is their only option? How progressive is “consent is sexy” if young women are already conditioned to believe that “sexy” is one of the most important things they can be? And moreover, what good are these messages if men are actively looking to sexually assault women and know they’ll get away with it?

If we really want to end sexual assault and violence against women more broadly, this generation needs messages that go beyond making consent “sexy,” and instead challenge the attitudes and systems that contribute to rape culture in the first place.

Zoë Goodall is a student and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She is currently completing her Honours at RMIT University, examining discussions relating to Indigenous women that occurred during the deliberations on Canada’s Bill C-36. She tweets infrequently at @zcgoodall.

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