I know this is supposed to be a pop-culture column, but I’ve got to talk about a story from real life instead this week.
I’ve been traveling a lot recently, talking with college students across the country about Yes Means Yes and how to create a sexual culture that’s genuinely pro-pleasure and anti-rape. I love doing this – I learn so much everywhere I go, and I get to experience first-hand something I want all of you to know: we’re not alone. If the schools I visit are any indication, there are thousands of students across the country and beyond that are fed up with the lies our culture tells us about rape and sex and are ready to do what it takes to make a different world – many more than even read and write on this most excellent website.
But I want to tell you about some very specific students at a very specific school. I’m not going to name the school, because I don’t want to expose the students there to more risk than they’ve already chosen for themselves. What you need to know is that it’s a Catholic university. The students there don’t get sex education – they don’t even get abstinence education. They certainly don’t get condoms on campus, but they told me that every time a female student goes to the health center for any reason – a cold, a headache, whatever – they are given a pregnancy test. The only information they’ve been given about rape was a skit the RA’s put together and an offhand comment made by an orientation speaker who said, "If a girl’s really drunk and you have sex with her and she regrets it in the morning, that’s rape, so don’t do it."
The student who invited me to come speak – let’s call her "A" for "Awesome" – did so at great risk to her academic career and against great difficulties thrown at her by the school. Funding was delayed and denied. Red tape multiplied for no good reason. The room she’d booked for the talk was mysteriously no longer booked when she tried to confirm it the week before my arrival. Through it all, she told me nothing about any of this, cheerfully walking me through the necessary logistics and showing no signs of doubt. When I asked her if it was going to be OK to do the part of my talk that’s about the failures and myths behind abstinence-only education, she just told me to say everything. To say whatever I had to say.
The night of the talk, over a hundred students filed in to the auditorium. Three minutes after I’d begun speaking, while I was still setting the stage with statistics, two young women were already crying. There was hardly a moment when there wasn’t a hand in the air, someone wanting to question or challenge or offer insight or testify about what they’d seen or experienced. Survivors of rape spoke out, one for the very first time. Another student blew a whistle on how a rape victim had been asked what she was wearing and otherwise badly mistreated by the school’s judicial process. We talked about everything: casual sex, contraception, false reporting, SM, sex work, female pleasure and more.
It was a powerful conversation. But there was something else happening that night that everyone else knew about but me: there was a school staff member in the audience who was likely to report everything about that night to the administration. And yet no one held back – not the RAs, the student group leaders, no one. It’s likely that A will get in a good deal of trouble for putting the event together – enough so that it may be best for her to transfer to another school. She understood that before I arrived, and she chose to do it anyhow.
I always end my talks by talking about concrete actions we can all take right now to start making a better, safer world. And the one action that I think is the most potentially powerful is this: start having difficult conversations about sex and rape and shame and pleasure with people you care about, even when those conversations may be painful and not end well. The very most important thing any of us can do is refuse to be silenced. And from now on, if I ever find myself hesitating between speaking up and holding my tongue, I’m going to remember A and her kickass classmates. If they could do it – and they sure could – I sure can. Can you?