I didn’t know I was raped – the failings of the sex education system on young women

TW: mention of r*pe, assault, pornography

I mean, he was able to get into me so I guess my body wanted it? Right? What is rape? Have I been raped? Is that much blood and pain normal? Aren’t all virgins meant to bleed like that? Why am I so confused?

Those questions, amongst many more, were buzzing around my head the night that I was unfortunately r*ped. Looking back at everything as a 20 year old, I am very aware that all of the factors of my situation allude to rape. However, as a naïve teenager, I was very confused and unaware of what just had happened to me. It took me many years to figure out that what had happened to me was in fact a r*pe.

There are many factors which lead to my situation occurring, and I don’t think it can all be blamed on one thing, as that would be massively reductionist. However, after studying psychology at university now, and examining how sex education is delivered to young people, I believe the education system is partially at fault.

So how do I think that the sex education system has systematically failed us? I believe there are two main areas lacking in sex education which I think lead to situations like mine: (i) a lack of education on pornography, and (ii) a lack of education on consent.

How does the media we view affect us?

My psychology degree has allowed me to learn many ways that a lack of education on consent can lead to devastating consequences. Sexual scripts theory dictates that we internalize messages about sexuality and gender which we receive from the media we consume, such as pornography. These messages help shape, modify, or reinforce our sexual scripts – which inform our future sexual thoughts, behaviours, and interactions. Therefore, if young people are consuming porn which may be violent, derogatory towards women, or have a lack of cues surrounding consent, it is likely that these behaviours will be replicated.

One study examining the content of pornography videos found that in all videos where persuasion occurred, the actors who expressed reluctance or hesitance (who were often young women) were eventually convinced to engage in sexual activity and appeared to enjoy the sexual activity they had originally resisted. These portrayals may normalize what is known in the research literature as ‘‘token resistance.’’ Token resistance is defined as occurring when an individual, usually a woman, says ‘no when they mean yes and that their protests are not to be taken seriously.’ Later studies have found that for both men and women, more frequent viewing of pornography is associated with stronger beliefs that women engage in token resistance (Vannier, Currie, & O’Sullivan, 2013).

But what can be done about this? Porn literacy involves asking ourselves questions to help us better understand the porn we use and how we use it, which can help us figure out what we want to get from porn, what kind of porn we’d like to support, and how we’d like porn to impact us when we’re away from it. It can involve asking questions such as, what messages (about sex, consent, myself, current/potential sexual partners, etc.) am I getting from porn? Does porn I watch contribute to or reflect any oppressive (e.g. racist, sexist) stereotypes? Or, am I watching real pleasure, or a fake scene? Groups like Childnet and The Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre have created resources for teachers to use with their pupils, such as focusing on separating the myths of pornography from the facts and helping young people to develop critical literacy skills for pornography. Some schools are beginning to create room for discussions around pornography, however as schools are allowed to choose a large majority of the content they teach, many staff may shy away from this issue.

How are college students understanding consent?

Jozkowski and Hunt (2013) conducted interviews with 30 male and female US college students asking about themes of consent. One main theme that emerged was that verbal communication (e.g. saying out-loud ‘I consent’ or ‘I would like to have sex with you’) was unnecessary because apparently consent was just “obvious.” For example one participant said, “even though it’s never said… you just know what is meant… it’s obvious.” Researchers identified some nonverbal cues college students tended to take as the other person consenting, which included:

  • Flirting
  • Eye contact
  • Purchasing someone a drink
  • Accepting a drink
  • Leaving a social setting together

Of course none of these factors suggest that someone has solidly consented to sexual intercourse, but have we genuinely been educated otherwise? Some of us may have, but I know I wasn’t, and I also know there are many people out there who also haven’t.

I can firmly say that at my conservative, Christian, school I had no idea what porn literacy was, or what nonverbal or verbal cues to consent were; or for that matter a variety of ‘complex’ sexual health terms. Students, and even teachers would cringe at the word ‘labia’ so even at 15-years old, I knew more complex issues were not going to be explored.

I am sick and tired of the lack of education for young people on these issues, and if the system isn’t prepared to step-up, then we must. Even if you haven’t been r*ped, I am sure yourselves or some you know has been assaulted in some way. Educate yourselves. Educate the younger people in your lives. Call out people who make r*pe jokes. Stand up for your brothers and sisters. Give men consequences to their actions. It’s time to get hysterical.

If you are worried about yourself or someone else, please speak up: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/ https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/help-after-rape-and-sexual-assault/

*none of the aforementioned links are affiliated with The Hysteria Collective*

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