I will tell you that when I read about Aziz Ansari’s “date” gone wrong, my first thought was, “This woman needs to learn how to say a clear, verbal no and leave the situation.”
And then I remembered when I didn’t know how to say no, either. I was a 22-year-old teacher with a 21-year-old student and I didn’t know how to set a limit with him when he verbally flirted with me and put a hand on my hand. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when he kissed my neck, that I was able to set a firm limit and call in other teachers and administration for support.
(He was removed from my alternative-school classroom and transferred to our GED program, from which he graduated.)
The most humiliating part of the situation for me was that I was the teacher. I was supposed to have authority. I was the one in charge. How could I let such a thing happen?
It was no consolation to me that the student had a reputation around school for harassing female students. It was no consolation that when we showed a movie about date rape and what consent is and isn’t, he was the only one still cheering on the date rapist when he went too far. Everyone else in the room saw it. Even the guys who had been making sexist comments earlier got quiet. Not that student.
But all I knew was that I had failed to exercise my authority. When I tried to teach the next day, I had two panic attacks. I went to the principal and said I needed a week off or I would have to quit my job. He not only understood and granted the time off, but he shut down the dean of students, whose response to my request was, “Hey, I need a week off, too!”
One of the reasons I kept teaching there was that two women colleagues not only recommended I take a self-defense course; they took it with me. In 10 weeks I learned more than how to break a board or use my elbows to stop an attacker. I learned to use my voice. I learned to observe when someone was getting into my space and create more space. I learned to trust my gut and set a limit right away.
Remembering what it took for me to claim my power in my early 20s, I realized I needed to view this incident, and this young woman’s difficulty communicating her limits, with more humility. I don’t know all that was going on in the young woman’s mind, but I do know what a freeze response to an assault situation is like. She froze. We can teach people to unfreeze. And we can teach people to recognize a freeze response and pause the action, too.
We Need a Place to Start
But we still have a ton of work to do to teach people of all genders about both limit-setting and recognizing enthusiastic consent. I’m sure people will argue that school is not the place to do that. But right now, few places are the place to do it. It’s not happening all over our society and we need a place to start.
When children grow up expected to offer hugs to relatives, played with too roughly by parents over their own objections, told “boys will be boys” when they touch girls inappropriately (hearing this either as victims or perpetrators), they do not have the tools to communicate sexual consent or even to know whether it has been offered or not.
As a parent, I am working very hard to create opportunities for my daughter to learn communication and limit-setting tools much younger in life than I did, but it is fighting an uphill cultural battle.
To be honest, right now school is not the place where most of my daughter’s learning in this area is happening. My intentional work in this arena is supported by her martial arts summer camp. But schools are starting to tackle the issue.
Though the work is just beginning, I’m hopeful that the increased cultural conversation about consent generated by the #MeToo movement will open more space for groups like WISE in Vermont to teach parents, educators and youth how to ask before you give another person a hug. It would be a good start.