Every two minutes, a woman is sexually assaulted in the US. One in four women will be raped or sexually assaulted during her college career.* Now the crimes are known by the schools at their epicenter: Steubenville, Missouri, dozens of college campuses — sexual assaults are reaching epidemic levels. In an environment of permissiveness, female victims are often blamed for not taking more action or by putting themselves in dangerous situations, but tired victim-blaming tactics have had little affect on national rape and sexual assault numbers. So Sarah Diaz, Student Wellness coordinator at Butler, is trying to go a completely different route: instead of separating predatory sexual behavior and the grey areas of consent that are introduced when lots of alcohol is added to the mix, she's encouraging students to seek out "enthusiastically consenting" partners.
"Consent is one of the most important sex education principles, as it is the foundation for healthy and mutually enjoyable experiences," Diaz said in an email.
It's a fascinating and refreshing reversal on the usual boilerplate "prevention tactics" rambled off to incoming freshman: don't go to parties alone, never leave your drink unattended, don't dress too suggestively — advice that assumes every male on campus is a sexual predator and every female student is a chaste noblewoman fending off a deluge of cartoon wolf style whistles and bulging eyeballs. The common term for this dynamic is "sex-negative," where both sexes carry a sense of shame and trepidation about their sexuality as it frames sex as a currency of personal value and moral worth — a model which leads to predatory behavior at parties and creates unfortunate terms like "walk of shame." On the flip side, Diaz uses a "sex-positive approach" which "doesn't shame students for having sex, but informs them how to have sex in the safest and most enjoyable way possible."
Back when I was new on campus, the Peers Advocating Wellness for Students organization, which provides peer-led education on everything from stress to drinking to sexual health, stressed the importance of obtaining consent before sex.
"In recent years at Butler we've taken our approach a few steps further to encourage students to ensure there is enthusiastic consent," Diaz said, "that all parties involved are not only granting permission but are enthusiastically interested in the same things." Immediately, the first criticism of this approach is that it must encourage students to be promiscuous, an assumption that Diaz firmly refutes. "This approach advocates two main principles: that if and when sex occurs it should be consensual and safe. The sex positive approach doesn't promote sex, but rather promotes personal choice around sex."
Choice is one of the first elements of sex that gets ignored in the larger conversation, often to the detriment of the student's sense of self. If the conversation about sex on college campus is built around the assumption that young men are insatiable sex fiends looking to nab the "weakest in the herd," the imbalance of power creates an unhealthy dynamic where sex becomes a bargaining chip and consent a prize. But trying to reframe sexuality as a choice and not an animal urge in need of control requires a lot of unpacking of our society's moral messaging about sex and value, which Diaz does with good old-fashioned Hoosier common sense.
"I start by normalizing the topic of sex as a part of life that most people will engage in at some point, and focus on equipping individuals with skills to have safe and enjoyable sexual experiences," Diaz said. The disconnect being created by abstinence-only sex education is one which Diaz's sex-positive approach is trying to bridge. High school students in abstinence-only sex education are often told simply that sex "has serious consequences" and the subject is left at that. (That's the best-case scenario. Some faith-based sex education programs teach children that sex before marriage turns them into "chewed gum that no one will want." Elizabeth Smart, speaking at a human trafficking forum at Johns Hopkins, said that she did not run from her captors because she believed she was "chewed up" and no one would want her. She now advocates for sex-positive sex education in high schools.)
You know the math: students who've been schooled in abstinence grow up into adults who want to find spouses and have children, and — surprise! — sex plays a major role in both of those "traditional" desires. Diaz is not about to let pearl-clutching get in the way of her mission of helping young people feel empowered to make healthy decisions for themselves and their partners. "If we don't have straightforward conversations about this, children are left to attach societal expectations to sex, and the importance of consent is most certainly not something that they'll find highlighted there ... There are serious physical and mental health consequences of non-consensual sex, and if there is something we can do to prevent these repercussions we should feel an obligation to do so."
* U.S. Dept. of Justice, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2008-2012