I spent ten minutes last night reading the heartbreaking and harrowing victim impact statement from a brave and inspirational woman who had suffered abuse at the hands of Stanford student Brock Turner. In her statement we read of the long series of ordeals that her initial ordeal at the hands of her attacker kicked off. The ordeal of discovering what happened to her via a newspaper, the ordeal of a medical examination, the ordeal of having to manage the feelings of her loved ones when she was in personal torment and the ordeal of accusation and humiliation at the hands of her attackers legal team.
Her statement ends with a powerful challenge to the world and as clear a definition of what sexual consent means as there is, in short, consent is not the absent of no it is the presence of a clear, conscious yes.
On reading something as powerful and harrowing as her story I was challenged to ask myself what I can do to lessen the chances of any other young person suffering as this young woman has. It became clear that I have had many opportunities to educate young people on the meaning of consent through 12 years of church based youth work and have missed those opportunities by sticking to the one track record of abstinence.
I am more or less a typical mainstream Christian. I believe that sex should be practiced at its most sacred; within marriages. I think encouraging young people to consider that choice is a good thing. However, I think it is time we in the church pull our collective heads out of the sand and begin to teach our young people how to behave if they choose not to abstain from sex.
Don’t be deceived, that is a much higher percentage of our Christian young people than you probably think it is. In a culture where the conversation is abstinence alone the realities of losing one’s virginity, feelings of coercion and regret are often not talked about except within the language of impurity and repentance. We need to wake up and speak honestly about sex.
As someone who stopped doing youth work a few years ago and who looks back now and sees it as a missed opportunity to help young men and women in this area, let me speak to anyone who is a youth worker today. Be brave and teach your youth groups about how to behave sexually. Sure, teach them abstinence and to wait until marriage but be wise enough to know that many of them won’t. Make your case as strongly as you wish but please also teach them the meaning of consent, teach them drunk means no, that stop is not ‘teasing’ and that “he/she was kissing me” does not mean he/she wanted sex.
Be brave because parents won’t be happy with you. Be brave because it could cost some of you your job. There is a scary culture within young people that suggests sex without consent could be on the increase and an even scarier culture of blaming the victim and pardoning the attacker and you have a big opportunity to make a difference. This is more important than toeing the party line and it isn’t something that only happens with the ‘non-church’ kids.
Parents, I know that no parent feels that they have to explain this to their child. I know that you can never imagine your son or daughter taking sexual advantage of someone who hasn’t made it clear that they are consenting. I know the idea of talking to your son or daughter about consent feels awkward when you’re hoping they wait for marriage but I’ve had too many painful conversations with Christian people who feel they’ve been touched against their will or even raped by Christian boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands or wives. Be brave and push through the awkwardness and fight back against this horrific thing that keeps on happening. It’s really important.
The Church, in spite of numerical decline, still has influence in the lives of young men and women, teenage boys and girls. We must use that influence wisely. For those of us who aren’t youth workers or parents we can be a voice of support to them as they teach this. Church leaders and members, stand by your youth worker as they face accusations of ‘encouraging promiscuity.’ Silence every voice that says ‘they shouldn’t have been drinking’ or ‘they were dressed provocatively.’ Victim shaming and blaming is abhorrent and has no place in Christianity or society in general.
Pull your head from the sand and look at this real world in our schools and university campuses and decide whether you want to continue with the one track record or whether you can be a voice that might just stop one potential attacker in their tracks. It’s incredibly important.