Today I will watch one of my "kids" graduate high school. I was his nanny for a few years during his preschool and grade school days and it was my duty to guarantee his safety and help him navigate the early part of his journey through person-hood. The usual orders of the day included: make sure you remember to put on underwear, eat your vegetables or it will be hard to poop later, don't throw the stuffed dog at your sister even if she threw it at you first, don't take candy from strangers, and of course, always be yourself.
Now, thirteen years later, I still feel partly responsible for guaranteeing his safety and survival as he enters his college era of person-hood. Some of the messages are basically the same: don't forget your underwear (preferably clean), eat your veggies (preferably not deep-fat fried), don't throw the laptop at your sister even if she threw it at you first, don't take seemingly great credit card offers from strangers, and be yourself. Some are new: don't drink and drive, drugs could likely land you in jail or the hospital, don't plagiarize, go to class, change your sheets... all easy enough to add as a footnote at the bottom of his graduation card.
But then there is this one: Don't rape your drunk classmates.
A few weeks ago I came up with what I thought was a much more eloquent way of telling him this. I told him to make sure he respected women, to make sure he always has consent and to help his female friends who find themselves in bad situations with booze and boys. His response was "You really think I'm gonna rape someone?" "No. I don't think you are going to rape anyone. But I still needed to say it." Since then, I have been obsessing a bit on how I could have said it better.*
I don't think he is a rapist. I don't think he is a psychopath. I don't think he is violent. I don't think he hates women. I don't think he is a sex maniac. I don't think he grew up around people that abused him. I don't think it is in his nature to harm anyone or anything.
But he needs to hear the words.
Because here is what I know. I know that he has grown up in a culture that teaches us all that women can be playthings. Ours is a culture where violence against women is justifiable, especially if they are wearing low-cut tops or short-cut bottoms. It's a culture that saturates our minds with images teaching us that wearing lip gloss means fuck me and that when a girl lies down it is appropriate for three shirtless men to be on top of her. This is a culture where sexual encounters are tallied and compared, where bragging rights belong to those with the highest number and where rape is common to up the tally and gang rape with photos and video are used to prove sexual encounters. And a culture where drunk means yes and where sex is a game.
These are the ideas that have seeped into his consciousness without his permission. These are the ideas that when mixed with liquor and heavy peer pressure may surface without his permission. This is why he needs to hear the word rape in association with his own decisions. This is why it needs to be added into the mix of ideas embedded in his head. The message 'don't rape your drunk classmates' needs to be given, explained, discussed, rehearsed - not to serve as an order, but to give it just as much room in young minds as the cultural messages that point the opposite direction. And for us to work just as hard to give young men the vocabulary to say NO to rape as much as as we do for girls to say NO to rape.
*Dear Mr. Graduate,
Here is how I should have answered your question about thinking you would rape someone: No, I do not think you would ever rape anyone. My main message is that I love you and I want you to always be aware of what the world is throwing at you without your permission so that you can be your true self and not the self others demand or try to design. Keep your eyes open and always be aware and critical of cultural messages - regarding everything, not just sex. Be your true, awesome, loving, and brilliant self.