Editor’s Note: There are points in this argument that Your Other Humble Editor, Rust, disagrees with. Her response is here.

A friend of my reposted this today (I presume it’s from here but I can’t find the original post) with the caption “apparently this is controversial?” And we had a good laugh because, seriously, the world needs to change and shit is unjust and sometimes you just laugh because you hate it all. But then I kept thinking, which always gets me into trouble. And I reached a very awkward conclusion:

Actually, we’re already being taught “don’t rape.”

As an aside: In an ideal world, both pieces of advice would be given. “Don’t commit a crime” and “take reasonable steps to avoid being the victim of a crime” are both pieces of good advice. I don’t think either of them is The Problem.

The Problem, according to the sign, is that all we’re doing is teaching potential crime victims to fear and not teaching potential abusers not to abuse. But that’s not what’s actually happening. We are being taught not to rape, but the system by which we’re taught has flaws.

I’ve seen this line of thinking before: the whole not-being-taught thing and it’s always, always, a female feminist saying it. You know why you, a female feminist, might think that men aren’t being taught not to rape? Because none of the messages about not-raping are aimed at you. Because no one thinks you will rape. Not to flaunt my lived experience too hard here, but part of the reason you might think men aren’t receiving messages about how to treat consent is that you’re not privy to very many of them. They’re out there. Trust me.

But my argument isn’t “feminists only think this because they’re ladies afflicted with gender-myopia.” The messages are out there, but they’re in a different form. “Don’t Get Raped” advice is often a bulleted list of things to do to protect yourself from stranger assault (a problem for another post). “Don’t Rape” advice takes the form that almost all “Don’t Commit Crime” advice takes in our culture: constant, negative depictions of criminality as morally deviant and reprehensible.

No one sits adults down and tells them “don’t steal” and “don’t commit fraud” and hands them a bulleted list of things to do to avoid committing theft or fraud. That’s insulting and sorta presumes that whoever you’re teaching was a risk for theft or fraud before you got to them with your stern looks and bulleted lists. So we don’t do that.

But we do it for kids. We teach kids “don’t take other peoples’ stuff” and ”don’t lie.” And these messages lay the groundwork for not thieving from or defrauding others. But there’s not really an analog for “don’t rape.” The commission of sexual crimes just isn’t a thing that most kids do, while petty theft and lying are. So that part of their education gets deferred.

So instead we get the message later from the culture around us. And the culture around us contains (what I’ll charitably call) nuanced and not-always-demonized depictions of thieves, the fraudulent, and even romanticized rapists. I got through this stage OK. I learned that consent is important and rape is bad without anyone ever sitting me down and treating me as a potential offender. But this system does not work. It’s possible, even easy, to come away believing that some coercion is just part of the mating dance. And worse, many of these media depictions address the kind of violent rape or stranger rape[1] that’s actually pretty rare. It’s similarly possible to look at those rapes and declare that they are just a different kind of thing from getting your crush drunk so she’ll finally give in. This system is flawed, and needs to change.

Let me close this out with a quick bulleted list of what I’m saying:

1. We are actually being taught “don’t rape” and not just “don’t get raped.”

2. It only looks like we’re not because those two messages are communicated through different channels.

3. However, the channels we use for “don’t rape” have much more mixed messages.[2] As a consequence, our “don’t rape” education is less clear.

4. We are in need of a childhood-teachable analog for “don’t rape.” I would nominate “ask for consent and respect peoples’ answers” but I’m not a child psychologist and I have no idea if you can teach that to kids.

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[1] As time goes by, this has definitely changed. I see many more depictions of intimate assault now. Exact propotions and questions what’s the majority will be left to statisticians.

[2] I actually think those mixed messages are fine. I’m OK with romanticized thieves, fraudsters, and criminals. By extension, I must be OK with depictions of romanticized rapists as long as it remains clear that these characters are thought experiments no different from the other criminals.

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