64_BCSum14_InClosing.indd

Winter 2015

Lessons on Preventing Rape

The current spotlight on campus sexual assault has no doubt raised awareness among college students of their legal rights and obligations. But difficult conversations about sexual responsibility need to be raised well before our children head off to college. As a law professor who has taught about the legal issues surrounding rape for more than a decade, and as a father of teenage boys, I believe that if we want to change behavior, we need to train young men to recognize sexual assault when it occurs and to internalize norms against it. Here are eight lessons I have learned in recent years about how to help young men better understand sexual assault.

First, there is a communication deficit between men and women. The habit of not giving a woman’s words their full weight explains why some young men misinterpret a woman’s reluctance to have sex as simply “playing hard to get.” Parents and teachers must recognize dismissive behavior toward women and girls and take corrective action when it occurs.

Second, “no means no” is not a useful guidepost anymore.

The current spotlight on campus sexual assault has no doubt raised awareness among college students of their legal rights and obligations. But difficult conversations about sexual responsibility need to be raised well before our children head off to college. As a law professor who has taught about the legal issues surrounding rape for more than a decade, and as a father of teenage boys, I believe that if we want to change behavior, we need to train young men to recognize sexual assault when it occurs and to internalize norms against it. Here are eight lessons I have learned in recent years about how to help young men better understand sexual assault.

First, there is a communication deficit between men and women. The habit of not giving a woman’s words their full weight explains why some young men misinterpret a woman’s reluctance to have sex as simply “playing hard to get.” Parents and teachers must recognize dismissive behavior toward women and girls and take corrective action when it occurs. ¶ Second, “no means no” is not a useful guidepost anymore.

In many states, intercourse is considered sexual assault if it occurs without permission by words or conduct. A jury can find a defendant guilty of rape even if the complainant did not physically or verbally resist, if it is determined that she was unwilling to engage in that act. Young men need to be taught to have absolute clarity about their companion’s intentions.

Third, consent may be withdrawn at any time. A woman’s behavior or words during intimacy might reasonably point to her interest in having sex, but if those signals change during foreplay (or even during intercourse), continued sexual penetration is a crime. Our sons need to understand that “stop” means stop.

Fourth, alcohol and drugs impede reliable communication. When your partner has ingested either, the onus is on you to get express verbal permission before engaging in sexual activity.

Fifth, it is possible for someone to be so drunk that the law considers them incapable per se of consenting to sex. In most states, if you have sexual contact with a minor, or an unconscious or disabled person, that is a crime. So too, if you have sex with someone who is so intoxicated that she is wholly insensible, that is rape.

Young men also need to understand that, even if they are honestly mistaken about their sexual partner’s willingness to have sex, they may still be guilty of rape. Some states like Massachusetts do not recognize mistake as a defense to rape. Even in states that recognize the mistake defense, a defendant’s intoxication will be no excuse for failing to recognize the victim’s lack of consent if a reasonable sober person in the defendant’s situation would have realized that she did not want to have sex.

Seventh, we need to teach young men strategies for bystander intervention. When a college student observes a drunk and sexually aggressive male carrying a helpless woman out of a basement fraternity party, he needs to step in, separate them, and escort one of them home.

Finally, we need to teach young men that they, too, are entitled to reject unwanted sexual advances. By discussing rape around our dinner tables as only a crime against women, we potentially silence young men by marginalizing their experiences.

I believe that the best way to prevent sexual assault on campus is to teach our sons not to be rapists before they get there.


Professor Michael Cassidy teaches criminal law, evidence, and legal ethics. A longer version of this essay was originally published on Cognoscenti, wbur.org’s ideas and opinion page. It is reprinted with permission.

Comments are closed.