Educating both boys and girls about sexual consent needs to begin in high school, at the very least. Ashley James explains why.
I was sexually assaulted my senior year of high school. However, I did not even realize or understand this until my freshman year of college at the University of Richmond (UR) during our orientation session on sexual assault. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against the now confirmed Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, has forced me to relive my own traumatic experience. Like many women, now more than ever, I feel that I must tell my story.
The man who assaulted me was a member of my church who I trusted; for the purposes of this essay, I will call him Adam. He was three years older than me. When I was 15 and he was 18, he came to my house to hang out. As we sat in my living room playing games on the Wii, he placed his hand on my thigh. My not moving it was the implicit start to a “thing” between us that would last two years.
Adam never asked questions, he just acted. For instance, after we had been texting and chatting for months, Adam and I finally shared our first kiss. We were in his car parked at my local shopping mall. When he leaned in for the kiss, I responded positively—I wanted to kiss him. What I didn’t want was for him to then place my hand on his hard penis, which he had taken out of his pants. I was a member of a ministry in church called “Cross My Heart” that mentored young girls. In the group, we learned about setting boundaries with boys. So, I told Adam that I was willing to kiss and touch, but not willing to have sex with him, oral or otherwise.
Fast forward two years. I am 17. Adam is 20. He picks me up for a meeting at church but stops at his house on the way to “chill.” When we arrive at his home, his mother, father, and sister are there. We greet them and then head to the living room to watch TV, his parents still in sight. However, soon both of his parents leave, and his sister goes in another room to take a nap. Adam takes this as his moment of opportunity and starts to beg me for oral sex, to which I say “no” repeatedly. Then he offers to return the favor, which I also say “no” to, but when he keeps asking I finally said “okay.” This is not the first time he’s asked. He gets on his knees, takes off my pants and underwear, and starts to finger me. After just a few moments, I realize that Adam has switched from a finger to something larger. My body tenses.
“What are you doing?” The terror in my voice is evident.
“It’s already halfway in,” he says. As if, because he had already taken the step to violate me, I should just allow him to continue. As if he had the right.
I was in shock, but I mustered the courage to say, “No.”
Luckily, at least he had the decency to stop. However, his “decency” ended there.
He got up and said, “Okay then, suck my dick.” As if I owed him a compromise.
Disgusted, I got up and went to the bathroom to compose myself. When I returned, I said I was ready to leave.
I planned to never mention the incident to anyone. However, I had two issues that forced me to speak: 1) a late period and 2) a burning sensation when I urinated. After frantic Google searches on “pre-cum” and “gonorrhea,” fear sent me running to my mother with the whole story.
She was furious. Furious at Adam, whom she promptly called, but also at me. She told me I should have never let him take my pants off in the first place, that I must have done something to lead him on or suggest he could cross that boundary. I felt judgment not only from my mother, but even from medical professionals who are supposedly trained not to judge. When my mother brought me to the doctor’s office to get tested for pregnancy and STDs, the doctor said, “Aren’t you too young to be getting these tests?” His lack of ethics stunned me. I left the office with a prescription for UTI antibiotics and an extra dose of humiliation.
In the following weeks, a blanket of shame started to suffocate me. The incident, which I now realize was an attempted rape, haunted me day and night. It made me sick. I felt that I had broken my mother’s trust, my own personal integrity, and above all my commitment to God. My mother’s constant comments only made matters worse. In retrospect, I believe she was just angry at the situation. However, she manifested her anger in hurtful ways—including calling me names which I can’t bear to even repeat. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when she asked me to give my purity ring back to her, because I didn’t deserve it. The ring had ironically been given to me on my 15th birthday party, which Adam attended.
In that moment, I snapped—and some of the details of the breakdown that followed are too painful to report. Later that night, I locked myself in our bathroom and mixed a full bottle of bleach and ammonia in a mop bucket. Thankfully, the fumes alerted my mother. She broke open the door and dragged me out before the toxic gas could invade my lungs. After that, my mother brought me to a Christian therapist. To say the least, she wasn’t helpful. I went to one session, refused to return, tried to bury all the pain, and moved on with my life.
The only problem was, the pain wasn’t buried.
Months later, I sat in my orientation session on sexual assault and listened to testimonies of survivors. I realized that a lot of their stories were similar to mine. My chest began to pound because in that moment I finally had a word for the awful experience that continued to haunt me, and I knew it was not my fault. I knew it was my right to say what I was or was not willing to do.
I knew it was not my fault. I knew it was my right to say what I was or was not willing to do.
I left the orientation session sobbing and headed to the nearest bathroom just to have a moment to myself. I started to type a letter on my phone to Adam’s parents detailing the assault, as well as every other time he tried to push my sexual boundaries. I wanted them to know what type of son they had raised. Writing this letter, which I later destroyed, was my first step towards healing. Later that same month, my mother made a visit to campus and, with tears in her eyes, she gave me a brand new ring. She acknowledged that I had been assaulted and apologized for her initial reaction.
As I continued my college education, I learned more, read more, and got involved in activism against sexual assault. I now consider myself much more educated on the matter. I owe this to the passionate students and faculty I met at UR. Sexual assault is recognized as a huge problem on college campuses. Though UR administration definitely has had its failings when it comes to addressing sexual assault cases, the university attempts to prevent assaults with various campaigns, events, and sessions like the one I attended my freshman year.
However, college is too late to start education on consent. Testimonies such as Christine Blasey Ford’s—and the many others that have come forward in the wake of her disclosures—demonstrate that people engage in sexually inappropriate and dangerous behavior before college. High school is a prime time for students to start thinking about and having sex. However, only a third of the 24 states that require sex education also require that it include education on consent.
When we fail to teach children and teenagers about consent, we fail society as a whole. Students entering college must take certain academic prerequisites in high school, such as English and Math. They also need a prerequisite on sex education and consent in order to prepare socially. 20 – 25% of college students are estimated to be sexually assaulted. The new freedom of college life, a culture of binge drinking, partying, and hooking up, combined with little to no education on consent almost guarantees that statistic.
Furthermore, many men, such as my attacker, never attend a four-year school where education on consent is often ubiquitous. Maybe if Adam had been educated about sexual assault, he would have known that coercion and deception is not consent. At the same time, if I had received education on sexual assault and consent, it would have helped me understand that I didn’t just allow something terrible to happen to me. I would have known it wasn’t my fault.
In our society, where 1 in 5 women gets raped and 69% of assaults go unreported, we can’t assume that boys and men know the difference between wrong and right. A matter this important cannot simply be left in the hands of parents or religious institutions. The government has a compelling interest in this matter, to ensure the health and safety of all citizens.
Appointing a man that has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault to the highest position on the Supreme Court makes it easier to perpetuate rape culture. It also makes it easier to disregard the women like Ford who bravely come forward, and it further blurs the lines of acceptable sexual conduct.
To this day, my mother makes excuses for Adam’s actions, saying things like, “He was mentally younger than his age.” Kavanaugh excused any potentially harmful actions with a common boy-like love for beer. I don’t make excuses for anyone. Everyone is responsible for their actions. However, I do believe that boys and men lack an understanding about when someone is and is not consenting to sex. I believe if we teach both boys and girls about consent, we can lower the statistics, reduce the stories, and move closer towards a day where no woman can say “me too.”