Like so many Americans, I’m saddened and disgusted by the current epidemic of rape on college campuses. As I’m writing this, my Facebook feed is drenched in outrage over the “Stanford Swimmer,” his lenient sentence, and the apologists who would rather focus on his “potential” than his heinous crime and its lifelong effect on his victim.
As a Life Skills Based Sexual Education teacher in Lesotho, consent is something I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about. I’m disappointed in the quality of Sex Ed provided in American schools/homes, and I’m sick of the rape culture that emphasizes victims’ “mistakes” and makes excuses for perpetrators’ behavior. In contrast, I’m determined to make my Life Skills class a place where students learn to recognize and give consent, to never blame victims, and most importantly, to never rape.
It’s hard. It’s really freaking hard. It’s harder than I expected it would be, and some days, it’s depressing how hard it is.
In Lesotho, there is no legal or social concept of consent within marriage. If a husband wants sex, many Basotho see it as the wife’s duty to comply. This logic often extends to other relationships, too, and girlfriends sometimes struggle to refuse sex with their boyfriends or dictate the terms of sexual encounters (e.g. demand use of condoms). I’ve heard of the frequency of relationships with uneven power dynamics, including a teacher sleeping with students or an older man dating (and often financially supporting) a high school girl. In these cases, the imbalance makes it impossible for the girl to truly give consent. Of course, these circumstances aren’t unique to Lesotho, and they aren’t absent from the United States; however, the stakes of sexual violence are especially high in a country where nearly a quarter of the population has HIV, and where young women are the population most at risk for contracting the virus.
The most difficult part about teaching Basotho youth the importance of consent is that so many boys have already been taught, through words and through observation, that they hold a great deal of sexual power. In a context where men are so often emasculated by unemployment and poverty, they hold tightly to the notion that they, and they alone, get to choose when they have sex. They learn that instant gratification is their right, at least in this one sense.
It goes without saying that these convictions are not universal in this, or any, culture. I don’t care. Many men do believe and act on this entitlement, and that’s enough.
This isn’t just a hypothesis on my part. I’ve literally seen and heard boys struggling to maintain that power. I’ve stood in front of a classroom and listened to my students argue with me:
“But Madam, she is my wife, so she must do what I say.”
“Madam, if my girlfriend loves me and I love her, I should be able to force her to have sex.”
It’s hard for me to hear these things. I can’t imagine how it feels to be one of my female students, sitting next to the boys who are making these arguments.
These are kind boys, good students, and children I care deeply about. I’m not saying that they’re rapists. I am saying that they have grown up in a society that gives them power over others’ bodies, and they find this a difficult power to relinquish. I also think it’s crucial that they do so, or some of them will rape, and they will rape with impunity.
I don’t know how to truly convince my students to let go of their power, to recognize consent as important, and to respect their partners just because it’s the right thing to do. All I can do is continue the conversation in my classroom and never waver on my stance.