It seems women, especially young women, are constantly inundated with “tips” on how to protect themselves from the opposite gender while at a party, when going on a first date — or while just existing in the world. This advice is meant to be helpful, but the message that comes across is clear: You’re responsible for preventing your own date rape/sexual assault/violent attack.
This became all too clear to Mike Domitrz in 1989 when he was just 19. He was away at college, attending the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, when he got the news that his sister had been raped.
His initial reaction was harsh, but understandable — he wanted to kill his sister’s rapist. He was coming from a place of severe anger and frustration, says Domitrz. What ultimately came about, instead of revenge, was action. He began to explore how sexual assault and consent were intertwined.
“I soon learned that the more assertive partners’ actions on a date were not far from the motivations of a serial rapist,” Domitrz wrote in his book, Can I Kiss You?, which was released last year. “The assertive partners were assuming what the other person wanted and then acting upon their own assumptions.”
He began the Date Safe Project in 2003 and today, speaks to tens of thousands of people across the country every year, of all age ranges, genders and sexual orientations, about dating, consent and sexual assault awareness. He uses humor, role-playing and audience interaction to get his message across that consent should be normal, comfortable and consistent, whether you’re on a first date or you’ve been married for 20 years.
“The problem is that most people base their ideas of consent around assumption instead of communication. They assume they have consent, but don’t confirm it with words.” He says acting without consent is paramount to assault.
“It’s arrogance to assume you can do something to someone’s body and if they don’t want you to, they can stop you. That means you’re going to sexually touch them until they stop you. Think about what that sounds like.”
There is, of course, the age-old argument that asking permission before a kiss will ruin the moment. “What you’re really afraid of is that you don’t have the moment to begin with,” Domitrz counters.
“If they want to kiss you, they’re going to love hearing that you want to kiss them.” Hearing a “yes,” back, Domitrz says, is sexy, powerful. “If they say ‘no,’ thank goodness you didn’t go for it.”
So what about the married-for-20-years-example? Domitrz says consent can look different over time, but still be present. It might include conversations about what each person is comfortable with, intimacy-wise. It might be as simple as a question like, “Are you in the mood tonight?” But, there should always be the agreement, he says, that either partner can change their mind at any moment. “You need a trusting relationship with boundaries.”
‘Be a Man’
Gender roles and stereotypes in society often reinforce this antiquated idea that “real men” should be assertive and don’t need to ask permission. Domitrz cites last year’s hullabaloo surrounding a certain political figure bragging about grabbing women to a TV reporter on a bus as an example.
“When that was happening, I saw people outraged at his statements. Twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have been so. But we still have a long way to go. How dangerous and power-driven it is to voice those things and normalize it when it’s sexual assault.”
That’s why Domitrz asks those in attendance to his talks, “Does your partner deserve to have a choice before you do something sexual to their body?” While the answer is often yes, men are quick to admit they don’t ask for that permission. “They say, ‘No, that wouldn’t be confident.’ The messaging they’re getting from society makes it confusing.”
Asking, says Domitrz, “is the sexiest thing to do. It shows confidence that you’re willing to hear her answer without fear.”
How to React as a Bystander
It can be tricky to know how to react in situations where someone says something offensive toward women that ultimately perpetuates rape culture. Domitrz says bystanders should pause before reacting and lead with respect. “If you lecture, they’ll shut you off,” he says. He recalls an incident that happened at a dinner he was at recently where a man made an inappropriate comment about women. Domitrz replied by saying, “Knowing you, I don’t think you meant to represent yourself like that right now. You’re normally respectful, but that was degrading.”
“He said he was just joking, but then he caught himself,” he says. “He had a learning moment.”
He hopes more learning moments like that can spread into a movement, curbing not only sexual assault but possibly also preventing domestic violence. A lack of consent is often evident in relationships where abuse is occurring, with abusers employing arrogance to assert their power, in many cases, sexually. “You always deserve to have a choice,” says Domitrz. “You always deserve to have your body treated like a gift. When you’re not treated that way, that person is mistreating you.”
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