Dear Captain Awkward,
Due to a current organizing position I hold I have been asked to deliver brief presentations to each of the Greek chapters on my campus discussing the importance of women’s reproductive health issues in the upcoming election and subsequently registering people to vote while perhaps even sneaking in tidbits about safe sex and healthy relationships. I have no reservations talking to the sororities because I figure they have more reason to be receptive to the message. I am, however, quite nervous to present to the fraternities. Standing alone in front of a room of fraternity guys is scary in and of itself. Trying to convince them to care about women’s reproductive health issues seems tricky, as does talking about consent to a group that is particularly sensitive/defensive about consent issues. How can I give my presentation in a compelling and convincing manner?
Some things I have thought of:
1. The men and women’s sexual health on campus depend on one another. The men’s health is compromised if the women don’t have access to STD screenings/contraceptives etc and vice versa. And these dudes definitely aren’t looking to become dads anytime soon so like, SUPPORT BIRTH CONTROL HEY!
2. The “these are your girlfriends, your friends, sisters & mothers” ploy. But that comes off to me as “PROTECT YOUR WOMEN” and that is a weird message that I don’t want to deliver.
3. It’s just the right thing to do…
Any script ideas or talking points you can think of?
Fraternizing with the Male Vote
What a cool project. I understand why it feels daunting. But it is cool and important.
I’m going to put some questions out to the readers for crowd-sourcing purposes:
- What’s one thing about sex, reproductive health, sexual health, etc. that you know now that you wish you knew at 18-22 ?
- What’s one thing that someone taught you about sex, enthusiastic consent, reproductive rights, etc. that really stuck with you?
- If you’ve been in one of these presentations before, either as an audience member or a presenter, what’s one thing that worked really well? Or do you have a horror story of this going horribly awry?
- In an ideal world, if you could talk to this group of guys, what would you tell them? Try to do it in 3-5 sentences.
As for suggested topics, I like the way you are thinking about this. One thing people have found out when talking to young men….and some current legislators… about birth control, reproductive health, STDs, etc. is that they are really fuzzy on the basic science. It’s safe to assume that at least some people in the room came through abstinence-only sex ed programs and don’t know about Scarleteen. So one thing you might do is a walk-through of safer sex and a review of various birth control methods, how much they cost, how they work, etc.
[COLLEGE INSTRUCTOR HAT ON]
I think the more participatory you can make things, the better. You can do a very short intro where you set up the session, and then you can use the classroom/workshop technique that has never failed me: Give people a question or topic(s) to discuss, break them into groups of 3 or 4 to talk about the topics or solve a certain problem, and then walk around and talk to them in these smaller groups to see what they came up with.
It makes them more comfortable, because they’re not being put on the spot in front of the entire room, and you more comfortable because you’re dealing with them in smaller groups and can connect more easily than if you had to deal with the Wall of Dude. You can ask them to present the best of what they came up with to the larger group, or you could select and amplify great things they said and share them with the larger group.
Some good ground rules: There are no stupid questions. No one HAS to share anything they don’t want to. Any personal information revealed stays in the room.
Here are some discussion questions that you could ask them that would get you at a lot of the issues that you are trying to cover:
- Thinking back to your last sexual partner or partners, what did you do to have safer sex and (for het guys) prevent pregnancy?
- Do you know what form of birth control your partner uses, and can you describe how it works? (This might be hilarious).
- Who brought it up? When did you talk about it? How did you decide?
- Did you and your partner(s)ever discuss what you would do in case of an unwanted pregnancy? Have you ever thought about what you would do if you accidentally got someone pregnant?
- Bonus question, if it seems to be going well and they are forthcoming: What do you think is the best way to have these kinds of discussions? How do you wish your partners talked to you about this?
If you got them talking honestly about that stuff (give them 20-30 minutes, and circulate among the groups), you would very quickly get a picture of what they know and where the gaps in knowledge are. You would also get them talking to each other, maybe in a way that will continue after you leave.
And then you could switch over to a bit of lecture mode and go over the different options, how much they cost, etc. You could cover the “choice” question by going over how much an abortion costs, what the rules/constraints are for getting one, what ridiculous laws are on the books to make it harder for people. There is a very clear difference in the major party platforms, and you can’t make anyone’s mind up for them, but you can present the contrasts and facts clearly and help them make an informed choice.
The ultimate thesis being that women are bearing a giant hassle/risk/financial cost for sex, so young men should meet us halfway. They should educate themselves about the science and the economics. They should share in the responsibility and the financial costs with their partners. If sex with women, as well as the freedom and well-being of friends/mothers/future daughters/sisters/cousins is important to them, and if they don’t want to make a baby every time a penis goes inside a vagina, maybe they shouldn’t vote to limit women’s choices or make life harder for them.
I’ve been trying to think about how to best frame the consent issue. A quick phone consult with the Gentleman Caller came up with the following rough draft of one way this might go. Given that you will have limited time and can’t cover every possible angle, etc. this focuses as much as possible on positive steps that men can do to make themselves and their friends & partners safer.
1. Get The Depressing Stuff Out of the Way.
Introduce legal definition of rape and various sex crimes (assault, harassment, etc.) where you are, and talk about rape statistics both on campus and in general. Talk about the ways alcohol is a factor and college students are at risk. This is a college-sponsored event, so one of the things you have to do is make law + college policies absolutely clear. Be brief and clinical. Tone-wise, assume that the audience is on your side in knowing and agreeing that this is bad, and give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. You lose nothing by assuming this now because you will dig into the hard stuff later.
2. Small Group Discussions, Again.
You might prepare some scenarios, as in an ethics course, and have them discuss them. Is this assault? How could it have been prevented? What could men do for each other and for women to keep an eye on sketchy situations and help prevent rape? What can men do to support friends who have been assaulted?
One way to get at this and make it more personal is to ask:
“Thinking back to your most recent sex partner or partners, how did you know that they wanted to have sex? How did they know that you wanted to have sex?”
- Verbal cues?
- Nonverbal cues?
- Who initiated? What are the scripts that people follow around the decision to have sex?
- Is that working for you? Do you wish you could handle it differently?
You may be really pleasantly surprised, but get ready for a lot of blushing, joking, and avoidance. In fact, be prepared for some of the discussions to get downright problematic. Keep to the ground rules of no stupid questions, no one should feel compelled to share anything, and whatever gets discussed in the room stays in the room. And then let the awkwardness come. You can use it.
3. Introduce Enthusiastic Consent.
Legally, sex can only happen when both people consent. It’s not an option. It’s literally the minimum standard of human decency.
Fortunately, this coincides nicely with what you need to have truly awesome sex:
- A partner who feels safe with you.
- A partner who IS actually safe with you because everyone is as protected as possible from unwanted pregnancy and STDs and can be trusted to respect limits.
- A partner who is really, really into what is happening.
I know we said “no stupid questions,” but since you are almost certain to have a devil’s advocate* in the room advancing the stoner’s gambit that there has been tons of sex in the world where people maybe didn’t sign a sexual consent form, or maybe BOTH people were drunk, or sometimes one person DOES just have sex to make the other person happy, and THAT doesn’t fall under the definition of rape so how are people even supposed to know if they are possibly accidentally raping someone? …Kill it with fire.
For one thing, the uncomfortable truth is there is a lot of sex that is coerced in one way or another that does not get called out as or meet a strict legal definition of rape. It may not be illegal, but it doesn’t mean it’s not gross and wrong.
For another thing, do you really want to be the guy who exists in the so-called “gray” areas of this? Do you really want to end up trying out those arguments in a courtroom or police interrogation room someday? Do you really want to be the guy who pressures reluctant people into having sex? Do you really want to be someone who gets people drunk so they’ll have sex with you, or who tries to find the drunkest and most vulnerable freshman at the party and take advantage of her while she’s on the verge of passing out? Do you want to be someone who is never fully sure that your partner is into what’s happening because you’re afraid that if you ask her she’ll say no? Is it worth the risks of poor decision making around sexual health and pregnancy risk, or the fear that maybe you hurt and coerced someone and did them permanent emotional damage? Don’t be that guy.
Be the guy who asks your partner what they’d like to do with you out loud with words. “I would really like to ____ with you. Would you be up for that?” You’re not ruining romance.
Be the guy who actually listens to the answer and makes refusal (INCLUDING an indirect refusal) a real option. The only good answer to someone refusing to do something with you is some version of “Right on, I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable” and backing off.
If someone says no, freezes, pulls back, moves your hands away, goes passive or limp, or seems at all reluctant to do something or less than fully present, doesn’t make any moves towards removing clothing, stop whatever it is you’re doing. Treat “maybe” as “no.” Let your partner make the next move, if there is a next move. Trust that if “maybe” really means “yes,” they’ll find a way to let you know.
This might feel awkward and uncomfortable at first because (heterosexual) men are socialized to be the aggressors who must “perform” and move the action along, and women are socialized to be more passive receivers. There’s this (bad) cultural expectation that guys are always up for sex and will be pushy about it and women are gatekeepers and that sex is a favor they do for (or cruelly deny) to men.
Even when people know intellectually that it’s bullshit, it’s still very possible for that model to feel normal and even good when it plays out in the moment with someone you like. If you deviate from that script, you take a risk that your partner might not step so comfortably into the role of aggressor and that things might unfold more slowly than they otherwise would or require a lot more explicit communication. Trust that the weirdness is momentary. Trust that people who really want you will find a way to make it happen between you – if not Right Now, then soon. And honestly, if your partner is nervous or having second thoughts or worried about being pressured, being No Pressure Guy is the coolest and sexiest thing you can be.
Be the guy who drinks responsibly and helps other people make good decisions about that. “I’d love to, but I feel like I’ve had a lot to drink. Can I call you?” “Hey, friend, you seem like you’re really out of it. Why don’t you drink some water and go to bed.”
Be the guy who walks the really drunk girl to her door and makes sure she gets inside okay. Text her the next day and ask her how she’s feeling. Can you bring her coffee? Would she like to get together (sober) sometime and hang out? She may or may not be interested in you, but she’ll know that you’re not a pushy jerk out for what he can get.
Be the guy who shuts down rape jokes. It matters.
Be the guy who listens to women when someone, even someone you like, is not acting right. It matters. Sometimes a simple “Hey, not cool, bro” is all it takes to defuse a situation when someone’s crossed the line.
Be the guy who doesn’t treat having sex as some achievement. Don’t make fun of your friends for being sexually inexperienced or pressure them to “get laid.” Don’t slut-shame women for being sexually experienced.
As a fraternity, continue the conversation. What kind of environment do you want to create in your organization? How do you want people to be treated at your events and in your house? What kind of code or policy or culture could you create around safety, especially around sex – everything from making sure there are free condoms available, encouraging regular STD testing for members, or a”drunk unsteady girls get walked home that they might live and possibly make out with us another day” policy?
It took me a while to write that, but it was so fun, so thanks for the question. You made me want to reach out to the Student Affairs office at the school where I teach and see what kind of programs they have and if I could put together some kind of workshop around this.
*I feel like the chances that this dude has a Ron Paul t-shirt, sign, or bumper sticker is extremely high. Please conduct an informal survey for me if you can, I would consider it a personal favor.