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October 12, 2017

Rethinking rape culture: stop putting the onus on women

I remember being a freshman in college and having to sit through one of those sexual ethics workshops they often introduce to first-year students who are new to campus. The moderator mostly focused on the differences between consensual and nonconsensual sex – pretty standard stuff that I had heard a zillion times before.

What shocked me, however, was that so many of my classmates were downright flabbergasted when they were informed that having sex with a person who is too intoxicated to consent (or not) is the definition of rape.

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I heard gasps before an avalanche of questions from mostly cocksure 18-year-old men: You mean if she's drunk, you can't have sex with her? You mean if she's passed out she isn't into it? You mean...

Both young men and women in the audience of my esteemed liberal arts college class of 1997 genuinely appeared to be shocked by these revelations. And for the first time in my own life I was offered an intimate glimpse into the culture that tends to blame victims and coddle abusers. It was pretty eye-opening for me. And, well, deeply sad, too.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that talked about issues more than perhaps I would have liked. For as long as I can remember my grandmother used to tell me to never leave my drink unattended. I would be, like, "Grandmother, I'm 12 – I can't drink." And she would just reiterate her rules about being a woman in the world.

My hunch is that you're telling different morality lessons to boys versus girls then you're probably doing it all wrong.

Looking back, I have to wonder what she may have likely endured in her own life. She was born in 1918 and was the first woman on her block to be a divorced, single mother with two daughters who went to work everyday in a dress shop. I'm sure it couldn't have been easy dealing with the looks and the pressure of being all of these things in the 1950s. Maybe that's why she was always quite candid with me from early on, imparting progressive wisdom like, "Always live with 'em before you marry 'em" during commercial breaks for "Dallas" and "Dynasty" (we watched a lot of TV together).

While I could sometimes be embarrassed by this honesty as a kid, by the time I got to college I was genuinely saddened that some of my classmates didn't seem to know very much about what I took for granted to be pretty basic facts of life. And this is a big problem, especially since it starts to feel like the people who didn't get the lesson, who didn't learn the differences between consensual and nonconsensual sex when they were young, and often the same people who tend to blame victims rather than accusers, have a pretty powerful hold on our culture.

We wouldn't have a hashtag like "grabthembythepussy" if not.

That's why I would like to genuinely ask parents reading this to maybe think about how they school their kids in these matters. My hunch is that you're telling different morality lessons to boys versus girls then you're probably doing it all wrong.

Ideally, it would be a big step forward if we could all stop putting the onus on women alone when it comes to sexual responsibility. No, it doesn't matter how much she drinks. No, it doesn't matter what she's wearing. No, it doesn't even matter if she smiles at you and kisses you. Men have to start taking responsibility for their own actions without the old "boys will be boys" cultural hangover that we all seem to be suffering from – still.

Ever see the short of list of how to prevent a rape? It goes something like this:

Don't rape anyone.

Don't rape anyone.

Don't rape anyone.

Don't rape anyone.

Easier said than done, I guess. Do you suppose Harvey Weinstein got the memo?

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Natalie Hope McDonald is a contributor to