Girl on a swing overlooking a beautiful landscape

Girl on a swing overlooking a beautiful landscape

If you had asked me 6 months ago if an IMPACT class could be taught online I would have laughed out loud. I didn’t think there was a substitute for the feeling of strength and accomplishment that comes from physically defending yourself–and practicing your skills on a real person. But, as we’ve had to adjust with the times, we’ve come to realize there are other ways to help teens find the inner strength to navigate their way out of situations where their boundaries are being crossed.

In designing the first remote IMPACT program, we decided to mix self-defense instruction from our regular curriculum with discussion and writing exercises that fit the online medium. We wanted to deeply explore topics related to gender and sexual assault and coercion with the students, while still giving them the opportunity to practice physical and verbal self-defense skills. We searched for cerebral ways to help guide the students toward that same mental place of empowerment they would normally get from the bodily experience of physically defending themselves.

Our ultimate goal is to help girls clarify their own expectations and understand that they are allowed to have expectations, so that hopefully, in a situation where someone isn’t listening to them, they can skip the self-blame, self-doubt, and the desire to appease, and go straight to “this shouldn’t be happening.” Studies show that women who don’t blame themselves when other people cross their boundaries are more likely to respond assertively ¹. This kind of education is essential for young women about to transition to college and beyond, and it’s something I’ve been happy to discover we are fully capable of delivering remotely.

Last week’s class, we tried out a new teaching piece about sexual coercion. We gave the students a hypothetical situation–we asked them to imagine they were hooking up with someone they liked, but that the person was escalating and they wanted it to stop. We asked them to make a list of everything they imagined they would be thinking or considering. We then listened to a clip from the podcast series “No” where host Kaitlin Prest explores her own experiences of sexual coercion. In the clip we played to the students, Prest interviews her male friends about a time in the past when they were sexually coercive, and she asks them why they did what they did. She says, “At this point in my life, I believe that behind every wrong done is a vulnerability, a hurt, an as yet unknown personal or social context. I want to hear the inner monologue happening on the other side of a consent breach. But, when I ask these men what’s going on underneath the surface, a lot of the answers I get are really upsetting.” What it comes down to is this: they weren’t thinking about the other person; they just didn’t really care what she wanted.

Listening to this clip for the first time was an emotional experience for me. On the one hand, I was infuriated. It made me think about the times my inner monologue was focused on the other person (“Is he going to think I’m a bitch if I turn him down?” “Will he still like me if I leave?”) or my own perceived mistakes (“Why did I come here?” “What did I think was going to happen?”), and then it made me think: If I had realized how little this person was thinking about me in that moment, would I have left? On the other hand, the clip demonstrates something else that is super important: men can be better. All the men interviewed were wonderfully reflective and appeared dismayed by their own actions. This is essential. When we teach about sex and gender with the underlying message that “this is just how boys are so be careful,” girls don’t realize they can have higher expectations. Why would we expect girls to stick up for themselves when we’re telling them they should expect mistreatment from their male partners? If I want to have sexual experiences and relationships with men, and I think not listening to me is a non-negotiable part of that deal because men are programmed to pursue sex at all costs, why would I speak up or walk away when they’re doing what I’ve been told they all do?

After the clip, we sent the students into Zoom breakout rooms for discussions. We asked them to reflect on the differences between the lists they made and what the guys interviewed said they were thinking, and to talk about how those differences made them feel. When they came back to the large group, they told us they were angry. Their lists consisted mostly of considerations for the other person, and insecurities about the future and what might happen to the relationship. Comparing that with “I wasn’t thinking about her” was a jarring thought exercise.

We also heard some students express anger that this kind of education is available to them but not boys. They are right to be angry about that. Girls shouldn’t have to educate their male peers about how to treat them like human beings, and boys shouldn’t have to navigate their early sexual experiences with so little guidance. I would love for the culture to catch up to the times and for educators to start investing more in prevention education for boys–not only so boys can learn how to be better and treat girls and each other with more respect, but also so they realize that consent works both ways and they too are allowed to set boundaries with sexual partners. IMPACT does teach these classes, but too many young boys are not getting this kind of education.

As much as it feels odd to try to elicit a negative emotion from students in my care, anger is the desired outcome. Feeling angry has the opposite effect of blaming oneself in a situation where sexual boundaries are violated–anger as a primary emotion increases the likelihood of responding assertively, as does confidence ². Confidence is more complicated and not something that can easily be taught, but by validating their right to feel comfortable during sexual experiences, and de-programming toxic cultural messages about sex and gender, I believe we can help girls feel more confident about what they deserve. Hopefully, that anger and confidence will translate into: “You’re not listening to me, so I’m leaving.”