What happens when teenage girls don’t understand consent and coercion?
They often blame themselves for their own date rape.
In our consent chapter for She Deserves Better, we told Kay’s story–that all too many of you will relate to.
Kay was making out with her boyfriend when she was a teenager, and he’d try to go further, and she said no. He’d stop, but a few minutes later he’d try again.
This kept happening, until she finally realized her “no” would never be listened to. So she stopped saying no, and he ended up raping her.
For the next two decades she thought she had consented, that she had sinned.
But giving up because you realize your no means nothing is not the same as consent.
We also shared a story that was in one of the evangelical books written for teen girls. After laying out what happened, we present the problem: The author used this story to warn girls against sinning and losing their purity. But then we ask: Is that actually what happened?
From She Deserves Better
Let’s examine how the story unfolds:
- She “could not identify with” his desires (she didn’t want this).
- He “groped and grabbed” at her (sexual assault, since she did not want it and did not say yes).
- He was “forcing his desires” on her (emphasis ours).
- She felt “like a deer in oncoming headlights” (this is a classic description of the “freeze” part of the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” trauma reaction, typical of sexual assaults).
- Her body had desires “awakened” (arousal).
From a clinical perspective, the first four elements paint a picture of a nonconsensual encounter: she didn’t want it, he groped and grabbed anyway, he was forcing himself on her, she froze. So why did the author portray this as her sexual sin? Likely because of the fifth element—her body became aroused. But does arousal determine whether assault occurred?
Both of those stories are ones where consent was not present, but in both cases, the girls blamed themselves.
We told Kay’s story on the Theology in the Raw podcast, and it was one where the host did push back and ask, “doesn’t this show that guys can’t stop?” But “can’t” is not the same as “won’t.”
Our consent chapter was hard hitting, and we walked moms and daughters through how to understand consent and recognize coercion. And this has to be talked about properly, because in our survey of 7000 women for She Deserves Better…
…Only 25.9% reported understanding consent when they graduated high school.
And younger women often had less understanding of consent than Gen X women, because millennial women grew up in the “abstinence only” era. And if abstinence is all that is stressed, there doesn’t seem to be a need to talk about consent, because the kids shouldn’t be having sex anyway!
It’s a huge mess.
(And, by the way, we found that understanding consent leads to better self-esteem; less likelihood of marrying an abuser; and less likelihood of being abused/harrassed yourself).
Now let’s turn to a case study of why we need better understanding of consent: Cedarville University.
Cedarville is a very conservative Christian university in Ohio, which has become even more conservative in recent years. Dannah Gresh, author of the Secret Keeper Girl curriculum that called 8-year-old’s bellies intoxicating to adult men, attended there.
Like all universities that take public funding, it’s subject to Title IX regulations, which require it to educate around consent. And so this month the university started posting signs in bathrooms to educate.
Here’s the one that was posted in the girls’ bathroom:
And here’s the one that was posted in the boys’ bathroom:
See a difference?
Julie Roys’ website The Roys Report wrote up a comprehensive article on the signs and the turmoil that Cedarville is in, highlighting the context of the problem:
“Every time I think it can’t get worse, it does,” tweeted former Cedarville University professor Julie L. Moore. “The Thomas-White-blame-and-shame continues.”
Moore, who now teaches at Taylor University, was a vocal critical of Cedarville University President Thomas White in 2020, when news surfaced that White had hired a known sexual predator and withheld information from Cedarville’s board.
Since then, Cedarville has faced numerous allegations that it mishandled Title IX sexual abuse and harassment cases. Just two months ago, some students staged a walk-out during a chapel service to show solidarity with sex abuse victims.
The article is a great synopsis of the problems that Cedarville is facing.
What I’d like to focus on here, though, is the actual teaching around consent.
Or, perhaps I should say, the problems with the teaching around consent!
Cedarville has a longer page detailing what it believes about consent. They start by framing this as a hard thing to talk about in the context of sexual purity:
This week’s focus is on consent — a difficult theme for a place like Cedarville to grapple with.
On other college campuses, consent has become a popular topic. College administrators, sexual assault prevention educators, and students alike have spent a considerable amount of time discussing what consent looks like and how to respond when it’s ignored.
But, how can we have a conversation about consent on a college campus that has a standard for maintaining sexual purity? Are we just embracing our culture’s values or accepting a double standard? No!
In talking about consent, Cedarville is not presupposing or condoning intimate physical activity that is outside the bounds of what the Scriptures teach. Our desire is that each of us chooses to honor Christ with the choices we make about our sexual conduct. We desire Romans 12:9-10 to be true of us: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
They give this definition of consent, which honestly isn’t terrible, and then go on with a bulleted list that isn’t awful either.
Consent is an informed decision, freely given, made through mutually understandable words or actions that indicates a willingness to participate in mutually agreed upon sexual activity.
But I do want to highlight a few other things said in this article:
Coercion is using unreasonable pressure to compel another to engage in sexual activity against their will.
Getting consent for any type of physical intimacy is the responsibility of the person initiating the intimacy, but we should also remember that each of us has a responsibility to provide or not provide consent.
Let’s talk about the bigger problems that we see in the signs and on this web page.
It is good that they are talking about consent and getting some things right. But this isn’t something where you can afford to get a few things wrong, because that’s what made Kay blame herself. That’s what made the author of the book not recognize arousal doesn’t equal consent. That’s what makes other people blame the woman.
So, in no particular order, here are the issues I see:
1. All language blaming girls for letting things go too far must be eradicated
Almost 70% of women in our survey believed in high school that “boys often can’t stop, so you have a responsibility to stop the makeout progression.” Can you see how this belief leads to Kay blaming herself? Yet what did Cedarville ask young women? “Did you encourage your boyfriend to go past your boundaries?” Wow.
2. Boys/young men need to be educated on coercion
Why is it that the boys’ bathroom is not talking about sexual coercion, but the girl’s bathroom is, when sexual assault on campus is predominantly male on female? That is not to say that women can’t coerce; but why is Cedarville framing it as a problem with GIRLS, when it is not?
3. Coercion is something active, not passive
It’s not clear if the sign in the girls’ bathroom is saying, “did he coerce you into sex after you let him go past your boundaries” or “did you coerce him by encouraging him to go past your boundaries?”
Neither of these questions is properly worded, and nor is the original.
If what they meant was to point out that girls can coerce too, they should have asked: “Have you ever pushed beyond your boyfriend’s boundaries, or pressured him to go beyond his boundaries?” Pushed and pressured mean that she actually did something active. Encouraged him to go beyond boundaries makes it sound like he is doing all the sexual activity while she is passive, which is not really ambiguous.
(There’s a bigger issue here where it sounds like they think only men are active during sex, but we’ll leave that for now.)
4. Boundaries do not have to be mutually agreed upon
On the bathroom signs and on the website there’s a lot of reference to “mutually agreed upon boundaries.” But as a commenter (and a Patreon supporter!) said, boundaries don’t have to be mutually agreed upon. She can just have boundaries that he doesn’t like, and he can have stricter boundaries than she does. You still have to abide by the other’s boundaries, even if yours are different.
5. Coercion can occur in marriage, too
Cedarville was framing consent as a topic they don’t need to talk about, because single people shouldn’t be having sex. But there are lots of married students at Cedarville as well. Coercion can apply in marriage, too, and to assume that we shouldn’t need to talk about consent because our students are either: (a) single and not having sex or (b) married means that you assume that both (a) single people aren’t having sex and (b) married people can’t be coerced.
I’m glad they recognized that single people need this information, but the omission about married students is problematic too.
6. There is no “reasonable” pressure that’s okay
Note how they say that coercion is using “unreasonable pressure” to get someone to engage in sexual activity against their will.
There is no “reasonable” pressure to push someone against their will. Why are they qualifying this?
7. A girl does not have a responsibility to clearly voice “no.”
Finally, they say that “each of us has a responsibility to provide or not provide consent,” insinuating that she has a responsibility to voice her no.
Actually, she doesn’t. Consent means an enthusiastic yes. The lack of a no does not mean there is consent. Kay stopped saying no because she knew it wasn’t doing any good. Many sexual assault victims freeze in the moment (a classic trauma response) and don’t say no, and then can’t figure out afterwards why they didn’t. But this is often how our bodies protect ourselves in the moment–we freeze.
This should have been made clearer.
We simply have to stop being so sloppy about consent.
These campaigns, and this website, was authored by administrators at Cedarville University, the very ones responsible for investigating claims of assault form students at Cedarville.
While I’m glad they’re addressing consent (albeit reluctantly, they say), let’s be honest: they’re doing so because the government is making them.
And they’re not doing it well, and girls will suffer.
We need to help our girls and boys understand consent long before university.
Quite frankly, they’re not going to learn it at university like this. And parents should think twice before sending their children to a university like this which will likely fail to protect them.
Our book She Deserves Better takes you through these discussions, and even helps you work through what you may have experienced as a teen.
We can do better, because we all deserve better!
What do you think? Do you notice anything else that’s problematic in how they talked about consent? What messages did you hear that were damaging? Let’s talk in the comments!
Can you address what to do when:
You realize that the majority of your dating life was doing things that seemed uncomfortable at the time, begging him to stop going so far after the fact…
Now realizing it was rape…
But you’ve been married to this person for years?
How do you heal that broken trust?
Oh, I am so sorry to hear this. (And I can relate.) For me, professional therapy as I worked through this has been so helpful. I hope you can find someone to walk with you. Much blessing to you.
It depends. Does he acknowledge that what he did was sexual assault and feel genuinely bad about it? Will he commit to healing your relationship with sex and proving you can trust him? If the answers to those questions are yes, then these blog posts may be helpful for you.
If the answers are no, then I have to encourage you to ask yourself if he actually deserves your trust.
The thing that really stood out to me was that they thought that single people who aren’t having sex don’t need to understand consent – like consent ONLY applies to those having sexual intercourse with each other.
Consent applies to far more than that – think about the guy who insists on sitting next to a girl in church or following her down the street even when she asks him to leave her alone. What about the one who constantly rings her or turns up on her doorstep even when she’s told him she’s not interested in dating? What about the guy who decides it’s ok to grab a girl and give her a hug or kiss because HE decides he wants to marry her? What about the guy who warns other men off the girl he’s decided is his future wife, even though she doesn’t want anything to do with him?
These behaviours were all common in church when I was younger, and older Christians viewed them as positive signs that the young man concerned was ‘serious in his pursuit’ and believed that the girl on the receiving end should be ‘flattered and honoured’. No one ever seemed to realise that these guys were creepy, manipulative, abusive and totally ignoring the lack of consent they were receiving. And I’m not talking decades ago either – the last situation I know of personally was less than 10 years ago.
Or how about when a young woman has clearly said she is not interested in a guy and all the adults around her are pressuring her to go out with him because “he’s a really nice guy”? (I was pretty much required to allow him to accompany me to a workplace Christmas party… can you guess that I was teaching in a “Christian” school?) That produced one of the ickier moments in my life. And it really made me angry in retrospect.
Yes to all of this! I was thinking about this same concept. Cedarville U frames consent like it only actually applies to intercourse. What about all the other physical or social exchanges that take place in a relationship (or in the quest for one)? My first boyfriend always insisted on being in physical contact with me regardless of my own preferences: he wanted us to hold hands literally at all times, put his arms around me every time we weren’t walking, kiss me wherever and whenever. He actively stole my first kiss after I told him I wasn’t ready for that yet. Once I realized that breaking up isn’t divorce (thanks purity culture) I finally walked away. Bug it took way too long to see that it was ok to say this controlling immature jealous person didn’t HAVE to be my husband just because I had “let” him kiss me.
I’m so glad you found the strength to walk away.
Numbers 4-7 are all problematic.
4. “Mutually agreed upon boundaries” is a total bunk. The boundaries of the person who creates them MUST be respected. One NO and one YES equals NO.
5. For Cedarville to ignore that coercion exists in marriage is very problematic. For most of my married life (2.5 years of hell), my sex life was based on coercion. It was my “duty” to have sex with my husband every time he wanted it and it did not matter that I had to be at work in an hour or that I was super tired.
6. “Reasonable pressure” sounds like an oxymoron. Obviously, there is nothing reasonable about pressure. If there’s pressure to push someone’s boundaries, then it’s “unreasonable” and a big no-no.
7. “Each of us has a responsibility to provide or not provide consent,” insinuates that she has a responsibility to voice her no. What if she’s asleep? When someone is asleep and being taken advantage of sexually, they are not able to consent. I know. I experienced this multiple times in my first marriage.
This university really does NOT know their stuff when it comes to sex. They assume that single people don’t have sex and that marriage means consent 24/7. I have met Christian men who think once a couple gets married, the wife is never allowed to say no to sex every time her husband wants it. I don’t find these men safe at all.
Several people here have already pointed out that “consent” is about so much more than sexual activity.
I’d like to add that it’s about so much more than dating/married relationships. It’s almost every kind of relationship you can think of. Because the heart of consent is respecting personhood. It’s about boundaries.
Coercion can happen in education,workplace, church, small groups, family, government, etc. I was recently coerced, by threats, at a well-known hospital in our area regarding a medication that I didn’t want administered.
I’m guessing by ‘mutually agreed boundaries’, they are referring to a couple who have discussed together at the start how they want their relationship to look. E.g. when my husband and I were dating, we discussed and agreed together the boundaries in our relationship. So in that sense, it was ‘mutual agreement’.
On many police TV shows, a common scenario is played out. A woman claims she was raped, and police question the accused.
Officer: Did she say yes?
Suspect: Well, she didn’t say no!
Usually it turns out that she was drunk or unconscious, therefore UNABLE to give consent.
I am leaving this comment here because Facebook can’t be anonymous, but Sheila, if you think it’s of value, you are more than welcome to copy and paste it over there.
I want every woman who thinks that physical arousal has any bearing at all on implied consent, to know that for about six years, every sexual encounter that happened with my ex-husband was rape. He even asked me why I always had my eyes closed when he was penetrating me, and I told him directly that I did not want this to be happening. That did not stop him at all. Occasionally he would touch me in a way that would have been pleasurable if it had happened with consent, and my body would respond as if it were double-checking, and then my mind would go NOPE, still not OK.
During every one of those encounters, my vagina was lubricated. Our bodies are smart, and this was 100% self-defense. Vaginal tissues certainly can be elastic, and they stretch like crazy when engorged to accommodate childbirth, but sexual penetration with little to no warning can cause a lot of tearing. Somehow my mind and body cooperated to protect me from that, and it had nothing at all to do with consent or mental arousal on my part.
It took me a lot of years to figure it out and release younger me from the bondage of self blame and shame.
Men do NOT get to claim that their victim “wanted it,” just because her body responded, or because he accidentally did some thing that could be pleasurable. If you did not give an enthusiastic yes, you did not consent, full stop.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am so, so sorry for what you endured. I’m glad that you’re free now!
Another problem with placing the responsibility on the girl/woman to “put on the breaks” is that physically, most men are physically stronger than most women. Also, the likelihood of a man being in a relationship with a woman who’s stronger than him is pretty low.
Based on physicality alone, most girls/women aren’t gonna be able to put the breaks on a boy/man who doesn’t feel like stopping.
Thank you. These posts are so healing for me. ❤️