It’s well documented that sexual violence is a significant problem at post-secondary institutions. A recent example was this fall at the University of Western Ontario in London (commonly known as Western University). Dozens of students reported they had been drugged and sexually assaulted. In response, thousands gathered to protest the prevalence of rape culture on campus. One of the photos of that protest caught my eye. “Teach him not to assault,” it read. “My clothes are not consent.”
In Next Gen Men’s youth programs, we do just that. We talk with boys and young men about healthy relationships and consent and, contrary to the prevailing narrative, the boys we work with are often clear about what consent means. They understand what it is and why it matters. What they’re struggling with, though, is the tension between new societal expectations to be “good men” by communicating about consent, and the pervasive, enduring narrative of masculinity that calls on boys to prove themselves by being confident, dominant, persistent, aggressive, and heterosexual.
“I get that it matters,” a young teenager said in a Next Gen Men group discussion about consent and sexuality. “I just could never say that. It’s too awkward.”
Every cue around boys—from mass media and advertisements to peer relationships themselves—orients them towards objectifying and degrading girls and women. That’s the standard modus operandi to achieve status as a man. These behavior patterns are everywhere—in boys’ jokes, locker room boasts, and homecoming parties. It’s no surprise, then, that they result in sexual violence on college campuses.
It’s not that boys don’t understand consent; they do. It’s integrating that understanding into how they behave that we need to address. Boys feel the pressure of going along with the deeply ingrained cultural history that threatens to undermine their efforts to unlearn and deconstruct practicing consent in their relationships.
What all this comes down to is practice. Boys need adults with whom they can have honest, thoughtful, and regular conversations about relationships, communication, feelings, masculinity, and status. They need spaces to practice the language with which they can ensure the wellbeing of their partners—and themselves. And, they are asking for those opportunities.
I have news for you, reader. If the boys and young men around you aren’t speaking with you about their relationships, or if you aren’t asking them about their experiences and beliefs about consent and masculinity, or if they aren’t sharing their worries and asking you for advice, then you are part of the problem. I’ll say it again: you are part of the problem. The need for sensitive, committed mentors guiding boys and young men in navigating the tension between justice and status is not a general, hypothetical idea. It is a reality right in front of you.
In her 2020 book, Boys & Sex, journalist Peggy Orenstein spent two years interviewing dozens of college-age young men. On the topic of consent education, one of them says: “It’s like telling a kid who is learning to drive a car not to hit any old ladies crossing the street, and then handing him the car keys.” And he replies, “Well, of course you don’t think you’re going to hit an old lady. But that doesn’t mean you know how to drive.”
Young men are at risk behind the wheel of a car, which is why we developed rigorous drivers ed training so they can make safe choices. It’s time to do the same thing for sexuality, relationships, and consent—and that won’t happen through protests, or even through an improved sexual education curriculum. Real change depends on the adults around boys taking these parts of their lives seriously, helping them grow into the best versions of themselves. With that support and guidance, they’ll be better equipped to steer clear of toxic masculinity. The result will likely be a decline in sexual assault and an increase in consent awareness. It depends on you. It depends on me. It depends on all of us.
Jonathon Reed is Next Gen Men’s youth program manager. A longtime advocate for LGBTQ+ youth with years of experience working with boys to expand definitions of masculinity, he created the podcast, Breaking the Boy Code, centered on the inner lives of boys. He can be reachedat: jonathon@ nextgenmen.ca.