Beyond consent: messages to teach our youth

In 2016, an 18-year old woman was charged with kidnapping, rape, sexual battery and a variant of distributing child pornography following her live-stream of the rape of a 17-year old “friend” of hers at the hands of a 29-year old man.  Although she claimed she live-streamed the incident to try to stop the rapist, the prosecutor of the case presented a different story:

“She continued to live-stream it and she told the police that she continued because she got caught up in the likes that were showing on her screen. And she didn’t call 911. She giggled throughout.”

This and other stories—the Chicago torture incident, the Uppsala rape incident, the recent apparent rape in Israel of an 11 year old by four 12-13 year old boys–came to mind as this week 11 individuals were indicted on charges connected to the alleged gang rape of a 16-year old girl in Eilat. Since the first reports emerged, this terrible incident has sparked discussions about how we can prevent this type of thing from happening again in our communities.  One conversation that has started relates to educating boys and young men about consent.  Even from a young age, children can and should learn that touching other people requires consent.  Certainly when it comes to sexual contact, consent is intrinsic to the encounter, and sexual contact without consent is immoral, illegal, and sinful.  We also should not assume that boys and young men know intuitively that a person who is incapacitated—whether due to intoxication or any other reason—is incapable of providing consent, and that sexual contact with that person is similarly immoral, illegal, and sinful; as such, this message, too, needs to be taught explicitly.

But as details of this and other incidents become public, it is clear that knowledge about principles of consent is not sufficient to prevent these types of awful incidents in our communities. Instead, what is on display is the worst combination of two psychological and societal flaws: extreme callousness to another person’s suffering; and an unwillingness or inability to take a moral stand against others—strangers or friends—when they are engaged in evil acts.

In recent days, concerned parents and community members have described conversations with their children about sticking up for victims, even in the face of social pressure to go along.  While making this value explicit is a positive thing, from my perspective, the most pressing issue is teaching our youth how to put these messages into practice.  Researchers on bullying have identified four stances a witness to an assault can take: assistants, who join the bully; reinforcers, who may cheer or laugh; outsiders, who withdraw from a situation; and defenders, who actively take the side of the victim.  When witness to an active assault, sexual or otherwise, what are the skills our kids (and ourselves) need to exhibit to resist the urge to ignore, withdraw, or avoid, and instead to be willing to engage with the perpetrator and victim? Or, in other words, how do our children become defenders?

I would like to suggest four ideas for how we, as parents, community members, or educators, can teach our youth to be defenders, and hopefully prevent these types of terrible crimes from happening again in the future.

  1. Help your kids practice trusting their gut: most people have a working conscience that is sensitive to the suffering of others. However, as we go through life, we learn how to ignore our compassion when acting on this compassion is not appropriate.  As parents, we often take part in providing that lesson: “no, we can’t help that injured grasshopper right now, you need to go to school!”  Find opportunities to allow your children to express when they are feeling a sense of sympathy or compassion, and let them practice acting on those urges.  You may also consider a follow up conversation about what it was like for them to listen to their gut and act accordingly.
  2. Model for your child what taking a stand looks like: the world nowadays is filled with protests. But in many instances, as important and valuable as these protests may be, they do not train a person to be boldly oppositional to social pressure, as most protests are socially popular and populated by like-minded citizens. To flex this muscle, practice taking a stand in small, but unpopular ways, like letting a pedestrian cross safely even when cars are honking behind you, or asking someone to maintain social distance in a line.  These small acts showing that it is okay to do something socially unpopular because it is the right thing may  help your children apply that lesson in their own lives when it matters most.
  3. Give kids the language of protection. Communicating about helping others has its own type of language.  Try to have conversations with your children about what they would say in challenging moments of crisis, like if their friend is doing something wrong.  Sometimes a simple mantra can stick in a child’s mind and inspire them in challenging moments: “You can be a defender!”
  4. Reward kids for taking a stand, even when they miss the mark: it is expected that a child’s first attempts at being a defender may be clumsy, and in some cases may lead to more harm than good. But as learning these skills is so important to their development as decent human beings and members of society, we need to reward the effort, even if the desired outcome is not achieved.  This reinforcement will help them build confidence to deploy their inner defender in circumstances that demand it.

A common thread between the incidents mentioned above is that onlookers, who had plenty of opportunity to try to stop the assault, instead chose to record the violence or participate in some other way.  As a country and community, we may never be able to prevent all types of violence and assaults.  But we need to do what is within our abilities: focus on educating our children to be compassionate toward the suffering of others, and to defend victims when the moment calls.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life." He also co-hosts the Mental Health News Roundup, a weekly online program focusing on contemporary news related to mental health issues.
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