Sometimes the best ideas stem from procrastination. While studying for finals at the University of Oregon last week, Samantha Stendal, a 19-year-old sophomore, was following news coverage of the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial, in which two high school football players were convicted of assaulting a drunken 16-year-old girl. Stendal grew frustrated at the talk about alcohol, the suggestion that assault is a sad-but-inevitable byproduct of partying, the regrets over promising lives cut short by unfortunate “mistakes.”
“I was reading so much on the victim-blaming and ‘rape culture,’ ” Stendler, a film major, told me by phone this week. “I needed to see something positive on the Internet
. . . And I knew that I could make something.”
So in between tests, she scribbled out a rough storyboard. The day after finals, she gathered some friends to shoot a 25-second video, which she posted to YouTube a few days later under the title “A Needed Response.”
It’s a shot of a guy in a T-shirt, standing in front of a couch on which a woman is apparently asleep. “Hey, bros,” he says to the camera. “Check who passed out on the couch. Guess what I’m going to do to her.”
He proceeds to put a pillow under her head, a blanket over her body, a cup of tea on a table beside her. Then he turns to the camera again and says, “Real men treat women with respect.”
Over and out and there you have it: The most concise, useful addition I’ve seen in awhile to this old, sad conversation about alcohol, sex, and safety. It’s unsurprising that the video quickly went viral — or that, on its YouTube page and beyond, another long and vicious conversation has unspooled about sluts and feminists, blame and responsibility, the fact that sometimes men get attacked, and sometimes women aren’t nice.
I know, I know; Internet commenters, in all of their anonymous glory, are not a useful barometer for humanity. Still, it goes to show how hard it is, on the ever-fraught subject of sex and consent, to get rid of this arms race of blame — this notion that, in order to call someone’s behavior unacceptable, you are somehow obligated to point out problematic behavior from the other side.
There have been, in recent years, a lot of clever responses to that line of thinking. A series of “Slut Walk” rallies have countered police suggestions that women should watch what they wear, to somehow stave off assault. This week, people are having fun with the Twitter hashtag #safetytipsforladies — apparently launched by a woman in Australia who was incensed by a newspaper commentary over the difference between “victim-blaming” or “risk management.” (Among the most retweeted quips: “If you hide your forearms in your sleeves, the rapist will mistake you for a T-Rex and carry on his way.” Also: “Don’t be attacked by guys with a promising future. That is the absolute WORST decision you can make.”)
But there’s something equally refreshing about the earnestness of Stendal’s video, which removes the charged language and the justifiable anger, and introduces the kind of blissfully simple idea that high school and college students should be able to understand. If kids were truly trained to respect each other’s boundaries — to treat other people with basic human decency — maybe we wouldn’t be having these conversations quite so often.
It’s not that people aren’t trying. A few years ago, public health officials in Edmonton, Alberta, pioneered a public service campaign called “Don’t Be That Guy”: a series of posters, to be hung in restrooms in bars, with such slogans as “Just because she isn’t saying no doesn’t mean she’s saying yes.”
And recently, someone launched a petition, on the White House webpage, to make the definition of “consent” a mandatory part of sex education in public schools.
That’s a lovely idea, but also sad: that we should need some kind of government mandate to teach kids the difference between “yes” and the absence of “yes,” the difference between hurting someone and helping her.
These aren’t difficult concepts, after all. A 25-second video takes care of things quite nicely.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.