Earlier this week, I helped plant 8,600 (well, really 8,599, since one broke) red flags into a portion of the lawn at a large metropolitan university. The flags are part of the Red Flag Campaign, which works to raise awareness about red flags in relationship violence on college campuses — where in 1 in 5 college dating relationships, one of the partners is being abused. The flags were accompanied by signs which listed campus stats regarding relationship violence, as well as an info sheet students could take.
As I planted the flags, I couldn’t help but reflect on the number of people I know who’ve been sexually assaulted, who have left abusive relationships, whose partners monitor their every move — both in college and out. I thought of one friend, in particular, who I’ve watched almost leave and get sucked back into an abusive relationship in which their partner berates everything about them — and how it takes a woman an average of seven attempts before they leave an abusive relationship for good. I thought about a woman I lived with my first year of college, whose boyfriend raped her while she was passed out, and how this devastated her in a way that, until that point, I’d never seen, and didn’t know how to respond to. I thought about a dear friend who transferred schools after her university did nothing about the man who raped her, and how much extra debt she accrued as a result. I thought about a man I know whose ex was abusive in ways he’ll only allude to — and how he recently got full custody of their child because his ex punched the child. I thought of a man I made out with my first year of college, who asked me if I was the type of girl who “cried rape,” and I responded, “Don’t rape me.” I thought about the man who raped me.
The list could go on.
The list is depressingly long.
Someone who was planting flags near me said, “These remind me of the poppies planted for fallen soldiers.” I concurred, although I’m generally loathe to compare combat to anything else — in the same way I’m loathe to use the term “rape” for something that isn’t actually, you know, rape.
But we had created a remembrance field of sorts, and that is also important to remember, especially in a society where it takes the voices of so many women to counter the voice of one man. In a society where discussions about healthy sexuality are so repressed that the relationship portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey was described as BDSM, when instead it’s abusive. In a society where Floyd Mayweather’s career (or substitute Sean Penn or Bill Murray or Charlie Sheen or Dr. Dre any number of other men) isn’t especially affected by his treatment of women. It indicates no one cares. And this, in turn, indicates the perceived value, or lack thereof, of women in our society.
I also thought about a conversation I recently had with a youth I work with about consensual touch, and how I have some variation of this conversation — with youth of all genders — daily. But the conversation I was thinking of went like this:
Youth 1 to Youth 2: Stop touching me!
Youth 2: (touched Youth 1)
Me to Youth 2: When someone asks, or tells, you to stop doing something to them, you stop. [Youth 1] doesn’t want to be touched right now, just like you didn’t want me to talk to you earlier.
Youth 2: (shrugged) Yeah, okay, whatever (stopped bothering Youth 1)
Conversations about consensual touching cannot start soon enough. And although I sometimes feel like a broken record, I hope it means the youth I work with will learn that their bodies are their own, and only they have the right to decide how and when others should touch them. I hope they learn that they have as much right to space as we adults like to claim for ourselves.
I hope the flags start conversations about the 1:5 statistic. I hope they start conversations about consent — and real conversations about consent. By this I mean, conversations where a partner can hear: “No to X doesn’t mean no to everything” (though maybe it does!) without having a negative, potentially coercive reaction. Where a partner can say “Would you like to try this…” before they start whatever this is. Where we start to acknowledge that a person, regardless of gender, can have sex if they want to — or not — and that this is not an indication of their societal worth. I hope the flags start conversations about trust and control and power and how love does not look like jealousy and love does not look like bruises and love does not look like controlling another person’s movements through the world, their autonomy and love does not look like monitoring emails or texts or phone calls or unexpected flowers from a stranger, and love does not look like the apology that comes, so often, after these things.