When I was 18, I went to a gathering at my friend's house. It was just me and my core group of friends, and one of them had invited a co-worker. We drank vodka with reckless abandon, as young adults on summer vacation often do. We all went to sleep and later that night I woke up to the co-worker having sex with me.
I pushed him off and he began apologizing profusely. I had no idea what to do. Although I was an emotional wreck and felt violated to the fullest extent, he hadn't been violent, and he seemed really sorry. Was this really rape-rape?
I called my boyfriend of two years who told me no, it was my own fault because I had been drinking. Luckily, not everyone close to me shared his ignorance, and after being assured that yes, it was rape, I called the police. During his deposition, he said he didn't realize he was sexually assaulting me. Call me crazy, but all these years later, I think I believe him.
He saw a gray area where there wasn't one, and even as the victim, I was unsure of exactly how black and white the picture was at first. This is an ongoing problem in our country. Religious organizations and the extreme right wing spend enormous amounts of energy and money to defeat comprehensive sexual education, leaving many adolescents and young adults to navigate the sometimes depraved world of sex with no one but their peers to guide them. While some form of sex ed can be found in most schools, it often amounts to too little, too late, and the boundaries of what is acceptable can be blurred and confusing.
One in five women have been raped in the U.S., making the epidemic more common than smoking, left-handedness and heart attacks, and this country consistently tops the world charts in terms of reported rape cases. But there is evidence that a significant amount could be prevented by simply teaching our children how to give and get consent before touching or having sex with someone.
Because federally mandating any type of sexual education across America could be ruled unconstitutional, sex ed is left to the whims of state lawmakers. As you can probably guess, given the backward direction in which our state is headed these days, North Carolina is nowhere near implementing a progressive, common-sense curriculum.
In fact, the General Assembly is in the process of passing a bill that guts our already insufficient sexual education courses, favoring a more abstinence-based approach and warning about the link between abortions and subsequent premature births — a link unverified by any major health organization.
North Carolina ranks No. 10 in the country for reported rape cases, so it's beyond unfortunate our legislature would focus on unrealistic idealism and shaky medical advice when they have an opportunity to create meaningful change with comprehensive explanations of sexual boundaries and legalities. Of course, there's evidence North Carolina lawmakers could use some education about consent themselves.
Since 1979, it's been legal in North Carolina to rape a woman if she first gave consent. She cannot withdraw consent once she's given it and therefore it is within the boundaries of the law to force her to continue sex against her will. North Carolina is also one of 31 states that allow rapists to sue their victims for custody and visitation of any children born as a result of their crime.
Neither of these abhorrent laws are likely to be overturned anytime soon, given that our state is run by the same political party who boasts Todd Akin, coiner of the term "legitimate rape."
That Akin, an elected official, was so confident in his misconceptions about rape that he publicly stated the female body could "shut down" a resulting pregnancy highlights exactly how sorely education about rape and consent is needed in the United States. But Akin is old news. The stories of 2013 offer even more grim and embarrassing evidence of America's ignorance rampant in every corner, from small-town high schools to military commanders: the leader of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit arrested for sexual assault; a 16-year-old girl's gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio, broadcasted throughout social media by at least a dozen peers who never thought to intervene; a 13-year-old rape victim in Torrington, Conn., mercilessly bullied for bringing her attackers to justice because she "ruined their future."
As the mother of a teenage stepdaughter, nothing disturbs me more than knowing it's likely that not one boy in her classroom knows exactly when to draw the line. Sadly, some of them will learn the hard way, at the expense of a young girl's psyche and well-being.