ReThinking Culture & Preventing Sexual Violence, Pt. I

Tahir Anderson Duckett is an attorney and advocate based in Washington, D.C. He is the founder and Executive Director of ReThink, an organization dedicated to preventing sexual violence by engaging men and boys in rethinking the cultural norms and behaviors that promote sexual harassment and assault. This conversation has been split into two parts; for educators and activists interested in how to address colleagues and others who may still believe in rape myths and other elements of rape culture, read more of that conversation here.
Sabrina Joy Stevens: So how did you get started doing this work? What inspired you to start ReThink?
Tahir Anderson Duckett: The ReThink idea was born after Steubenville. There’s obviously the central story there, but there’s at least one other story there. While Steubenville was still in the news, I remember watching a video where there is a group of students who are joking about the rape, including a student who had been there. He’s with his friends later and he thinks it’s so funny, and he’s just saying all these horrifying things. I mean, just horrifying, bone-chilling sorts of things. I don’t know what prompted me to watch this video—it must be some kind of divine providence or something, because this isn’t normally the kind of thing I would subject myself to.
But at one point, there are a couple of boys off-camera who say to him, “This isn’t cool. What if that was your sister? What if that was your mother?” They spoke up, they did what you’re supposed to do. But they’re laughed at. And in that moment, I was like, “They’re alone.” And you can’t ask all these kids to go out and go it alone, and stand out there all by themselves on this little ledge. It won’t work.
Recognizing that, ReThink’s goal is to help change our culture, especially masculine culture. We’re doing that not to say that men aren’t victims of sexual violence or that women can’t be perpetrators, but the research tells us that the majority of acts of sexual violence are committed by males. So there’s something going on in masculine culture that isn’t OK. So how can we change that?
Ultimately what we’re trying to do is teach kids about consent, and to give communities the skills they need to teach kids how to have healthy relationships with each other. This is all about healthy, consensual relationships that make everybody feel good; relationships that don’t box boys and men into these cages of being aggressors, being predatory, treating girls and women like objects to prove themselves, or doing things like using alcohol as a weapon or buying things in order to “get” affection and/or sex from their partners. It’s about freeing them from those expectations, and also about freeing girls from the expectation that they have to look a certain way or behave a certain way or play all these games in order to be accepted. It’s about changing these cultural notions that make it harder for young people to be honest with themselves and each other about what they want in their relationships, and which make it harder to set and hold boundaries, or to respect other people’s boundaries.
SJS: So what’s your approach? How does ReThink go about trying to build a culture of mutual respect and consent?
TAD: When you dive into the studies, one of the biggest predictors of whether someone is going to be a perpetrator of sexual violence is their own personal beliefs around gender norms. The second biggest is their peers. So it’s not enough to just educate individual people, you have to surround them with other people who have healthy attitudes.
So what this work looks like for us, first and foremost, is recruiting more people to carry this message [of consent] in the first place. Just like if you were on a political or electoral campaign, you wouldn’t have just your hired staff carrying your campaign’s message. You have people—supporters, volunteers, others who are really invested in the campaign—who are out there who have the skills and who have the right kind of tools to be able to carry this message to the communities they’re already involved in.
There are a lot of organizations that focus on doing trainings for boys and having conversations with students of all genders about sexual violence. We do some of that, too, but our model is especially focused on training adults who are already in the boys’ lives—teachers, other staff and faculty at schools, after-school program leaders, religious leaders, coaches, et cetera—and giving these folks the tools and language they need to be able to take this kind of work on themselves. That way, our reach is not limited to the number of trainings we ourselves can do, but extends to all the adults and leaders in kids’ lives who we can reach. Our goal is to help those folks not only be able to deliver training, but also to start living their lives this way, to start modeling consent, respect, and healthy relationships. It’s about helping them understand that their interactions with kids, when they’re nonconsensual, teach kids not to respect consent. It’s about helping adults learn to rely less on, “Because I said so,” and more on communicating for understanding and helping students see why they’re being asked to do something a certain way.
Research also tells us that the stereotypes and cultural ideas that raise the likelihood that someone will commit acts of sexual violence start to take hold at pretty young ages—in elementary school, in middle school, and in high school—so by the time you get to college, those ideas are now deeply rooted and ingrained. So if you’re only teaching about sexual violence and the importance of consent in college, you might have some success, but by that point you’re now talking about rebuilding a boy’s entire conception of who they are and their place in the world. A lot of folks have been targeting college campuses because that’s where a lot of sexual violence is taking place, but to really change this culture, we feel that you have to start much earlier.
SJS: That dovetails with the findings from our Let Her Learn report, where more than 1 in 5 girls (with even higher rates for girls of color and LGBTQ youth) aged 14-18 reported experiencing sexual assault, frequently perpetrated by their classmates. And of course, we know that many people don’t attend college, yet they absolutely need to understand consent as well! So what are your plans for this school year?
TAD: This fall, we’re training staff at a bunch of local schools and after-school programs to work with their students. We’re helping them help their students, and we’re also teaching them, so that multiple adults in these kids’ lives are consistently sending this same message. Not just once, as in the one-time assembly, but every day so that from the boys’ perspectives, now their whole network is telling them something different about sex and consent and violence. And that’s where our model has an advantage over what else is happening. We are pretty good at building and probing those networks, and finding new people that we can pull in.
SJS: You mention “hearing something different about what sex and consent and violence mean.” Hearing something different from what?
TAD: Different from the broader culture. There’s a lot of writing about rape culture, and if you read any feminist blogs or websites or spend time on social media, it’s a term that you’ll stumble across pretty frequently. What the term “rape culture” is describing, is essentially the risk factors that public health practitioners will tell you put someone at risk of becoming a perpetrator of sexual violence. One is believing in rape myths—kind of obvious ones include “If a girl is wearing revealing clothing, then she’s asking for it,” or “If a girl comes back to your room, then she’s consented to sex”—many of which are deeply embedded in our culture, in everything from movies to television to music, to our interactions with each other. Those sorts of beliefs make people more likely to commit acts of sexual violence. So if you want to understand why the rate of sexual violence is so high, [that culture] is the first place that you look to.
Our thinking is, if you really want to prevent sexual violence in the first place, then you have to tackle that culture. And that’s a really big project. There are elements of culture that you can try to control from the grassroots. What your peers believe—that’s part of the culture. What your teachers and adults are telling you, is part of your culture. There are elements of the culture that everyday people can’t directly control. I can’t control what Hollywood depicts in sex scenes. I can’t change what kinds of songs [record labels] put out.
But fortunately, the most important influences on us are the people right around us. So we can have a counterweight to those sorts of influences. We can show there’s another way to approach these kinds of interactions. We’re trying to interrupt those messages, and show young people that there’s another way of looking at the world, about what relationships and sexual interactions can look like. If you can complicate their view, and introduce another way of thinking about these issues, now they have another way of thinking and acting.

Unfortunately, we know most adults haven’t heard much of this stuff before. They weren’t taught this way when they were growing up, and even if they have an interest in [sexual violence prevention], they’ve never been given a way to speak about it that’s comfortable. So we give them the language and the tools to be able to model consent in their everyday work with kids. For example, are they actually respecting the kids when they say no? How do they deal with kids who say no? How do they ask for a yes; how do they verbalize that? How do they recognize when somebody’s yes has changed into a no? That doesn’t have to be—and it shouldn’t be—just in the context of sex. That’s in the context of all of the ways in which we relate to each other.
Another important thing we give them is the language and skills to intervene when they see problematic behavior. When they hear the sort of disrespectful or violent language that we know is an indicator of unhealthy beliefs about gender, or when they see kids overriding each other’s consent and ignoring each other’s consent–how do they handle that sort of situation, and what language and tools do they have to do that? That’s what we’re trying to address.
And again, it doesn’t mean that we never do trainings with kids directly ourselves; we do, and those can be really effective. But they’re most effective when they happen in a context with somebody that they already trust and know, with people they can ask follow-up questions and come back to talk with later and say, “Hey, this didn’t jive with my personal experience,” versus just being in and out. We work with a lot of teachers and educators, coaches, after-school teachers, religious leaders, in all these sorts of contexts, so that ideally, what you end up with is a child in a community receiving the same messages about consent, about healthy relationships, about communication, from their teachers, from their parents, from their after-school teachers, from their athletic coaches, etc. That way, you can build a pretty significant counterweight to what they’re hearing from the media and the rest of the world.
SJS: So how have you gotten these kinds of conversations started? How have you been able to get into these school communities and broader communities to do this kind of work?
TAD: Anytime I start any of these conversations, I always start with, “Fundamentally, this is about having healthy relationships. This is about the kinds of communication that aren’t just restricted to the bedroom, but a recognition that it is important to respect people’s boundaries, get in tune with [other people], and recognize when something is wrong.”
As for how we connect with communities, often folks have reached out to us. We are organizers at heart, so when we find new people who are interested, we realize that they also want to help us, so we always ask, “Who else do you know? What other schools could you introduce us to? Do you go to church? Synagogue? Is there a way we can be helpful there?” It’s been really encouraging, just how many different organizations are recognizing that there’s a problem, and recognizing that they can help solve it.
It’s rare that I go to a school and get turned away. They may need some time to get all their ducks in a row, because talking about sex can be complicated. It can take some time to get other adults in the community on the same page. But I’ve never encountered anyone who honestly says, “No, I don’t think that’s a problem, I don’t think that’s relevant,” because they’re seeing it. I talked to a principal just this morning who was like, “Our 12-year-olds have taken to calling all the girls in the class ‘sluts.’ Help!” If you work with young people, you see the kind of behavior that’s problematic. You don’t have to have a background in sexual violence prevention to see that when a 15-year-old smacks a girl’s butt in the hallway, that something’s wrong there. They’re seeing that kind of behavior, they’re hearing the kind of language that tells them, “We need help. We’ve got to do something about this.”
SJS: What changes have you seen in school communities ReThink has worked with?
TAD: Some of it is measurable. Before we do any trainings, we do a pre-survey measuring their acceptance of certain rape myths, and after we do a post-survey. And we always see marked improvements from the pre-survey to the post-survey, where they go from accepting many of these rape myths to rejecting them. That means a lot.
But I also love getting to actually sit down with young people, especially boys, and talk with them about what they’re learning because it’s so obvious that they’re looking for an alternative to what they’ve been taught to think about their masculinity. You can see how they start to reject certain stereotypes, like the reluctance to show emotion, the reluctance to show vulnerability, the need to demonstrate some sort of dominance or be an “alpha,” that sort of behavior. What I try to do is to model [being] vulnerable with them; I’ll tell them about when I’ve messed up, or things that have hurt me in the past, and it’s very encouraging to see them then start to embody that sort of honesty and vulnerability back. It’s encouraging to watch them say, “I don’t actually know how to do this. I don’t know how to talk to people I’m interested in,” and look for help to do it in a healthy, respectful way. Also, seeing the kinds of guys who we can tell have social capital in their peer groups getting involved with this work is a really big deal. When influential students get involved, it means that a culture of consent is gaining traction in that school, because the cool guys are endorsing it.
SJS: What advice would you give to educators or community members who are looking to get started doing this kind of work in their local school community?
TAD: I think a lot of people think about rape crisis centers as being just places that help rape survivors, but a lot of rape crisis centers do primary prevention work as well. So even if you can’t get ReThink to come [to your community], think about reaching out to your local rape crisis center and seeing what sort of resources they have. They may have trainers, or they may have other resources. PreventConnect is also a really good resource that’s been put together online. So if you don’t have a local rape crisis center, or the local rape crisis center doesn’t have the funding to do primary prevention work, PreventConnect has a lot of really great resources online that can help folks start to think about these sorts of concepts.
And at the very least, even if you don’t have the time to go through a training, or you don’t have access to the best kind of training, it’s very important for adults to model consent with kids. And that’s the sort of thing that can and should happen at any age, and can have a really big impact in terms of how youth think about the words ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and how they think about their bodies, and the boundaries they set for themselves. For example, if a four-year-old says, “I don’t want to give Uncle So-and-So a hug,” are you respecting that? When you’re supervising a play date, and one child grabs another child in a way that’s unwanted, do you have a conversation about that? These conversations should start from very young, and carry all the way through.
SJS: What changes have you seen in the broader culture? Do you think we’re moving in a good direction or no? Obviously it’s not a strictly linear process, but any thoughts on that?
TAD: I’d like to say that I think things are getting better, and I think on the margins they are. But I think we still have so far to go. You can see it from the pre-surveys. When I get these pre-surveys from kids, where I ask them, “If a girl comes into your room, is she consenting to sex?” and the scale is 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree), and the average response is a 4.5, you know that there’s still a lot of really unhealthy attitudes out there.
We have so much to do here, and I think the thing that’s frustrating is it doesn’t feel like people have really gotten their head around, not just how big of a problem this is, but how solvable it is. We’re thinking about, especially here in D.C., a bunch of giant, really difficult problems that, who knows if we’ll ever be able to solve them. There are a lot of problems where people disagree on whether we even should solve them in the first place.
But with sexual violence prevention, we’re talking about a measurable problem that almost every person of even a little bit of good faith will say needs to be solved. And we know how to do it! We have all the answers that we need! We could cut rates of sexual violence in half in a generation, easily, if we invested in it in the way we invest in drunk-driving prevention, or drug use prevention. Yet we just don’t invest in sexual violence prevention in that same sort of way. And I don’t know whether it’s because people still hold onto the myth of the evil psychopath waiting for unsuspecting women in the bushes, and they think we can jail our way out of it.
But we know that most sexual harassment and assault isn’t happening between strangers, it’s happening between people who know each other. So young people need to be taught how to set boundaries, and how to respect others’ boundaries. They need to know that some of the language they hear, and the rape jokes that often circulate, isn’t OK. And they need to know how to speak up when they hear it, to let their peers know those ideas and that behavior isn’t OK. In the same way, for example, if someone drops the “N-bomb” around me, I can typically handle that. I know how to say, and feel comfortable expressing, my irritation, my anger, because I grew up hearing from the adults around me that using racial slurs wasn’t OK. There was conversation about that among the people in my life. It needs to be the same way when it comes to sexual harassment and violence.