Humans of New York is a beautiful blog filled with street portraits and interviews with different people residing in The Big Apple. Through the experiences of complete strangers, packaged beautifully in the short but poignant stories, there are often serious take-home lessons. In fact, the blog has amassed such a huge following that photographer Brandon Stanton has managed to publish two New York Times best-selling books filled with his haunting images and accompanying stories.
Recently a story appeared on the blog about a young girl’s first sexual experience and it has since gone viral. It is a chilling reminder of just how easy it is for youth to misunderstand the meaning of consent.
Accompanying a faceless photo of a young woman holding a blade of grass, the story begins with an innocent summer fling.
“It was the summer between 8th and 9th grade. We were make-out buddies. Sometimes he’d talk to me during the day. Other times he wouldn’t,” she said.
Things took a turn late one night when the two got drunk down in his basement and he kept asking her to “do it.”
“My heart was racing and I was terrified,” she continued. “I kept saying: ‘maybe,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘maybe.’ Then he said: ‘No more maybes. Let’s flip a coin.’ My stomach sank.”
The flip of a coin, and her virginity was gone forever. Despite the fact that she never even said “yes.”
Of course there was no cuddling or sweet words of romance after the deed was done. “After we finished, he said: ‘I think I heard my dad upstairs. You need to leave.’”
The young woman was left to deal with the aftermath, the shame, self-blame and denial, which comes along with the sexual trauma that many women have experienced at least once in their life.
“I went home and filled up a whole page in my journal. I wrote in purple sharpie, over and over: ‘It didn’t happen.’ For the longest time I felt like it was my fault for feeling hurt. Like I was being overly sensitive.”
It was her final line that stole my heart:
“It took five years for me to realize that consent is not a coin flip.”
When I was the same age, a freshman in high school in Eugene, Oregon, I had a similar experience. Though I didn’t lose my virginity until I was a freshman in college, the encounter haunts me to this day. It involved an older, popular boy, alcohol, and after-the-fact, lots of whispering and shaming from other people and myself.
Like this woman, I didn’t understand that I had, in fact, been taken advantage of. And until recently, with all the discussions about the meaning of consent, it didn’t occur to me that perhaps it wasn’t my fault after all.
“No” doesn’t mean “yes,” and “maybe” doesn’t either. Sometimes, if alcohol is involved, “yes” doesn’t mean “yes” either.
My parents had never really opened up the dialogue about sex and consent, maybe because they thought I was still too young and innocent to be faced with this type of situation or perhaps they felt it was just too awkward. In general, I’m not sure people were as open with their children back then about things like that, and most of what we knew came from television shows like 90210.
Now as a mother of a little boy and baby girl, I hear about stories like this one, or the many college rape cases that have been publicized by the media in the last few years, and I shudder. What would I do if either of my children were involved in such a disturbing scenario? Judging from recently published statistics, the likelihood is chilling.
A 2015 survey from the Association of American Universities determined that more than 20 percent of female undergrads said they were victims of sexual assault and misconduct. According to an alternative 2009 study, alcohol is involved in a staggering 80 percent of them. In recent years, these shocking statistics have encouraged colleges and universities to start educating their students about consent.
However, a statistic listed on the CDC website makes it plainly obvious that this education is occurring several years too late:
“Although drinking by persons under the age of 21 is illegal, people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks. On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers.”
This HONY story is a much-needed reminder that as parents and educators, we need to start talking to our children about things like sexual assault and consent before they are old enough to be put in compromising situations like this. I am no expert, but I would estimate that the right time would be around the beginning of middle school, the period when many children start flirting with attraction and sexuality. Will it feel totally awkward and uncomfortable to have this conversation with our tweens? Most likely. Will we ever know if our words resonated with them and prevented such a thing from occurring? Possibly not. But if we don’t have it and one of our children ends up in a situation like this, we may regret it for the rest of our lives.
h/t: Scary MommyMore On