Tag Archives: consent

Teaching About Sex, Consent, And Relationships (Through Video Games)

Let’s face it. Most kids aren’t that eager to learn about the stuff that their teachers, parents, and school administrators want them to learn about. They’re not interested in knowing the skills that will make them healthy, productive, tax-paying consumers who will keep society running. They’re interested in the skills that will make them popular and/or get them laid.

The deficiencies of our education system are many and I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the experiences I had within that system. However, I don’t want to dwell too much on that this time. Talking about how much I hated high school is rarely that sexy.

Instead, I want to focus on something that most kids are eager to enjoy and how some people are using that to improve their understanding of sex, sexuality, and relationship. What could kids possibly excite kids that much to learn about something that they would rather not learn from the same gym teacher that makes them run laps in winter?

The answer is more obvious than you think. It’s video games. Admit it, that almost makes too much sense.

There’s no question that kids love playing video games more than learning about quadratic functions. According to a survey done by the MacArthur Foundation, approximately 97 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 play video games. When it comes to statistics and surveys, you can’t get much more definitive without asking kids whether chocolate fudge tastes good.

Kids might not be able to agree whether Superman could beat the Hulk, which he totally could, but they agree that video games are awesome. So if kids love video games so much, why not use that love to teach them valuable lessons about sex, relationships, and consent?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not being facetious either. It’s not about the medium or whatever asinine controversies it may have. It’s about working with what kids already love and using that to help them in valuable ways. It’s not that radical a concept. Hit movies have been made about it.

When it comes to teaching kids about sex, though, I wouldn’t expect Edward James Olmos to star in a movie about that. That doesn’t mean the concept is entirely flawed. Teaching kids about sex is hard enough. Teaching them in a way they’ll remember and take seriously might be beyond the power of Hollywood.

That still doesn’t stop some from trying. In a story by Kimberly Lawson at Vice, an associate professor of medicine at Yale University has helped create a game called PlayForward: Elm City Stories. It’s a fairly straightforward, two-dimensional role playing game that is less about killing aliens or Nazis and more about guiding players through a narrative, showing how their decisions affect them along the way.

That’s not quite as radical as it sounds. Role-playing games represent a large chunk of the video game industry. Major game franchises like “Mass Effect” and “Final Fantasy” are built around the idea of having players make choices and face repercussions of those choices. Take away the aliens and the monsters, though, and you’ve got a solid basis for understanding real life choices.

PlayForward: Elm City Stories plays less like Dungeons & Dragons and more like the classic board game, Life. In it, you play as avatar in a fictional, but fairly realistic city where you have to navigate a variety of activities and make choices along the way.

Some of those activities involve who you your friends are. Some involve going to certain events and parties. Some even involve whether or not to make out with a cute girl. It may sound mundane, but like most RPGs, the appeal is diving into the world of the character and leading them through it. Here’s how Vice describes the experience.

Players have to make important, life-changing decisions, including whether or not they should go upstairs to make out with someone, if they should use a condom or not during sex, and whether they should accept pills found in someone’s grandmother’s medicine cabinet. At any point, they can fast-forward to the epilogue to see what their character’s life looks like at 30, based on the decisions they’ve made.

Through that experience, players learn about more than just saying no to the guy on the street corner offering a free hit of crack. They experience both the short-term and long-term impacts of their decisions. Given the notoriously short attention spans and limited foresight of kids, that kind of insight in indispensable when teaching them about sex and relationships.

It’s no “Super Mario Brothers,” but the lessons it conveys are more valuable than any princess. It puts the players in a position to choose the right and wrong path. It shows them just how right and wrong those paths can be in the long run for their character and themselves, by default.

Beyond just consequences, the game gives players a chance to explore situations involving intimacy, consent, and relationships. Their choices help forge the relationships they have throughout the game. To get a better outcome, they actually need a better understanding of intimacy and consent. The fact that gives them tools to apply those lessons in the real world just a pleasant side-effect.

In a sense, PlayForward: Elm City Stories is coming along at the perfect time. We live in a world where sexual harassment and sexual assault are heated issues. We, as a society, are not as willing to turn a blind eye to these sorts of indiscretions anymore.

Just punishing the Harvey Weinsteins of the world isn’t enough, though. We need to teach the emerging generation that there’s a time and a place to show a beautiful woman your genitals. Knowing those circumstances will be the difference between having a great sex life and being sued into oblivion.

Kids aren’t going to learn those skills through lectures, after school specials, and cute puppets. Some of the most effective learning methods involve active engagement with real activities that offer real rewards. In that sense, video games are the perfect medium for that kind of teaching.

While I doubt that PlayForward: Elm City Stories will win any game of the year awards, it sets an important precedent that is worth building upon. Saving princesses and shooting killer aliens is still fun, but learning about relationships, consent, and sex will take a player much further in life.

Kids, and people in general, learn best when they don’t know they’re learning something. Video games may still have a nasty reputation in some circles, but it offers opportunities to teach valuable skills that aren’t easy to teach, especially to hormonal teenagers. We should take advantage of those opportunities and hopefully, PlayForward: Elm City Stories is just the beginning.

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The (Lack Of) Consensus Surrounding Consent

Some issues really shouldn’t be that controversial to begin with. Things like treating pets well, not hitting kids, and not putting wasabi in your cereal are just common sense. There should be no controversy. Anyone who wasn’t raised by Jeffrey Dahlmer should understand that.

That’s why I find it so frustrating that the simple issue of consent has become so heated. It’s not just a trending buzzword. It’s a goddamn trigger word these days, so much so that blowhards like Rush Limbaugh feel compelled to say incredibly stupid shit about it.

Again, it shouldn’t be controversial. The idea of getting consent from someone before you have sex, kiss, or massage their prostate fits perfectly within the realm of common sense. So why the hell is it such an issue? Why are star athletes and ardent feminists struggling with it to begin with?

There are any number of elaborate, politically-charged factors I could talk about. Since I don’t want people to treat this blog as a cure for insomnia, I’m going to try and keep it simple, funny, and sexy, although when it comes to consent, there’s only so much sexiness I can manage.

The problem, if you really want to call it that, is common sense itself. By that, I mean we think human beings are wired to have it. That’s only half-true at most. As I’ve made clear before with my use of caveman logic, the human brain is not wired for common sense. It’s wired for survival and reproduction. Anything beyond that is just extra icing.

That means that people frustrated with other peoples’ inability to understand consent don’t understand the biological wiring of their own species. Whether you’re a feminist or an extra in a Lil Wayne video, we’re still part of the same species. We’re still prone to the same flaws. Failing to take that into account is akin to joining the Navy without remembering you get seasick.

This leads me to a recent video that the fine folks at Cracked.com put up a while back. Now I’m usually a big fan of Cracked. I’ve cited them before on this blog and they generally do a good job of exploring sensitive issues in a funny, often sexy sort of way. This time, however, I’m a bit torn.

This video, despite having undeniable sex appeal in talking about a serious issue, tries too hard to make this issue simple. I can totally understand that. Cracked is a humor website, not a lecture hall at Oxford. However, in trying to make things simple, it misses a few key details.

Like almost every major issue or political movement, the controversy surrounding consent began with the best of intentions. In previous decades, the rates of sexual assault and rape were atrocious. The issues associated with handling these crimes was just as bad. One side said it was consensual. The other side says the other has a fucked up definition of the word. In a courtroom not run by Judge Judy, that’s a difficult crime to resolve.

In recent years, especially with the rise of third-wave feminism and greater emphasis on women’s issues, there has been a concerted effort to address the uncertainties surrounding consent. I don’t doubt the motivations or the heart. In principle, they’re coming from the right place. In practice, however, there’s a big problem.

To illustrate this problem, let me paint a scenario. Picture a man and a woman, totally sober and in a sound state of mind. They’re at a party, a bar, a barn dance, or wherever people meet these days. They start chatting. They laugh. They like each other. Then, things get heated.

The man asks if the woman wants to go somewhere more private. She says yes.

The man asks if the woman wants to get into bed with him. She says yes.

The man asks if the woman wants to take off their clothes. She says yes.

The man asks if the woman wants to have sex with him. She says yes.

The man and the woman start having sex. Body parts are in other body parts. Basic biology takes over. All the while, the woman still says yes.

Then, for any number of reasons that are too vast to specify, the woman says no. There’s little to no warning. There’s little to no reason. She just starts saying no. Under the emerging concept of consent, as espoused by the very vocal wings of third-wave feminism, that man is now a rapist.

Does that clarify the issue? Does it now make sense why the concept of consent isn’t quite as easy as the editors of Cracked makes it out to be?

It’s an unavoidable facet of being human. People don’t always say what they mean. People don’t always mean what they say. Until brain-to-brain communication and perfect lie detectors are perfected, there’s really no way to know for sure.

This creates an unequal dynamic between men and women, those most dreaded of predicaments that make feminists and men’s rights activities hulk out. Just look at the Duke Lacrosse incident or the Rolling Stones UVA case. It’s not just a matter of he said/she said anymore. It’s a matter of unequal gender dynamics creating a confusing, conflicting, and in some cases detrimental understanding of intimacy.

Unlike decades in the past, an accusation of sexual assault is almost as bad as a conviction. Up until very recently, it was possible to deal with a sensitive incident privately and not incur the wrath of the public. Provided you weren’t a politician, pastor, or celebrity, it was something you could put behind you.

Thanks to social media and the internet, that’s not possible anymore. As soon as the story surrounding the UVA case came out, there was no real effort to check the facts. The entire world just assumed the men were guilty. There were protests. There were lawsuits. The whole ordeal became a rallying cry for protesting the macho-manly frat culture that we’ve seen in every 80s teen movie.

Despite all this outcry, though, it wasn’t true. It never happened. The story was totally fabricated and Rolling Stone had to apologize for that story. In this issue, the concept of consent was conflated and twisted to create a false narrative. The problem was that certain people cared more about the narrative than the truth.

This is where consent gets especially muddled, especially for men. In both the UVA and Duke case, the assumption was that the men were guilty. That’s because, for those seeking a narrative, men are horny beasts who look for any opportunity to sexually assault a woman. Being a man, I can safely say this is not true. I can also say it scares the bejesus out of me.

It’s because of these expectations and assumptions that consent is difficult to grasp. If a woman accuses a man of assault, then she’ll be taken very seriously. If a man accuses a woman of the same, he’ll probably be laughed at. It’s one of those harsh double standards that few talk about.

In our current culture, it’s not okay to joke about men assaulting women, as comedian Amy Schumer found out. As for women assaulting men, it’s not just okay to joke about it. One of my favorite comedians of all time, Christopher Titus, did an entire routine about it in one of his specials.

Given this inequality in understanding and humor, how can women expect men to understand consent and how can men expect to empathize with women? When there’s this kind of discrepancy, it’s next to impossible.

As a man, I can only attest to my own experience. Personally, I’m terrified of a woman accusing me of something so horrible because I know, as a man, I’m not going to get the benefit of the doubt.

This means I’m very reluctant to hug people, ask them out, or talk about intimate issues. I know that if a woman wanted to, she could make an accusation against me and my life would be over. It wouldn’t even matter if I’m innocent. The accusation still ruins my life, my reputation, and everything in between.

Women want men to understand consent. Men want women to understand the kind of power and leverage they have over them. Both still have this innate drive to connect and be intimate. Our culture, our flawed assumptions, and our inability to be certain of one another’s intent just gets in the way.

Being the optimist I am, I believe it’ll change. I believe the arc of history still trends towards equality and justice. It won’t happen all at once. It might not even happen within my lifetime. Whenever it happens, I believe it’ll be worth the wait. When the day comes when men and women can talk about what kind of anal beads they prefer without fear, that’ll be a glorious day indeed.

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