Anonymous Questions

At the end of every Respect(Ed) presentation, each student has the opportunity to submit a question anonymously to be answered by presenters. Here are the questions we receive most often, answered by the Respect(Ed) board. You can also check out our blog, where we regularly post more in-depth answers to other commonly asked anonymous questions.

Sexual Harassment and Assault

You always have the right to change your mind. If at any point you stop feeling comfortable or enjoying an activity, speak up. Whether you want to switch to something different or stop doing sexual things altogether, your partner should listen and respect your wishes. If not, that’s assault.

If you realize you weren’t really into something after the fact, that’s okay too. It may not be a typical assaultive situation with a clear perpetrator if everyone was fully and freely consenting in the moment, but it’s still important to address. These kinds of gray-area situations are actually far more common than clear-cut assault, especially among young people. Talk it out with your partner(s): explain how you feel about what happened and what might improve things going forward. Open communication about boundaries are key to a healthy sexual relationship. And reach out if you need support—negative sexual experiences can be difficult and traumatizing, even if they aren’t explicitly violent. You deserve to have a positive, healthy relationship with your sexuality.

Yes. Comments, jokes, gestures, and behaviors can all constitute sexual harassment. Some examples might be catcalling, stalking, staring, the use of demeaning terms, or spreading rumors about someone’s sex life. A lot of behaviors that could be harassment are very context-dependent. For example, you might be comfortable with your friends saying things about you or around you that would be completely inappropriate coming from someone you don’t know as well. In general, someone’s actions should never make you feel afraid, uncomfortable, or unsafe.

At school, any incidents of this kind that create an adverse environment or prevent you from getting a fair education count as discrimination under Title IX, and your school is required to respond to any reports and resolve the problem promptly.

Sexual harassment becomes assault when nonconsensual sexual activity is involved.

According to the most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), 43.6% of women and 24.8% of men have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. An oft-cited 2005 study found that one in four women and one in six men experience sexual violence before they turn 18. Among high schoolers surveyed in the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 9.7% had experienced sexual violence within the past year. According to FBI data, 19% of all victims of sex crimes in 2018 were between the ages of 16 and 20, despite the fact that this age demographic accounts for only 7% of total victims of all crimes for that year.

First of all, it’s easy to worry about false allegations so it’s important to note that false allegations are incredibly rare. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s summary of three major studies, the rate of false reporting is 2-8%. False accusations often come from unclear consent so if you are concerned about them, the best prevention is getting clear, affirmative consent and being a good person.

In the case that you are falsely accused of sexual violence you should first really think about if it could have any root in truth. Did you have sexual contact with that person? Is it possible you misread their consent? Were either of you intoxicated? If you think it’s at all possible that the accusation is rooted in truth, do not fully deny it. Once you have your thoughts in order, address the accusation immediately. You should welcome any investigation, deny it as described, and apologize sincerely for any harm that your accuser has undergone. Be sure to tell people not to attack your accuser. The biggest thing is to not be defensive or angry; false accusations are a large test of character and you can come out the other side looking like a great person as long as you are calm, sympathetic, and respectful to all involved.

There are a variety of local and national organizations that provide 24-hour call lines, counseling, legal services, and other resources to people who have experienced sexual violence. Often—but not always—employees at these organizations are not mandatory reporters, meaning they are not legally required to report any past or potential future harm you disclose to them. Mandatory reporting laws differ by state, so be sure to ask.

For a list of national organizations, check under the Sexual Assault tab on our resources page. If you are considering reporting an incident of sexual harassment or assault to your school, you can also look at the Know Your Rights tab to learn about your legal protections as a student.

In large part, the difference between flirting and sexual harassment is only the consent of those involved, so here are some ways to be sure you have consent. First, know yourself and your ability to read social cues. If that is not your strong suit, you can always ask someone if they’re comfortable with something. Asking direct questions sounds awkward to a lot of young people, but being awkward is a big part of flirting already and it’s better than making someone uncomfortable. If you feel comfortable not asking, watch the give and take. Are you participating equally? Are your actions similar? Additionally, examine your setting and power dynamics, in class may not be the appropriate time to make a sexually explicit comment and may make someone uncomfortable even if they are comfortable with it alone. If you are a few years older or have any authority or higher status than the other person, it may not be appropriate for you to take the lead in flirting with them. Even if a relationship could still be appropriate and in that case you should let the other person initiate. You can always take the lead by mentioning your own boundaries/concerns or asking questions. Open communication should make someone more attracted to you, not less.

Consent and Healthy Relationships

If both parties are drunk, consent becomes really complicated. First, here’s the legal side. Most states have laws stating that a person cannot consent to sex if they are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. However, “incapicated” is vague and defined differently depending on who you talk to. While adding alcohol to sexual situations doesn’t necessarily make it nonconsensual, it does make it harder to ensure consent, and it also makes it harder for you to give consent. That being said, there are some community practices that we recommend to ethically determine if a person can actually give consent or not. First off, if there is any doubt, confusion, or mixed messages (from you or anyone else), don’t do it. (Obviously, you should never have sex with a person who is passed out or unconscious.) You shouldn’t talk yourself into believing that someone is less drunk than they appear. A lot of the time, you can tell whether a person is too drunk to consent. You should be checking in regularly about the sex you’re having, making sure that they still want to do this and asking if they’re having fun. You may even want to check in the next day to make sure they felt good about everything that happened. You should also reflect throughout the situation, asking yourself if you think they can communicate clearly, if they’re coherent, and if you think they’re sober enough to know fully what is going on. Honestly, this question can be really complicated, and there’s not one right answer. The most important thing is that everybody feels good about what went down, and that nobody is too drunk to say no to something they wouldn’t want.

The legal age of consent varies by state between 16 and 18 years of age. Some states have legal exceptions colloquially termed “Romeo and Juliet laws” for otherwise consenting partners within a certain age rage (generally 2-4 years apart), while other states allow such circumstances to be used as a legal defense in court, and many more states identify a minimum age for a perpetrator to be prosecuted in statutory rape cases. Generally, statutory rape laws exist to protect young people from sexual violence, not to prevent them from having consensual sex. Regardless of what state you live in, it’s pretty rare for statutory rape to be reported, much less prosecuted, unless the age difference is considerable or the sex wasn’t actually consensual.

Laws can be complicated, but you don’t have to be a legal expert to know what’s consensual and what’s not. It’s most important to understand consent and the power dynamics inherent in any age difference, to know how to communicate well with a partner, and to be clear on your own personal principles and boundaries.

Talk to them. Make sure you approach the topic in an open and caring way. Don’t blame your friend for their situation, and don’t assume you know everything. Listen to them. People are often reluctant to recognize that their relationship is unhealthy or abusive, but getting upset or trying to force them into action won’t help. Make it clear that you are a resource and that you will help and support them no matter what. Respect their boundaries and privacy, but keep in touch about it. The process of resolving an unhealthy relationship can be long and stressful; you can help your friend talk through things, problem-solve, and make a plan.

If at any point you are concerned for your friend’s safety, talk to an adult, reach out to a local organization, or call 911. Their immediate safety (and yours!) is always most important.

Yes, many people in unhealthy relationships genuinely love and care about their partners. Whether or not a relationship is unhealthy is independent of the love, care, and affection between partners. A relationship is unhealthy if there is a pattern of behavior that makes one or both partners feel uncomfortable, invalid, or unsafe. The unhealthy behaviors don’t have to be present constantly or in every aspect for the relationship to be unhealthy. If you are in an unhealthy relationship and you love your partner, the relationship may be additionally challenging to exit, and it is important that you utilize support systems, friends, family, and other resources.

A person should always be able to retract their “yes” if they so choose. One of the most important tenets of consent is that it’s reversible. If a sexual partner is continuing in any sexual activity after a person has expressed that they’re not into it, through body language or verbally, that’s sexual assault. There’s not necessarily one good way to take consent away, but everyone should respect a person using phrases such as “No,” “This doesn’t feel good anymore,” “This is painful,” or “I’m not into this anymore” to mean that consent has been withdrawn. When consent is withdrawn, the partner should respect that, stop immediately, and provide any aftercare if that feels needed. Reversing consent can feel awkward, unpleasant, perhaps even violent, but it should always be respected. Through checking in with your partner and paying attention to body language and verbal cues that make it easier for each partner to understand what does and does not feel good, everyone will feel more comfortable and on the same page about what is happening.

First of all, you don’t have to say ‘no’ in a nice way! If someone is threatening your physical or emotional safety, you should be able to exit that situation in whatever way you choose. You don’t have to worry about the feelings of a person who is harassing or assaulting you. However, there are sometimes situations where you feel due to your safety, you should say ‘no’ in a nice way. You might fear retaliation or feel threatened by the person asking you. In these situations, you can simply say ‘no’ in a polite and clear manner — this could be saying “not right now,” suggesting doing something different, or making an excuse — and know that your ‘no’ should be respected and honored. Instead of having to say ‘no’ in a nice way, your partner should be regularly checking in with you and inviting that ‘no,’ asking questions throughout and paying attention to body language and verbal cues to recognize whether or not you’re into it. Affirmative consent and inviting these answers make it possible to say ‘no’ in a nice way, as you’re not necessarily the only one initiating a conversation during sex or when sex has already taken place. Everyone has a right to say ‘no’ to any sexual partner, and if someone doesn’t feel comfortable doing that, there could be a problem with that person’s partner respecting their boundaries and understanding the reversibility and importance of autonomy in consent.

Sexuality and Gender

The term ‘queer’ began as a derogatory term for LGBTQ+ people over a hundred years ago, but the term was reclaimed early in the gay rights movement starting with the chant “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Now ‘queer’ is used in place of ‘LGBTQ+’ as an umbrella term, as a sexual orientation label by people who are not straight and don’t want a more specific or limiting label, and as ‘genderqueer’, a nonbinary gender identity. At Respect(Ed), we use the word ‘queer’ in place of ‘LGBTQ+’ frequently because unlike the initialism, ‘queer’ isn’t limited to a specific set of identities and is a more general, inclusive term. When using the term ‘queer’ it is important to keep in mind that it does have a loaded history and to consider your audience.

If you’re wondering this and you’re straight and cisgender, before looking at the more complex elements of identity, take some time to think about your own identity. Did you choose to be attracted to the opposite sex or did your hard-wired attraction just align with the cultural assumption of your sexuality?

For the more complex explanation, we like Dan Savage’s model: identity is like a three-layer cake. The first layer is how you feel and that’s not a choice. You don’t choose your gender or who you are attracted to. The second layer is how you identify and to some degree that is a choice: you can choose the identity that best represents your feelings. The third layer is what you tell people, and that is completely a choice. For example, people who are attracted to people of all genders did not choose to be queer, but they do choose whether to identify as bisexual, pansexual, queer, or another label. Often what they tell people will depend on their audience. For instance, since bisexual is the most widely understood of these terms, they might choose to say that publicly even if it doesn’t best represent their individual feelings.

The short answer: that’s okay! Especially as a young person, it’s perfectly reasonable and normal not to have everything figured out yet. Plenty of people don’t come out until much, much later in life. Spend some time learning about yourself and figuring things out. There is a lot of educational content out there for young people questioning their sexuality or gender. You can subscribe to queer youtubers, read about various identities online, and attend meetings of your school’s gay-straight alliance (or equivalent) if there is one and you feel comfortable. Queer spaces should always be inclusive to questioning people. Never feel pressured to pick an identity and come out already.

That being said, it’s okay to try on various labels, and it’s okay to change the way you identify. The way you feel might evolve over time; years after you come out for the first time, you’ll probably still be learning things about your individual relationship with your identity. It’s okay to come out as bisexual at first and then later decide that lesbian fits better. It’s okay to trial run new pronouns or a new name with friends. Don’t feel like you’re invalidating anyone else’s identity or contributing to the myth that queerness is a phase or an experiment. Sexuality and gender are complicated, and exploration is an important part of figuring it all out.

Finally, while labels can be very powerful for some people, they’re not for everyone. If you never find language that fits, that’s also okay. Your particular identity will always be unique to you, and no word is ever going to perfectly encapsulate it. It’s fine to just be who you are without having to define it.

The best way to correct someone using the wrong pronouns is to just immediately say the correct pronoun as you would correct someone who otherwise misspoke. The biggest mistake is making too big a deal out of it. For example if someone said “I have class with him later” all you should do is quickly say “her”. If someone is continually doing it and not responding to small corrections, have a one-on-one conversation with them and make sure they know which pronouns are appropriate. There’s never a call to yell at people; making a scene is harder on trans people than being misgendered.

If you don’t know someone’s pronouns you can use they/them pronouns until you can ask. My favorite way to ask someone’s pronouns is to tell them my pronouns as a prompt. Get in the habit of stating your pronouns and asking others during introductions. It might seem awkward, but it’s never inappropriate to say something like “Hey I just wanted to check, what are your pronouns?” even in established friendships. The only thing to keep in mind is not making it a big deal or singling out gender non-conforming people.

If you accidentally misgender someone you should correct yourself the same way you would correct someone else: by saying the correct pronoun right after. You don’t need to say sorry or call extra attention to it. If you forget to correct yourself you don’t need to apologize later or feel guilty, just pay extra attention next time.

Being closeted can feel really isolating. Luckily, there are a lot of good online communities and resources for queer people. Check out the LGBTQ+ tab of our resources page for a list. You can also follow queer creators and educators on YouTube (we particularly recommend Aaron Ansuini and Ash Hardell) and social media. Look for queer media, wherever you can find it. Check out your local library’s gender and sexuality collection; listen to some of the many queer-themed podcasts out there; watch shows and movies with positive representation of LGBTQ+ characters. In my experience, hearing about another queer person’s experiences (real or fictional) can help you to feel less alone and to learn more about yourself. If at all possible, connect with other queer people. Seek out community spaces like gay-straight alliances, queer centers, online forums, discord servers, etc. Develop a network of support for yourself.

Normalized Violence and Bystander Intervention

The question of personal safety is a really important one! Before deciding to intervene, a person should definitely take into consideration: their safety (including how their identities could impact their safety), the safety of the target if they intervene, the anger/violence level of the harasser, and their confidence in de-escalating the situation. Some questions to ask yourself to determine if it’s safe for you to get involved are: Do I hold a lot of privilege in this space? Could I get physically hurt if the harasser turned violent? Would intervening escalate things more? Is my identity/presentation giving me lots of social power in this situation, or could I become another target? This can help to clue you into whether it’s safe for you to intervene, and what you believe to be the threat level of the perpetrator. Bystander intervention is not about being a hero, nor is it meant to be violent/dangerous, so you should always consider these questions and create a plan before deciding to intervene. There are lots of different ways to intervene, and some could be safer than others. We recommend using different tactics depending on the situation. Some tactics are less confrontational and feel safer to us, but ultimately, the decision to intervene is a personal one, and if you ever feel too unsafe to intervene, you should alert someone else who may feel more comfortable doing so. (Someone who has more privilege than you or who presents differently could be especially helpful in these instances.) If you feel uncomfortable but want to intervene, it’s sometimes best to focus on the target. If you’re talking with the person being targeted directly, you don’t really have to confront the harasser at all and can act as an “annoying” friend. If you don’t feel like you can intervene at all during the situation, then it’s best to follow up with the person being harassed afterwards to make sure they’re okay and accompany them to a safe space or trusted friend. If you don’t feel comfortable using these tactics, you could find someone else, such as a trusted friend, to intervene. Bystander intervention can feel uncomfortable, especially if you don’t know the people involved, but it should never feel unsafe.

This is a really tough question, and ultimately it’s your decision. If you’re sure what’s happening is harassment and you’ve done everything in your power to diffuse the harassment while it’s happening, there’s not much you can do for the time being. If you’re able, and you still feel safe, we’d suggest that you remain at the scene until the harasser stops or leaves so that you can provide aftercare to the person who was targeted. They may have felt uncomfortable or unsafe with you intervening at the time, but would like support afterwards. Additionally, if the situation escalates further, you can act as a witness and step in if necessary. If you can find a good friend of the person being harassed, they may be better equipped to intervene and de-escalate the situation.

Yes! There may be some incidents where a bystander is unsure whether the person is being harassed or two close friends are joking around. It’s still important to step in and ensure the person being harassed (potentially) is safe and comfortable. Usually, bystanders gain clarity after intervening on whether what was happening was actually harassment though, and the worst possible outcome is that you intervened unnecessarily.

It can be really hard to call out friends for their problematic comments or rape jokes, but it’s also really important! Calling out this kind of behavior is a huge part of denormalizing sexual violence in our communities. While a joke or comment is quite different from an incident of sexual violence, it lays the groundwork for society that sexual violence is okay, even funny. By creating a situation where rape jokes are unacceptable, we’re denormalizing sexual violence and telling our community that any incident of sexual violence will not be tolerated.

There are a lot of different ways to call out your friends, even if you’re feeling worried about confrontation. You can pull the friend aside and ask them to consider sexual violence survivors in the room and how they might feel if they had heard the comment. You can also ask them to explain the joke — we all know jokes aren’t funny when you have to explain them! Alternatively, you can express your personal discomfort at the joke/comment or walk away from the situation and pull them aside later (or send them a text) to let them know why you could no longer take part in the conversation. If you’re worried about retaliation or further harming people who could be triggered, you could also try changing the subject. There’s no one right way to intervene in these situations, but it’s important to let the person know exactly what they’re doing wrong and why it makes you (and should make everyone) uncomfortable.

Call out those who make rape jokes, victim blame, slut shame, or participate in “locker room talk” and catcalling situations. You can also denormalize sexual violence by starting up a Respect(Ed) peer education program at your school! By encouraging these conversations in your classes, you can help to promote consent and bystander intervention while denormalizing acts of sexual violence among your peers. You’ll create a safe and comfortable space to discuss these topics, and through these conversations you can help to question and disrupt sexual violence happening in your school as well as identifying yourself as an ally to survivors of sexual violence.