You’ve probably heard about Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who is carrying her mattress around until her rapist is expelled. 

California just passed a new “yes means yes” law stating that there is a burden of proof for “affirmative” consent, not simply an absence of a no. It is fitting that in this environment of anti-sexual assault action, Bowdoin hired a Director of Gender Violence Prevention and Education, Benje Douglas.

Last Monday I sat down with Benje to talk about the second part of his job title: education. Benje is friendly and keeps a pile of candy on his desk. He handed me a strawberry flavored Dum Dum which I chewed (yes, chewed, sorry) as I thought about how to frame my question. Benje patiently smiled as I stumbled my way through some semi-relevant stuff about Oedipus and the Soviet Union and ignorance and responsibility that I definitely lifted from Milan Kundera until I got to the meat of my question: who is responsible for preventing sexual assault or, framed differently, where is the burden of education about consent? Is it governments? Institutions (read: colleges)? Families? Individuals?

Benje started by giving me a history of his field. Twenty years ago, around the time we were all born, the conversation around sexual assault prevention started in earnest. Originally, it was viewed through a heteronormative, moral lens: “Men, that’s bad, don’t do it to women.” Now the movement has recognized that sexual assault can happen to anyone by anyone, and is growing to recognize that true solution will be a communal undertaking, not targeted moralizing.

The 1990s focus was on risk reduction—action like advising women (remember, it was a heteronormative conversation at the time) to carry pepper spray and take self defense lessons—the kind of things that parents feel compelled to say and that teenagers feel compelled to roll their eyes at before sticking a can of mace in in their glove compartment. 

But this approach doesn’t scale up beyond parental advice for two reasons: one, it tips into victim-blaming when directed at people who have experienced sexual violence; and two, it’s simply not effective enough at preventing assault. What the sexual violence prevention community is now trying to do is stage a primary or universal intervention. That is, to change the culture so that sexual assault is simply not a thing that is done, or, if it is done, it is anomalous.

Recent efforts to this end have included the enthusiastic-consent movement which frames consent in sex-positive terms, as opposed to an absence of a no; the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network’s (RAINN) law and order approach of emphasizing criminal accountability, the Center for Disease Control’s Rape Prevention and Education program, and public awareness campaigns, like the White House’s “1 is 2 Many” campaign.

It is clear that governmental and institutional changes are happening. But the stickiest idea that Benje left me with as I unwrapped a pack of Smarties and ambled from 24 College Street to Moulton Union is that the hardest and most important work we can do is to use our relationships. Deep-rooted change happens because people are moved by empathy. This is a current conversation, and this is an important conversation. We need to have it, to actually say the words, it in our closest relationships where it may be the most uncomfortable.

Part of this conversation, I suggest, is to address our relationship with ownership. Sexual assault—rape—is the ultimate objectification of another human. It is turning a self with a consciousness into a thing for pleasure. A self cannot own another self. All humans are subjects in their own lives and should not—must not—be reduced to objects.

You can share that on-point article about rape culture on Facebook and cram your Twitter feed with feminist sound bites—I sure as hell do—but the real work of culture change is person-to-person. So tomorrow I’m going to call up my brother and talk about sexual assault and it will probably be awkward or tense or emotional, but that’s the point. Maybe the next day he’ll talk to his roommate and his roommate will talk to his teammate and he will think differently about his actions. It’s not glamorous, it’s not an epiphany, but it is necessary.