RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The fight over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court prompted a lot of discussion in all corners of American life about sexual assault and, specifically, how young men are taught or not taught about consent. A Jewish organization near Philadelphia has a program to talk about this and other difficult topics with teenagers. NPR's Jeff Brady sat in with a group of young men.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In the basement of a suburban Philadelphia home, a half dozen high school freshmen boys are munching on chips and pretzels as 35-year-old group leader Cody Greenes introduces the week's topic.
CODY GREENES: Raise your hand if you've heard of the #MeToo movement.
BRADY: He's a volunteer with Moving Traditions, which organizes conversations like this with thousands of Jewish teens around the country. Greenes leads a discussion about historical power differences between men and women and how that can play out when it comes to sex.
GREENES: Do we believe that verbal consent is necessary to be consent?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.
BRADY: But one of the boys, David Levin, says it isn't always so simple. He describes a situation on a bus where both people already said they're interested in each other, and the girl purposely sits next to the boy.
DAVID LEVIN: Over there and then she, like, puts a blanket around you two and lays down, like...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Cuddles into you.
DAVID: Yeah, exactly. And, like, cuddles into you and, like, grabs your hand so you can hold hands and stuff. Like, those are signs, you know?
BRADY: The boys discuss several different situations, and most seem to conclude that getting verbal consent is the best choice. Moving Tradition's founder and CEO Deborah Meyer says the goal is to give teens the space to arrive at the right answer with their peers.
DEBORAH MEYER: We aren't telling them, this is how you need to behave, and this is how you don't behave. And we don't shame them for who they are. We help guys uncover the tenderness and the connection and the joy in themselves as a human being and develop for themselves a sense of ethics and values and responsibility.
BRADY: Talking about sexual assault and consent this way sounds different from what a lot of people heard in the past. University of New Hampshire sociology professor Sharyn Potter says older generations might remember talks for incoming college freshmen.
SHARYN POTTER: We gave females rape whistles and mace. And we told them, you know, to be careful when they went out and not to be raped. And then we would sit down and talk to men and tell them not to be rapists.
BRADY: The problem, says Potter, is that only a small percentage of men are perpetrators. Potter says a more productive approach is to train bystanders how to identify someone who may be at risk of sexual assault and then how to intervene. Potter says this is hard work but not impossible.
POTTER: We've already done this as a society with the anti-drunk driving movement.
BRADY: Decades back, most people were uncomfortable taking a friend's keys when they were too drunk to drive. But after years of research and education programs, the rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths has been cut in half since the 1980s. Potter says for sexual assault, this kind of culture change is just getting started. But look around, and you'll find examples. One of the teenage boys meeting in the basement says that as a high school freshman, he's already used these skills.
MATTHEW O'DONNELL: I have seen some stuff, like, at a football game.
BRADY: Matthew O'Donnell says he saw another guy touching a girl and trying to get intimate. He wasn't sure it was a problem. But just in case, he made an excuse to separate them.
MATTHEW: When I saw it happening, I was just kind of like, oh, I have to go to the bathroom. And the bathroom was, like, on the other side of stadium. So I said, come with me.
BRADY: The guy went with him, and the potential problem was averted. Sharyn Potter, the sociologist, says that's a perfect example of identifying a situation and then intervening. She says more of that, along with praise for people like O'Donnell, could lead to the culture change that results in fewer sexual assaults in the future. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPURZ'S "DAYS IN RAIN")
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