Two young US soldiers went into a bar. As the night wore on, they noticed a man hitting on an intoxicated young woman.
When he offered to take her home, they stepped in and said they would go along to make sure she got there safely. At her house, the two refused to let the other man go inside, which prompted a fight before he stormed off. They called a cab to get home.
“They said it was worth it, because he was a risk to her,” says Melody McDowall, a social worker and former sexual assault response coordinator at a military base in Kansas.
As part of their required training, the two soldiers had seen Mike Domitrz’s “Can I Kiss You?” presentation, which offers tools for healthy dating and preventing sexual assault.
When they told Ms. McDowall that the talk had inspired them to intervene to stop a potential rape, she knew that his approach “really works.”
“Historically, the education around sexual violence was centered around what the victims could do to keep themselves safe,” McDowall says. Then about six years ago she discovered Mr. Domitrz, who was crisscrossing the country to speak to college students and military groups. At that time “there wasn’t a lot on bystander education” or reaching out to people “who may cross the line unintentionally,” especially in situations involving alcohol, she says.
Domitrz, through his DATE SAFE Project Inc., headquartered in Greenfield, Wis., offers a blend of humor, audience participation, and how-to advice to prompt people to think through a sometimes daunting subject – and then be ready to take action.
His talk, and his related 2003 book, “May I Kiss You?,” challenges people to always ask and receive consent before engaging in an intimate act, even a kiss. It goes on to show how people can intervene in problematic situations, just as the two soldiers did. And it explains how everyone can “open the door” for people they care about to confide in them if those individuals are survivors of sexual assault.
Domitrz breaks down all the reasons people offer for why they don’t ask first when they seek intimacy. He then offers tips on how to seek consent, even how to respond gracefully when the answer is a no.
People feel much better about dating and relationships when lines of communication are clear, Domitrz says, instead of being muddied by attempts to read body language or make a move in the hopes that the other person won’t mind.
“Most dating-violence talks are about what not to do,” he says. “I use humor about the ridiculous assumptions that we’ve been taught ... [and I want people] to feel they have a new skill set and a reason to use it.”
Domitrz was a 19-year-old college student in 1989 when he got a message at his dorm to call his mother right away. She asked if he was sitting down, and then she told him his sister Cheri, who is four years older, had been raped.
Struggling with shock and rage, he transferred to a college near his home in Wisconsin to support her during the trial of the rapist.
When he began researching laws on sexual assault, the phrase “without consent” stuck with him. “I asked myself ... ‘Do I ask to kiss someone?’ ” And he asked his peers, who all said they didn’t, either. He realized that cultural norms encourage men to make a move and women to try to stop it if they become uncomfortable.
After his swim team was required to hear a talk on sexual assault, Domitrz realized that as the brother of a survivor of sexual assault he had something to offer. He continued his research and began speaking publicly – first at his former high school and later at other high schools and colleges.
“He’s had really tough questions [from our students], and he has always given constructive, positive responses,” says Debbie Bartholomay, a language arts teacher at Alternative High School in Elkhorn, Wis., which has hosted Domitrz’s presentation several times since its inception.
“A great number of our students have had very negative sexual experiences,” Ms. Bartholomay says. After each of the talks, several students have disclosed situations to Domitrz and he’s been able to refer them for help.
The “Can I Kiss You?” presentation “is something I wish every student could go through at least once, because they really don’t forget it. We’ve had students whose lives have been changed,” Bartholomay says.
By 2003, Domitrz and his wife had sold their mobile DJ company so that he could devote himself full time to public speaking, both in the United States and around the world at US military bases.
Now he gives about 200 college and military presentations a year.
As a junior and a residential adviser at Princeton University in New Jersey, Kevin Zhang attended Domitrz’s presentation last fall. “I’m pretty skeptical about these kinds of things, but I was just blown away by it,” he says.
The talk prompted Mr. Zhang to share ideas with his water polo teammates and male friends, and recently he wrote an article for the campus newspaper about why men need to talk more about sexual assault.
One of the key things Zhang says he learned: If someone shares with you that he or she has been assaulted, don’t respond with “I’m sorry.” Pity forces the person who is sharing to offer a response like ‘That’s OK. It’s not your fault,’ ” Domitrz teaches.
Instead, he urges people to say something like “Thank you for sharing. If there’s anything I can do, I’m here to support you.”
As for changing the dating culture, Zhang says he’s optimistic that Domitrz’s message about consent can spread.
Domitrz helps people envision such a shift by bringing students onstage for brief, laughter-filled role-playing, with one participant asking the other for a kiss. He gives them scenarios to show that whether the answer is yes or no, the situation is no more awkward than the typical efforts people make to read each other’s minds.
“We’ve had people argue, and at the end they say, ‘You know what, I’m now going to ask,’ ” Domitrz says. “You see people making positive commitments to behavior change in just 45 minutes.”
One way Domitrz gauges the effect he’s had is through messages on Facebook, in which people share how they’ve used what he’s taught them. He also requests brief text messages from participants about what actions they plan to take.
Some of the texts are profound: “It really helped me understand that if I am not into it I don’t have to continue just because it is happening”; “I learned that letting your buddy take advantage of another person makes you just as responsible”; “I’m going to tell my parents about my rape.”
“Our culture still has a long way to go in tackling this topic,” Domitrz says.
Twenty years ago people thought it was all right for someone to have sex with a drunken person who says yes, Domitrz says. Now most people understand that a person can’t really give their consent while intoxicated. But “do we do anything to stop it?” Domitrz asks. “The majority says, ‘Well, that’s not my business.’ ”
To reduce sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses, students as young as middle school-age need to start learning how to talk about and respect sexual boundaries, says Domitrz, who is the father of four teenagers. About 50 people have received intensive training in the past year from the DATE SAFE Project so that they, too, can bring its messages to schools.
“Every person deserves to live in a world of respect and consent,” Domitrz says. “When you meet a survivor who was not treated with that respect, and you see how strong they are, it just reminds you, we need to be out there doing this even more ... so that everybody does get that respect.”
• For more information, visit www.datesafeproject.org.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. The projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are groups selected by Universal Giving that help children and youths around the world:
• Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation provides education to children and youths worldwide. Project: Support the V Sign project to protect children from predators.
• Child Family Health International provides community-based health education programs. Take action: Volunteer in Ecuador and learn from its model of teaching about sexual health as a human right.
• Uganda Village Project facilitates community health and well-being in rural Uganda through better access, education, and prevention. Take action: Support classes on safe pregnancy and family planning.