Jen Timmons from Safe World interviews Mike Domitrz, June 2011
Mike Domitrz is an internationally reknowned speaker, author and expert on sexual assault and safe dating.
In 1989, Mike Domitrz received a phone call informing him his sister had been raped. As he held the phone tightly to his ears, he simply could not believe what he was hearing.
For two years, he struggled to deal with the rape and the effect it had on his life – both as the brother of a rape victim and as a man. He transferred colleges – so he could be close to home and his sister during the trial. Once back home with his family, Mike saw the pain, rage and sadness his parents, relatives, and family friends were also going through.
The sexual assault of his sister had changed many people’s lives.
As months went by, Mike and his sister became even closer than before. While going to school during these challenging times, Mike noticed no one was addressing one of the most serious elements of sexual assault — a failure to obtain consent. The average person was NOT relating to the importance of needing to have permission before engaging in an intimate act with another person. Most individuals did not realize their current dating practices were based on standards of disrespect.
When it came to talking about the rape of his sister, no one knew what to say to him, his sister, or his family. Most people had never been given the skills needed to support a survivor of sexual assault or his/her family members. For the majority of people, talking about sexual assault was taboo.
Mike decided to make a difference. In 1990, Mike went to one of the few educators who spoke on sexual assault. The expert was surprised and impressed with Mike, a college student who was passionate about making a real difference on the issues surrounding sexual assault. He provided Mike with lots of information including myths, laws, stories, and interactive exercises. As Mike continued to research the issue of sexual assault and dating, he constantly heard people complaining that most sexual assault seminars, speakers, and experts were boring and depressing. Parents were saying, “My child would never do that“, but their kids were doing “that” and worse. Mike knew what needed to be done.
He started a “one person show” using a powerful tool, humor, to open people’s minds. Once people were laughing, they were much more likely to listen. With everyone’s attention glued to the program, Mike would show the devastation and trauma caused by sexual assault. The name of Mike’s program became “Can I Kiss You?” and has gone onto to be presented in schools, universities, communities, military installations, and at conferences throughout the United States. He has created a truly interactive and engaging program that inspires change in the lives of each audience member.
In 2003, he founded The Date Safe Project, Inc. – an organization dedicated to leaving a positive impact on the many issues surrounding sexual assault and healthy intimacy.
Mike is now one of the most sought after educational presentations in North America today,.
May I Kiss You? is Mike's book of ideas and concepts that everyone can use.
Power Is at the Heart of Sexual Assault
Following your sister's rape, you experienced a difficult period in college where you observed: “...no one was addressing one of the most serious elements of sexual assault — a failure to obtain consent. The average person was NOT relating to the importance of needing to have permission before engaging in an intimate act with another person.”
In your work speaking to many students about preventing sexual assault as well as supporting survivors, do you regard failure to obtain consent as a primary factor leading to sexual assault?
Power is at the heart of all sexual assault.
Requesting and obtaining consent takes away the abuse of that power over another person.
With freely, willfully, and mutually wanted consent given under sound mind at appropriate ages, we are talking about a lot LESS sexual assault occurring in the world.
Is it more than a lack of respect for one's self, and the other person, that contributes to not asking permission before engaging in an intimate act?
The inappropriate use of power is also at the lack of asking first.
If Person A tells him/herself that Person B WANTS this sexual activity without asking Person B AND then Person A acts on that assumption, then Person A is asserting her/his own WANTS onto Person B (abuse of power).
Society’s failure to properly teach “How To Ask” is a major factor in why “Asking First” is not the norm.
Human beings do not like to engage in behaviors they have not seen others exhibit successfully before them. The more we SHOW how to ask, the more likely people will WANT to ask.
Imagine if every TV and movie scene with intimacy involved Asking First and open verbal communication. After a while, people would begin to “Ask First.”
In fact, you would begin to assume “Asking First” is the accepted way most people engage in sexual activity.
Why is it so difficult for some men to accept “No” when a woman says she does NOT want to engage in intimate relations with him?
You have three major factors:
- All genders are raised in a culture of Nike’s famous slogan “Just Do It!” and other clichés such as “Its easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
Conquering and winning is unfortunately incorporated into many peoples’ views of intimacy. If you are focused on “conquering” or “getting some,” then when your partner says, “No,” in an intimate moment, you are likely to immediately jump to “How do I change the ‘No’ to a ‘Yes’?” INSTEAD of honoring the choice of “No.”
- An ego-focused culture makes every situation about you and not your partner.
Thus, each person goes after what he/she wants – regardless of what the other person wants.
For this reason, our programs put the focus back on “YOU are two people SHARING an experience. Shouldn’t you BOTH have an equal voice?"Audiences of all ages agree the answer is “Yes” – no one has ever reinforced that belief on a consistent basis or has not given them the skills to live their lives as equals.
- How to handle “rejection.”
Too often parents and education tells students, “Do the Right Thing” and then fail to give students the details of “HOW” – including how to respectfully respond to hearing “No” in intimacy.
Give people the right tools for handling “Yes” and “No” – AND they will WANT to use the tools. Students in our shows overwhelmingly say they are more likely to Ask First because we have taught them HOW to handle the “No.”
How difficult is it for both women and men to learn to expect respect from each other? What steps need to be taken and/or overcome to arrive at point where expecting respect from one another becomes more natural and acceptable In society?
Lessons of respect begin at the earliest of ages in the home and then again at school.
Teaching to “Ask First” before touching anyone or anything is essential.
Plus, we must teach parents to ASK CHILDREN FIRST before kissing, hugging, and assuming intimacy.
You can’t tell your children, “Give Grandma a kiss now” and then turn around say, “Never do anything with your body you don’t want to do.
Always make your partners “ask first.”
Forcing a child to kiss Grandma is a horrible lesson they keep with them for life.
What is so horrible about the lesson?
If you love someone, you give the person intimacy whether you want to or not.
Have attitudes changed at all over the past couple of decades since you began speaking publicly about sexual assault?
Yes, people are much more aware of sexual assault and supportive of efforts.
Where we still need a great deal of change to occur is with understanding how to properly make decisions of respect and boundaries with one’s own body and with the bodies of partners.
In addition, we need to teach more group intervention in dangerous situations. Group Intervention is your group of friends intervening when they see someone trying to use alcohol to facilitate a sexual assault.
Intervening as a group is much easier than one person trying by themselves. Often people find strength in numbers.
In your book, May I Kiss You?, you begin with The Look – how women and men depend on each others' body language to try and guess what the other “wants”, or might be thinking about the other. How dangerous is this?
Incredibly dangerous, because you are guessing with another person’s body and boundaries.
For those who say, “If they don’t want it, they can tell me to stop” – if YOU are doing the touching, YOU are responsible for your actions. You better know whether your touch was wanted.
Otherwise, you have engaged in unwanted sexual activity that is YOUR FAULT. After all, you did the touching without requesting consent.
Your next chapter in May I Kiss You? discusses the importance of asking for consent before engaging in an intimate act, and for both women and men to talk to each other about what they want, or don't want. You recommend your readers ask others who have experience in showing respect for their partners in asking; but how does one begin to ask if he or she is not sure if that person has been respectful?
Ask other couples if they verbally discuss their sexual wants and needs with each other. If someone says, “No,” then you can ask them, “Why not” if you want to help them learn how.
Otherwise you can move on until you meet someone who says, “Absolutely YES!”
Are there appropriate words you can suggest which we could say to a sexual assault survivor? Many times, people want to say something, but are afraid to offend the person, say the “wrong” words, or just sound “stupid”.
As we share on page 48 in the book May I Kiss You?, when someone shares he/she is a survivor, you can start with “Thank you for sharing. Clearly, you are a strong and courageous individual. What can I do to be of support?”
What would you say are the most constructive ways to support sexual assault survivors?
Share the options which are available to them [counseling, moral support, whatever you can
provide – meals, transportation, etc.] and let them know you are present for them on their terms.
Never try to push a survivor into talking before he/she is ready.
Someone else already tried to take control away from the survivor. You don’t want to do the same.
From your personal experience, what issues do loved ones of a sexual assault survivor find themselves dealing with? What preconceptions about sexual assault did you have to overcome?
Revenge is an emotion which grabs many family members and friends of survivors. You need to understand getting revenge will only make matters worse, especially for the survivor (who is the person you should be focused on – NOT the rapist).
Instead, focus on how you can help the survivor and/or get involved in trying to reduce sexual violence in your community.
The feeling of guilt is often experienced by loved ones of a survivor – that you should have been able to “protect” your family member and/or friend.
Life simply doesn’t work that way. You cannot guarantee the safety of any human being (not even yourself).
Often, family members provide options for the survivor to get support and forget to seek support for themselves. You deserve to talk with someone who can help you find the right path for yourself dealing with the emotions and thoughts you are having, especially if a survivor has talked to you in complete confidence.
How has your sister recovered after all these years since her sexual assault? And how does she view your activism?
My sister is doing incredibly well. She is a wonderful example of the strength and courage inside of every survivor.
In addition to running her own business, she has been married for 16 years and has five children.
As for my work, Cheri has told me, “I believe in some way I was chosen to be a survivor so you could make a difference.”
Cheri is a great example of someone finding the positive in the most difficult of life’s moments.
When people ask me, “How can you travel so often to present your 'Can I Kiss You?' and your 'HELP! My Teen Is Dating' program over a hundred times a year?” – my answer is simple, “When you are inspired by amazing survivors, your motivation never lessens. You are simply excited to get to the next city to the have the opportunity to help inspire more positive change.”
You've written educational materials on teen dating – what do you say to panicked parents who find out their daughter is dating? Do you have concerned parents also inquiring about sons dating? What are their most pressing concerns and what do you tell them?
We hear from parents of sons and daughters.
Regardless of gender, discussing dating and sexual decision-making with your children is essential. If you don’t have the conversation, they will get the information from someone else – typically their peers.
Who do you want to have the greatest impact? You or a 15 year-old friend who is still a child?
As for their most pressing concerns, the questions are never ending. For this reason, we created the award-winning DVD for parents titled: HELP! My Teen Is Dating. Real Solutions to Tough Conversations.
No one article can provide all the answers parents are seeking and a book cannot SHOW you precisely how to handle certain situations like a DVD can.
You also give presentations to military personnel? Did you see a need within the military to speak there? What problems do sexual assault survivors face within the military culture/system?
The military is an extension of our general society.
For instance, the same issues occurring on college campuses are occurring in the military for 18 – 24 year olds. The good news is our military has taken a more proactive approach to the issue over the past 7 years.
In addition to the military bringing our 'Can I Kiss You?” program to the men and women serving, the military also brings the program to the dependents of those serving (middle school and high school students).
Plus, they have me host workshops for parents on military installations. Thus, taking a holistic approach to reducing sexual assault.
Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) are involved with each military installation to help bring survivors the support they deserve.
As a busy author, speaker, and father, you have a lot on your plate! Do you have new projects on the horizon?
We are always looking for more ways to reach parents.
When children are ages 0-9 years old, you can find parents reading books and magazines. When they get into middle school, many parents become less engaged with learning how to be a parent – ironically at a time when parenting can be its most difficult.
A failure of parents and teens to really share and talk with each other. Thus, upcoming projects are focusing on helping us connect with more parents to provide them with helpful resources.
The Date Safe Project will be looking to expand even more into an international presence (programs for schools overseas and on various continents). If you have ideas and/or contacts, please let us know.
The most important move going forward is the belief system we hold dearly – LISTENING to what people, society, activists, educational institutions, families, the military, and others need and want from us here at The Date Safe Project to help create a greater impact for everyone.
Keep The Conversation Going
Final thoughts you'd like to impress upon our readers?
When during the day today have you talked to a parent of a teenager about how specific they are in talking with their children about respect, consent, and sexual decision-making?
Help your family, friends and colleagues realize the importance for these needed conversations to take place.
Let them know about the free video clips we make available to parents at www.DateSafeProject.org/parents for helping them start and maintain such discussions.