A week ago, videotape was released of the Republican presidential candidate talking about some of the perks of being a star. By now, we’ve all seen the tape, and witnessed brutal knock-down, drag-out internet fights over his words. There is no need to rehash the conversation and its subsequent fallout. The past week, United States politics has reached a decidedly low point. Not just name calling and finger pointing, but vitriol, and in some cases genuine hate.

If you can believe it, I’m here to talk about the upside of last week’s debacle, because I believe there is one. I’ve worked in health care since 1998, and been a sexuality educator since 2008. For all of those years, I’ve talked endlessly about consent. Relentlessly, some would say.

At first, I was talking about consent in health care, advocating that doctors and nurses always explain a procedure (including its risks and benefits) and then ask if they could perform it. Later, I started talking about obtaining consent before having sex. Like most women in America, I have been on the receiving end of non-consensual sexual contact more than once. As I really dug into my work as a sexuality educator, my understanding of consent deepened. It turns out that you don’t just need consent before having sex with a person, but also before groping, kissing, and even hugging them.

The fact that so much touching happens without express consent is the result of living in a rape culture. I think some folks reject the notion of “rape culture” because they believe it implies that every man is a rapist, and that every woman will be raped. But rape culture is not simply about the action of rape.

It’s actually more like a rope made up of thousands of strands twisted together, each one lending strength to the whole. In general, rape culture is a widespread set of beliefs that makes it difficult for vulnerable people (often women, but not always) to say no to unwanted contact, while also encouraging powerful people (often men, but not always) to put their own wants and desires first. Some of the strands of that rope are:

• Telling our daughters that the boy is picking on them because he likes her.

• Emphasizing the importance of male physical strength.

• School dress codes that place responsibility for male academic success on the female.

• Telling our children they have to hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to.

• Portraying stolen kisses as romantic.

• Believing that men can’t control their sexual desires.

• Chastity rituals that put fathers in charge of a young woman’s sexuality.

• Asking what a woman was wearing, what she was drinking, where she was walking when she was attacked.

• Catcalling in the streets.

• Classes, articles, and lectures that teach women how to avoid being raped.

• An entire entertainment industry that idealizes stalking and harassment as a useful relationship tool.

• The concept of virginity and purity, and the way it implies that we lose value when we’ve had sex.

All of these, and more, create a system in which some people have power and authority (but little self control), and other people have to remain constantly vigilant against attack by those people. Rape culture is insidious because it’s not just about rape. It’s being told to “smile more” and “lighten up.” It’s dressing perfectly to attract the right amount and the right kind of attention. It’s the “friend zone,” which implies that all male-female friendships must evolve to sex at some point, or it’s been a waste of time.

So, when a problem grows until it’s systemic, how do we undo it? I think we start with two very basic things. First of all, we need to talk about it. We can thank this year’s presidential race for bringing it up. We’ve heard the media use the words consent, assault, and rape culture more in the last week than ever before. The actions described on the tape are reprehensible, but the tape itself has served a noble purpose. It got us talking, frankly and explicitly.

The second step to turning the tide of rape culture is to look at ourselves, each one of us, very carefully. Know that you’re not always going to like what you see, and be prepared to look anyway. Are there items in the list above that made you uncomfortable, or made your roll your eyes? Why? Is it because you don’t believe those things are a problem? Or because you think we’ve moved past them, so they’re no longer a problem? Or because you’ve done things, or witnessed them, and had never thought of them as a problem? Whatever the reason, it’s time to examine our beliefs about power, gender, and entitlement, and then decide to do it differently. It’ll be a slow hike, but it’s time to start. The next generation deserves a world where each person decides what happens with their body.

You can find great information about consent for people of all ages in the zine Learning Good Consent.

Curious about cunnilingus? Anxious about anal? Do you have questions about queefs or problems with your prostate? Lucky Tomaszek is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee’s only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Send her an email at mkesex@gmail.com and she’ll get back to you with an answer.