Take Note: Mike Domitrz On Practicing Respect As A Skill And Asking "Can I Kiss You?"
After his sister was sexually assaulted in 1989, Mike Domitrz started teaching in schools about dating and intimacy with the goal of reducing sexual violence. He founded the Center for Respect in 2002, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and travels across the country to give trainings on how to build healthy relationships and support survivors of sexual assault.
WPSU'S Min Xian talked with Domitrz about consent, intimacy and respect in relationships and in the workplace. Domitrz believes respect is a kind of skill and takes practice. He says it could be as straightforward as asking someone, “Can I kiss you?”
Here's the conversation:
Min Xian: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I’m Min Xian. Mike Domitrz is the founder of the Center for Respect and author of the book, “Can I kiss you? A thought provoking look at relationships, intimacy and sexual assault.” He teaches positive communication skills, rather than telling people what not to do. He gives lectures and trainings to parents, young people, colleges and businesses on how to build healthy relationships, intervene as a bystander and support survivors of sexual assault. Mike Domitrz, welcome to Take Note.
Mike Domitrz: Thanks for having me here, Min.
Min Xian: You founded the Center for Respect in 2002. And back then it was called the date safe project. What did you set out to do?
Mike Domitrz: Yeah, originally, we were working with schools and mainly middle schools and high schools and universities at the time. And we're really talking about dating and intimacy. And our goal was to reduce sexual violence, reduce sexual assault, so to teach consent, to teach bystander intervention and supporting survivors. And what happened over time was the military caught wind of what we were doing and said, Hey, can you do this for us? And can you discuss it in these other realms and leadership, and also to married people, not just single people. So it really evolved at that time. And then now businesses are starting to realize we need to have these conversations, and we realized the date safe project was gonna harm our ability to get in some of those locations and opportunities for work with organizations, because they'd have a preconceived notion. This is only about dating. And we realized we needed to make a shift. And that's when we became the Center for Respect.
Min Xian: What was the idea behind it? What was your personal motivation?
Mike Domitrz: Yeah, for me, this has always been very personal. I started doing this work when I was 20, 21 years old. And what happened was, when I was 19, I received a phone call that the youngest of my older sisters had been raped. And I couldn't believe what I was hearing, I was outraged, I was hurt, I was lost, I was confused. And I struggled. And then I would hear a speaker on my college campus, which back then was unheard of, talking about this issue. And I thought, wait a second, I can do something about this, I can use my voice. And that's where it all began, I started speaking out, like I was saying around 20, 21, as a college student, and it grew from there.
Min Xian: What was the process like as a family member of someone who survived a sexual assault to learn to be truly supportive of survivors?
Mike Domitrz: You know, it, there weren't the resources there are today available. So you didn't have a path to figure that out, you just figured out your own way. And that's why I struggled, I found myself journaling and writing. But I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to do, I didn't know how to help myself move forward with the anger or the confusion that I was experiencing. I didn't know the exact words to say to my sister or other family members that were struggling. So at that time, it was just you just did your best to try to be loving and supportive. But there weren't the resources that are today. And that's the wonderful part. Today, there are many resources for survivors and family members and friends, what some people refer to as secondary survivors or secondary victims. There's a lot of resources out there.
Min Xian: What do you mean when you talk about respect? Why is it the one value that you choose to focus your work on?
Mike Domitrz: Yes, because if we had a culture of respect, throughout society, we wouldn't have any of these issues that society is struggling with as far as sexual violence wouldn’t exist, because you would respect everybody's boundaries, everybody's bodies, alright, the sexual harassment would not exist in the workplace, because you would respect people's boundaries. And you would respect people as human beings and not do that to them, you'd have no form of degradation. So you wouldn't have discrimination, you wouldn't have issues of people being exclusive and keeping people away or out or denying access, because everyone would be valued, they'd be seen for who they are not for trying to make them either, you don't try to fix people and you respect them. You respect them for exactly who they are. And that's why respect is at the foundation of everything we do.
Min Xian: And I want to get into the details about the work the center does in a little bit. But if I may first, ask a question that might be seemingly obvious. In general, people want respect, and people like to be respected. So why can't we just expect it to happen naturally?
Mike Domitrz: Because we don't teach it. And that's what this comes down to? Where -- think about growing up in America or in just about any society? Where do we teach specific skills on what respect means? What we tend to do is we tell children at a young age, do the right thing, be respectful, but there's no instruction set? There's no correction course when we are disrespectful, they just say, That's disrespectful. Why is it? So there's no learning the why and the how to, and that's essential. Anytime you want to create transformation. You need to teach people why this is important, why that is not okay or why we want to make this rightful choice. And you have to give them the “how to do it.”
We're very good in our society saying don't do that, but then we're not very good at giving here's what to do. Here's the opposite. Here's the really positive. That's realistic, right? Because we've all heard things we've been told to do in life and you go, Well, that's nice in theory, but it's not realistic. You also need these lessons to be realistic.
Min Xian: So instead of maybe it's just a sign or it's a catchphrase, it's really getting down to it, looking at it like a subject that needs to be practiced.
Mike Domitrz: Absolutely. And that's the part of the struggle that our country's having with consent, is they think, Hey, everyone, just get consent, and that everybody should get that. See the problem with just telling people ask. And your “yes means yes,” when you just use those, those slogans is that you're not breaking their barriers down first. And if a human being has a psychological barrier, they're not going to learn a new skill when the barriers are up, because they're not even listening really fully. So we have to break down the barriers, we have to explain why your belief that many people have that if I ask, it's gonna make it awkward. Why is that already a false myth. Right? Why that's a myth. That'd be a double negative there, right? Why that's a myth. And help them reveal that understanding of oh my gosh, I already am awkward when I go for it. So I'm not really afraid of being awkward. Correct. And once you can break that down, then they're going, well, then how would you ask? Now they're open to asking, versus just saying you need to ask, and people go, Well, I'm not gonna. And even if they don't say it out loud, they're thinking in their mind, we have to break down those barriers that are built in myths and falsehoods that are actually dangerous and unhealthy.
Min Xian: You give lectures and training on how to build healthy relationships, or in your word, amazingly, mutually amazing relationships, among other things. And one central theme that is guiding that process is asking first, so what does asking first mean? And can you give an example of how you talked to people about it?
Mike Domitrz: Yeah, we didn't go right into that. So when I ask an audience, why don't more people ask before they kiss someone? And why don't they say, may I kiss you or can I kiss you, or whatever language they want to use, we're not telling them exactly how to ask, but why don't they do it? They'll say, Well, I think it's going to be awkward. And I’ll go, Well, that's funny, because that means you would have to already believe you're smooth, right? And whenever you say it, audiences laugh of all ages like, Oh, my gosh, I know I'm not smooth, then why are you lying to yourself that the current system is protecting you from being awkward. In fact, when you go for it, it's the epitome of being awkward. And everybody in the room is like, that is true. That is so so true.
So you're not really afraid of being awkward. It's just a weak excuse we've come up with to not do the right thing, and try something different. Without having the skill set people get scared of doing that. So we make sure we give them the skill set on how to ask. The other barrier that you'll hear, Min, is that well, what if they say no? Right? Now, as soon as somebody audience says, well, we're afraid of rejection. I'll joke with the audience. I go, yeah, heaven forbid, you give them a choice. Right? And the rooms like, Oh, my gosh, that sounds awful. But that's what you just said, I'm not going to ask, because you might say no, so instead, I'm just gonna do it to you. And people are like, Whoa, that's not who I am or who I want to be. When you go for it on someone, it's who you're being in that moment. I'm not saying that's who you are as a human. But it's the action you're taking in that moment. And people are like, Oh, that is messed up.
So we have to show people the problem with these beliefs they have, the danger of them. So we can break those down. And then people go, alright, well, how could I ask, so that it's not awkward, or so that it's realistic, and I could feel safe doing that, and I could still feel confident, gives my partner a choice? So you're really breaking down the details, and then teaching how like we literally roleplay when we have an audience there, we have somebody come on stage and roleplay asking for a kiss. And people love it. Because you don't see it in TV in the movies. And so to see it live people were like wow, why was I afraid of that? That's so simple. And it's so it's beautiful to watch, when people see it happen live, they're like, Oh, my gosh, I would love that.
Min Xian: And you saying that it's giving an option by asking also make me feel like it could be kind of a power equalizer because so much about sexual assault that we read about. It's really about power and about controlling other people. And the other thing that I think would be really interesting is getting people to understand that they could be on either side of the equation, asking and being asked.
Mike Domitrz: Absolutely. And that's the powerful thing we start with, what does it feel like to be asked? And then you hear everybody in the room giving amazing answers of all genders, all sexual orientations, all identities, like oh, it feels great to be wanted. It feels great to have a choice. It feels great that they want to hear my voice in that moment. And why we start with that is in the person wondering “Should I ask?” is hearing all the positivity of what happens when you ask and it helps them feel empowered to think I do want to be on both sides of this. I want to be asked and I want to be the person asking and that's the beautiful part of it.
Now, you need to give instructions like if you just say to people go out and ask and they don't see it done, or they don't have a skill set to do it. They're still likely to freeze up in the moment without a skill set. So we're very intentional about three simple little steps for asking for a kiss. Look someone in the eye, smile, ask the question. It's that simple. Now for the person who says, Well, I once asked, and it ruined the moment we’ll say to them as well. Here's the reality, if you asked, and it ruined the moment, you never had one. And when you say that audiences are like Ouch, and true. And we have to be honest with ourselves, don't blame asking for what was a lack of a connection, or somebody wanting to kiss you. Look, if they really want it to and you look them in the eyes, you're like, may I kiss you. They're gonna love being able to say yes to that if they really wanted to kiss you.
Min Xian: You have made the point to say that it's not only just about asking, but also respecting the answer.
Mike Domitrz: Yes.
Min Xian: Because if you only ask, hoping the other person will say yes. And not having I guess the preparation in your mind that says oh, the other person might say no, then it doesn't really count as asking.
Mike Domitrz: Yeah, it definitely doesn't count as respect, right. And so if you're doing it as a strategy to “get some,” and I say that with quote unquotes, if that's what you're doing, well, then this isn't about respect. This is about manipulation, or trying to win over someone to get sex, versus I only want to do what you want to do. Right? I only want to do what we both want to do. That's a huge difference. That's a place of mutuality. Which means I ask because I really want to know you want this because I don't want to do something with you or your body that you don't absolutely want to experience. And I don't want you to try to do something with my body that I absolutely don't want to experience. If I ask, we're on equal footing here, because yeah, I'm the one who asked and presented the opportunity. But you get the choice now. So we're on equal footing, it's not me just doing this to you until the point you have to defend yourself or push me away or say stop. That's a power move. That's an arrogant move. And that's what we're talking about earlier, the play of power that happens when somebody goes for it, which is arrogance versus mutuality.
Min Xian: And all of this, about asking first got me thinking that it really stems from a culture that goes the other way, which is that you don't ask, you just go for it. Is it really difficult? And do you see how possible it is to take down that culture?
Mike Domitrz: Well, the cool thing is that when people are present at one of our programs, they're in the experience. It's amazing how much they want to do the right thing. And when they're in a program that teaches them the right thing to do, they want to do it. And so it's not difficult to have that shift that transformation take place. So what we do is at the end of the program, people go on their phones and do a survey that's anonymous, nobody is going to see who said what. And they we asked three questions after today, I am more likely to ask first before engaging in sexual intimacy. That's the first question. The numbers on that, on average, are 93% of participants either agree or strongly agree with that statement by the end of the program. Those are incredible numbers. It tells you how much people want to do the right thing out there, even if they've been taught everything wrong. They want to do the right thing. If you just give them the skills and the right mindset, they want to do the right thing. So it falls on our society to say, what are we doing to give them the right information?
Min Xian: There are a lot of contexts where the asking first rule may apply. But the most prominent one would probably be the intimacy within the intimacy context about relationships and sexual relationships. What do you think is really lacking when we think about intimacy?
Mike Domitrz: Well, what's lacking is this idea that dominance is romantic. And so what that leads to is a lack of respect, because that's about power, I have to show them I’m dominant. And that's why people go for it, I'm just gonna go for it, because that's what people find attractive. And so they put this idea of domination or dominance and power as a romantic way to treat another human being. Right. And that's the danger, this idea that I must show this form of strength, which isn't strength. And some people be like, Well, wait, they can stop me, they have the right to stop me. They shouldn't have to defend themselves from you, in a romantic or intimate moment, they should have the choice before it happens. So that mindset of dominance is romantic. It's really dangerous. Now, I'm not referring to people who consent to having like a domination experience or role play, because they're consenting, like if they sit down and go, Hey, would you like to have this role play and what would you what role would you like and what role they're agreeing to that, that's consenting to that? That's very different than somebody just going for another person's body.
Min Xian: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Mike Domitrz. He's the founder of the Center for Respect and author of the book, “Can I kiss you? A thought provoking look at relationships, intimacy and sexual assault.” He gives lectures and trainings to parents, young people, colleges and businesses on how to build healthy relationships, intravenous bystanders and support survivors of sexual assault. So often we think about consent and saying maybe it's between two strangers when you first meet each other wherever you may be, but we don't think about consent, when someone's in, say, a long term relationship, or even in marriage.
Mike Domitrz: Yeah. And that's anything we do get to discuss, because I do work with audiences of all ages, do a lot of work with the military, we now do work with businesses. And when you talk about consent in long term relationships, it's amazing how many people in long term relationships, until they are in the room hearing the discussion, never realized how much of a lack of consent they have in a marriage. And I've had people come up to me and say, today was the first time in 30 years of marriage where I realized I deserve to have a choice. And so when you say that out loud, and people realize, wait, I should have the right to say yes or no, and this isn't about them, it's my body, it suddenly helps people realize, wow, I deserve to be in a relationship, where it's mutually amazing. And it doesn't mean that everything's gonna always be mutually amazing. It means that when we engage, that's where we're focused on it being mutually amazing. And maybe it doesn't always get to amazing, but mutual is always there. And that's the key, right, that we set a goal, mutually amazing. So the worst case is it's at least mutual.
Min Xian: And you've published a book called, “Can I kiss you,” and you go around the country, giving lectures and trainings on being in great relationships are mutually amazing relationships being bystanders and supporting survivor of sexual assault, you seem very mindful of who you're speaking to, you have programs specifically for middle and high school students, colleges and universities, parents, the military, as you mentioned, and businesses. Why is that important?
Mike Domitrz: If we're going to create a culture of respect throughout society, we have to do it at all levels of society, it's critical, the younger it can happen, obviously, the better, middle school high school, teaching them to be able to set their own boundaries, honor their own boundaries, intervene when they see friends at parties, because at middle school is happening, intervening with alcohol and drugs, situations at parties, and making a difference helping survivors come forward. So it starts young. And then we do a lot of work with universities, because on university campuses, they get it. They're like, Hey, we are responsible, because they're living here. So we need to create the safest environment. Now, the military, same thing, they know they're responsible for what's happening with their military members. So the ones on the installations care deeply, that's who we get to work with. corporations, organizations is a new creature as far as coming to a wake up call of we need to be having these conversations.
Min Xian: Parenting seems to be a highlight in your advocacy of creating a culture of respect. And I'm sure parents out there feel a responsibility to explain and educate their children on what it means to have respect in relationships, what consent means and what's happening in the news in general, but maybe they're also trying to figure that out for themselves, too. So how do you talk to parents about respect and consent, and at the same time being able to teach it?
Mike Domitrz: Yeah, this is critically important. And what people forget is people are like, oh, parents are getting it all wrong. Well, nobody ever gave parents an education. When this generation of who are now parents was in school, there was no education on consent. If there was anything it was make sure you have consent, but there was no how to, and many high schools today still are not teaching this. So parents are at a bit of a lost and they're doing their best. Unfortunately, they're usually pulling from within their own library, which means what their parents taught them, that's what their library is stacked with. And so they're pulling from that which can be some really unhealthy and really dangerous messages. Like saying to your child, hey, you need to watch what you're wearing there, it might send the wrong message, which is from an old school library thinking of you tell somebody don't wear that and you won't be sexually assaulted. When the reality is there's nothing to back that up. What the person's wearing has never been in direct correlation with sexual assault happening or not happening. And so there's no truth to that, what it does lead to is victim blaming. And that leads to survivors feeling they did something wrong by what they wore, and never coming forward to anybody and most parents who want their child to come forward if they were ever sexually assaulted, by statements like that, can harm their child from ever coming forward. So we have to help them realize the danger of the old library thinking and getting those books out of our head and getting new books in our head that teach how to show Hey, no one ever has the right to do this to you, no matter what choice you make. No one has the right and having those conversations.
Min Xian: For parents who do realize that may be when they grew up, they had no resources like that are available out there today. What seems to be their concern, what seems to be the biggest challenge?
Mike Domitrz: Well, it's one if they're awake to the discussion, because a lot of parents are thinking I turned out okay, so why do I need to do anything different with my kids than what my parents did with me. The problem with that is they seem to be forgetting how awkward and uncomfortable it was at times back in the day. And they're forgetting the trauma that some of them even experience and that doesn't mean intentionally, sometimes it can be put back in the brain, and it's not there. And so what that does is assume that because I turned out, okay, my child will turn out, okay? And it's not about whether your child's going to turn out, okay? It's whether somebody could do harm to your child right now, that could be avoided if we gave them skills or that your child could do harm to somebody else. Right? And that this could be avoided if you gave them the skills, if you had discussions with them. And they need to go way past, you know, do the right thing. It's got to go past that it's got to go past don't ever touch someone without knowing they want it. You got to talk to them about how otherwise they get in the moment. They're like, well, I'm just gonna do what my friends have taught me, because I don't know how else to do this.
Min Xian: It's now about two years since the Me Too movement started, about one year after the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, where allegations of sexual assault were part of the focus on. Have you observed changes in the way our society talks about consent and supporting survivors of sexual assault?
Mike Domitrz: The one area we've seen a slight change is at the high school level. We see more high schools, I think, because parents, if there are some parents now that are aware of the discussion because of everything in the news, and want to know what their schools are doing about it. And because of that, we've seen more high schools be proactive. And we've gotten more of a demand from high schools around the country saying, Hey, can we bring you to our community? That's one area, we've seen a big difference.
In the other areas? Not yet. And people are like, well, hasn't it shifted our country? That me too? And hasn't that all shifted? Well, here's what happened when Me Too came forward, which is an incredibly powerful moment in our history, people made the mistake of saying this was a fad. This was a moment in history, Me too. Not understanding that Me too, was a reflection of our history. That's really what me too is. It's a reflection of our history, things that have already happened, that we cannot deny, that have led to these consequences. And it was an awakening of that history. But people mistakenly thought, oh, now that we're a year or two later, it's post me too, versus understanding me to was still part of us. The mistake people made was they heard these cases in the news that seemed so horrific, that they looked at them and went, that monster. And that's how they refer to the predator, that monster. Well, as soon as you do that, and you go “that monster,” everybody stops looking in the mirror themselves, because they don't believe they're monsters. So people do not look in the mirror and go, Oh, have I been part of this? Or could I have been part of this? No, they go, No, I'm not that monster. And so it actually hurts the discussion. When you think “monster,” well, we have to stop doing is looking at the monster and looking in the mirror. How have I contributed intentionally or not intentionally, you know, when some people got super defensive, like, oh, now there's going to be all these false reports, there's going to be all this, and you're going where is this, but what they're doing is they're acting on fear of if I look in the mirror, I might have to acknowledge something I did. So instead of looking in the mirror, I'll then shoot the other way and go false. This is all false. This is all overreaction, or that goes political correctness gone awry. Instead of saying, Wait a second, you're referring to respect. That's when I'm having this conversation. We're talking about respect. That's not the intention of political correctness. Political correctness, in theory, is when somebody goes above and beyond the idea of the cause, or the movement or respect to an extreme. That's not what was happening. But what's happening is people are simply saying, I deserve to be treated with respect.
Min Xian: And it's because it's so widespread, it's easy to say, this is not happening in my immediate area, and tried to distance themselves with what could be actually happening or what have happened. I mean, it's not good, but I think it's natural.
Mike Domitrz: Well, yeah, and what it is natural, right? Because we want to detach, because it's scary to think we could have done something wrong in our past or said something wrong, that could have done harm. So it's natural to want to detach, and that's where we have to be more humane. And step up and go don't attach, I need to look in the mirror and say what have I said, or what have I done because for human beings, you said things that are disrespectful. It's just part of the human process, whether intentional or unintentional. So it's acknowledging when I've done it.
When I work with companies, I'm not actually always talking about harassment at all, we could just be talking about the subtleties of disrespect in the workplace. A common one -- I'll give you three common ones, interrupt somebody in the workplace. Many people have done that one, right or at home. But we'll say in the workplace, give somebody the silent treatment. Right? This is all forms of disrespect. You act like whatever's on your phone or computer screen at the time is more important than the person who's talking to you. These are all forms of disrespect that people have engaged in at some level probably in their life. And instead of going “No, I've never done these things,” say what level or where have I done them and having that honest conversation. And the problem was because we saw celebrities and CEOs of multi billion dollar companies. Nobody was hearing about their boss being fired for this. So it wasn't on a personal level. And that's where I talked about the monster versus the mirror, the monster, it's all everything's out there, everything's happening out there versus in my town, in my home. There's a huge difference when that shift happens.
Min Xian: Consent is a word that appears a lot. But it remains somewhat ambiguous. Even though some states have legal definitions. They're not all the same. And not everyone agrees with them. In any given situation, two people may look at it and conclude very differently on whether there is consent. Why do you think consent is such a difficult topic?
Mike Domitrz: Because we won’t define it, just what you just said, the laws are different in every state. People are teaching it differently on college campuses from campus to campus. So there's no consistency. And the problem for the longest time is that legally, it was focused on the concept of permission. Well, the problem with permission is, I'm just trying to get you to say yes, that doesn't mean you want to do it. Right. So I'm just trying to get you to say yes, potentially, that's not healthy.
So when we define consent, when I'm with an audience, I'm very upfront. I go, look, I'm about to define it to you. This isn't the legal definition. This isn't necessarily your school's protocol or in your guidebooks. But if you live by what I'm about to describe, you won't have to worry about any of those things. And it's about being humane to all parties involved. So here's the definition, one mutually wanted. That means we're not doing anything we both don't want to do now, right then and there. You've changed the whole conversation, because it's not just about permission. It's about mutually wanted. Enthusiastically given. Which means if I say, do you want to do this, and you're like, well, I guess, okay, well, that doesn't sound like you want to do that. That doesn't sound like you're comfortable with what's happening. So I want to know, you want this. It's also in the moment, which means if my partner says, Hey, tonight at 11, let's have fun. And then we're alone at 11 about to do something. And one of us is like, I'm not in the mood anymore, you don't owe them because you said five hours before Yes. The yes needs to be in the moment and it needs to be ongoing. Which means if five minutes in one of us isn't enjoying it, we could go on, I want to stop, that just isn't working. And we go okay, not “well, why not?” Or you can't do that to me. I'm all worked up. No, you don't owe me anything with your body.
So this definition of having a conversation that's enthusiastic given, mutually wanted, ongoing, in the moment between partners of legal age and sound mind. If you practice that, right, then you're going to be in a great, great experience as far as you're more likely to be in a place where all partners are being respected.
Min Xian: Mike Domitrz, thank you so much for joining us on Take Note.
Mike Domitrz: Well, thank you, Min, for having me on.
Min Xian: Mike Domitrz is the founder of the Center for Respect and author of the book, “Can I kiss you? A thought provoking look at relationships, intimacy and sexual assault.” He teaches positive communication skills rather than telling people what not to do. He gives lectures and trainings to parents, young people, colleges and businesses on how to build healthy relationships, intravenous bystanders, and support survivors of sexual assault.
/You can listen to more Take Note interviews on WPSU.org/TakeNote. I’m Min Xian, WPSU.