Three years ago, quarterback guru Trent Dilfer invited an unlikely source to coach up his recruits of the country’s best prep QBs: Alexis Jones, then best known as a former Survivor contestant and the founder of the non-profit I Am That Girl. Dilfer and his partner Yogi Roth, the organizers of the famed Elite 11 quarterback competition, had put together a program on leadership, resilience and how to be a man for the boys in their competition, and they wanted Jones to teach them how to respect women.
“That year, when an Elite 11 quarterback had gotten into trouble with the law around sexual assault, it hit me between the eyes: ‘Man, we gotta do more. We gotta influence the influencers,’” Roth remembers, likely referring to former Florida State and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Jameis Winston. “I was thinking, ‘Who would they listen to?’ If I stood up and talked to them about manhood, and what it means to be a real man, it would be solid, but how can we really capture their hearts and minds?”
Dilfer told the teenagers in the room that they’d be hearing from “the foremost expert on manhood,” but rather than the ex-Elite 11 star they probably expected to see — Dilfer and Roth’s alumni include Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Teddy Bridgewater, Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Vince Young — Jones, a young woman with curly brown hair and an easy smile, walked into the room.
The then 31-year-old had spent the previous night cyberstalking them. “I pulled pictures of their sisters, their moms and their girlfriends from social media, and I put it in my presentation,” she says. Her main topic was consent, and she was worried that they’d stop listening once they heard the word “sex.” “Not only are they thinking ‘sex,’ they’re thinking of the hot sorority girls they want to hook up with. Suddenly, you put up pictures of their sisters, moms and girlfriends; now they’re thinking about the only girl they don’t want anyone having sex with.”
She started with the statistic that one in four women will experience sexual assault — the kind of thing people are accustomed to hearing without any kind of personalization. “The guys were like, ‘Here we go.’ Then I clicked the next slide, and I said, ‘It’s different when it’s her, huh?’” Jones had memorized all the names of the women in the slides. “‘It’s different when it’s Lauren, when it’s Jenny, when it’s Danielle…’ You talk about a visceral reaction. They’re looking at their 16-year-old sister, and she’s very different than the random chicks they’re thinking about hooking up with. You’ve activated a different part of their brain.”
Before Cosby, Ailes, Weinstein, Spacey and Lauer, there were the countless sexual assault scandals in football. They occurred at all levels of the sport — high school, college and pros — and involved the biggest names and programs: Steubenville. Baylor. Jameis Winston. Ben Roethlisberger. Darren Sharper. (And that doesn’t even account for the domestic violence claims against Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Josh Brown and Ray McDonald.) But as the first wave of charges have become usurped by a new tsunami of charges against powerful men in countless other industries, there’s a new conversation happening in football: In a society in which women are often treated as prizes for success, how do you teach young men that female bodies aren’t possessions to which they’re entitled?
“We know a lot of young men aren’t getting sex education, and they’re definitely not getting healthy relationship education,” explains Annie Clark, executive director of the non-profit End Rape On Campus. “Something I’d like to see nationally is for healthy relationship, consent and bodily autonomy education written directly into school curriculums much earlier than college orientation.”
In some places, including California and parts of Massachusetts and Virginia, they already do. But in many others, addressing the need for consent education is something that falls on the shoulders of people responsible for groups of young men — coaches, athletic directors and other leaders whose primary job duties tend to be winning games. And so, people in those roles have been looking for resources to help them avoid being the center of the next Steubenville, Baylor or Weinstein.
This — the Consent Industry — is where Jones now works. She’s a big fish in that pond, but she’s far from alone. It might still be nebulous, but it’s large enough that once scandal hits, athletic directors typically get calls from at least a dozen organizations offering to send a speaker to talk to their players. Jones’ particular approach to consent training was developed on the fly, and the techniques she used to reach teen boys aren’t necessarily what you’ll find in programs like Men Can Stop Rape or Voices Against Violence. But she liked the work, and after running I Am That Girl since she’d graduated from grad school with a master’s in communications management more than a decade earlier, she was ready for something new. So she formally launched her next initiative, ProtectHer, after coaches and athletic directors at high schools and colleges around the country saw her Elite 11 talk, which was broadcast on ESPNU.
As a result, ProtectHer is perhaps the most prominent of the consent-training programs in the country. Jones travels more than 200 days a year offering her services to high schools and colleges, and some of the biggest names in amateur football have her number saved in their phones. She’s seasoned enough that she can tell which coaches are interested in the program on its merits, and which appear to be ticking off a box. She recalls, for instance, Alabama head coach Nick Saban sitting in the front row taking notes throughout her session, while others, she says, spend the time half-asleep. Either way, her approach to teaching consent isn’t just to talk about sex — it’s to try to get young football players to think differently about the way they think about women more generally.
Still, she’s more sympathetic than not to her clients. The problem, as she sees it, is that they’re used to being treated like gods by boosters, classmates, parents and their community. And the stakes feel even higher in the digital age, with thousands of fans ready to pounce on them in real time on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram if they change their mind about which college they’ll commit to or if they fuck up on the field. “Imagine what that does to an 18-year-old psyche,” she says. “When I work with the Elite 11, who are the creme de la creme of high school quarterbacks, I always stay around for a couple of hours and listen to the very real concerns and fears around that. They don’t have the emotional resilience or coping mechanisms to not take that personally. It’s crippling to have that amount of pressure and to feel like you’re in a fishbowl.”
Sex, of course, also looms large. So much so that when Jones walks into a locker room, one of the first questions she asks is how many of them have had a girl they don’t know send them a naked selfie. Ninety percent of hands typically go in the air. “How confusing is that for an 18-year-old who’s hearing ‘respect girls’ on one hand, and then he’s getting naked selfies and vagina shots sent to him at 2 a.m. on the other,” she says. “That’s a very confusing message. I have guys who come up to me afterward and ask, ‘If she texts me in the middle of the night saying to come over, I don’t think it’s because she wants to talk. Should I not be doing that?’”
Of course, this is controversial terrain. It’s not much of a leap to label what she’s saying as victim-blaming — a bunch of harlots tempting these innocent young men with nude photos in order to entrap them. At the very least, it’s seemingly giving a free pass to any kind of self-responsibility. It’s also totally missing the context of the serial assaults (and cover-ups) that took place at Baylor, to name just one example.
But from Jones’s perspective, it’s the most effective way she’s found to address the room she’s paid to reach. “I’m absolutely a feminist, but any movement also has to think critically in looking at its weaknesses,” she explains. “And a weakness of the movement is that men felt excluded. We’re never going to see any social change if half the population doesn’t feel included.”
That larger societal pressure, Jones says, is at the root of how a lot of the young men she talks to approach women. It’s why she focuses on their issues with themselves before she tackles their issues with women. “This is the first generation that can project a version of themselves [on social media] that they don’t feel they’ll ever live up to. How do we imbue them with an authentic confidence?” she asks. “We actually can’t start at ‘Stop disrespecting women,’ because we haven’t built a generation off of genuine, self-sourced self-esteem.”
“There are so many things that you have to unfold,” she continues. “I want to talk about how we’ve been hard-wired: ‘Who are you outside of that jersey? Who are you when you take that off? Naked, right? Let’s talk about that.’ There’s always the guys who look straight down, and they’re like, ‘Damn, speaking some truth.’ So from the prevention side of things, rather than just walking in and being like, ‘Stop disrespecting women,’ you have to take the argument back to something deeper and more relatable.”
Jones is usually hired for an hourlong talk, but she says her favorite part is afterward, when she’ll stick around for sometimes as long as four hours to talk with the guys individually. She’s trying to build sincere connections in the time she gets with them, so she’ll give them her own vulnerability first. She touts her own accomplishments — the four degrees she had before she was 21; the fact that she worked with President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls; the speeches she’s given at places like Harvard; the companies she’s launched — and the expectation that all of them are supposed to give her tremendous self-confidence. (She’s also been the victim of sexual harassment from athletes herself, as in March 2016 a couple of L.A. Lakers made a number of vulgar comments and gestures at her and her mom at a stoplight in West Hollywood — her profession unbeknownst to them and theirs to her until after after the fact.)
It’s only then that she tells them what’s really going on when she’s speaking to them. “In the 15 seconds as I’m walking out [on stage], all I’m wondering is if you think I’m pretty,’” Jones says. “There’s courage in leading with vulnerability. It’s not a technique. If I don’t say that, I’ll go into an ego-driven mode of playing tough. I don’t want to play tough. I’m just as insecure as any girl they’re encountering on a college campus. I want to bring them that perspective — so much of the pressure for them is to be rich, be famous, hook up with a ton of girls. Our pressure is to be beautiful to a definition that we will never, ever achieve to get attention from men.”
When they get that, she argues, she can finally start getting them to look at their fears, worries and insecurities.
She says there’s a place for getting into the more advanced work around sex, gender and identity, but she knows her audience and the kind of barriers they’re going to have assembled before she ever finds herself in the same room with them. So when people don’t get it, she wants to challenge them, too.
“I remember in one interview, the commentator was like, ‘It’s so adorable, the work that you do.’ And I said, ‘I wouldn’t use the word ‘adorable. How about fucking confrontational?’ Because that’s what it is. The Xs and Os? That’s the easy stuff. Asking a guy point-blank, ‘Do you love you?’ That’s raw. That’s hard. And that’s the stuff that 90 percent of the people in these rooms don’t ask themselves.”