Defining consent defines you

Recent campaigns, media attention, and federal programs of sexual assault on college campuses have sparked more discussion about the definition of consent among students, faculty and administration.

It was just another night at college; at least that is what Jackie Reilly thought. A couple of girls and guys hanging out upstairs in a fraternity house together on the first night back sophomore year after a long summer apart. Jackie arrived back early to Syracuse University’s campus because she was a peer advisor participating in freshmen orientation. That night, she accepted a drink that she did not see poured. The bottom of a white Styrofoam cup and the contour of her rapist’s body in the background was her last memory.

Roughly nine hours later, Jackie lay naked in an unfamiliar bed with her rapist fully clothed hovering over her body. With no recollection of what happened the night before, Jackie looked at herself in the mirror for the first time. Hickeys that were almost black in color and bruises in the shape of fingerprints darkened her neck. The next day, Jackie and her friends tried to recount the details from that night. They told her that her rapist had separated her from the group. When they came to look for Jackie, he had locked the two of them in a room in which the assault happened. Though her friends knocked and slammed on the door repeatedly, he did not answer. In that moment, Jackie knew that she never gave consent to anything that occurred the night before.

Jackie’s story is all too familiar. According to the national non-profit organization, One in Four, Inc., one in four college women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. At the time, many do not know whether their partner is sexually assaulting them. This stems from the constantly changing definition of consent used by universities and colleges nationwide. The term “acquaintance rape” did not become popularly known until the Ms. Magazine Project on Campus Sexual Assault in 1984, which demystified the rape stereotype of the scary stranger jumping out of the bushes late at night.

Director of the Counseling Center at Syracuse University, Cory Wallack, Ph.D., explains that many of the students who come into her office today are trying to sort out whether they were even assaulted. “In some cases this is because they aren’t sure what consent is. In other cases it’s because they don’t have a clear recollection of what happened,” says Wallack. The new affirmative-consent policy recently adapted by many schools across the country has helped students clear up this confusion. “Under positive consent, a student must both verbally and by behavior agree to participate in sexual activity,” says Wallack. “This consent must occur free of coercion and the individual must be capable of making these choices, meaning not under the influence of alcohol or other substances.”

Stepping Forward

In the past year alone, many campaigns, media attention and federal programs were created to help clarify internal university investigations of sexual-assault accusations. At Yale University, a workshop is held for freshmen intended to make sure students practice continued affirmative consent for every phase of a sexual encounter. During this 90-minute workshop, a group of 15 or so freshmen act out a series of scenarios in which one student asks another out for frozen yogurt.

At first, the inviter was instructed to ask the other student out and make it clear that he or she wants to go. The student playing the recipient of the invitation was told that he or she also wants to go, but has a paper due. The prompt cards handed out to the freshmen asked them to show enthusiasm, while still declining the invitation. In the second scenario, the inviter must get the other person to go out with them. This time, the invitee does not want to go but does not want to be rude. The prompt card asked the students how they would handle this unwanted invitation, causing discomfort throughout the room, as the inviter grew increasingly persistent. The lesson illustrated to the freshmen the line between a request and a demand. This workshop reinforced newly adopted affirmative-consent policies by a growing number of universities in the United States.

In a recent shift, the age-old “no means no” changed to “yes means yes,” whether the student accused of assault got a signal of consent. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed an affirmative-consent bill, making "yes means yes" the standard at the state's colleges and university. "Yes means yes" is now part of a new conversation on campuses nationwide. Special Assistant to the Senior Vice President for Student Affairs at Loyola Marymount University, Briana Maturi, explains that LMU’s formal definition of consent is over 100 words long. This is where things begin to get confusing for students. Since the student conduct code that LMU follows is in alignment with the new affirmative-consent bill in California, the university has focused more on establishing that the student body really understands what the definition of consent is.

In order to help the student body understand what consent is, Maturi asks them to focus on four words: clear, coherent, willing and ongoing. “In order to have consent, the person has to unambiguously communicate that they’re giving their full permission or cooperation to participate in that specific sexual act,” says Maturi. The word coherent has to do with the role of alcohol and drugs. “Does this person still have reasonable decision-making? Do they still understand who, what, when, where, why and how? And are they in the state of mind where they can consent?” says Maturi. “Willing” is used to make sure that consent has not been given under pressure, force, threat or blackmail. The last word, "ongoing," confirms that the person giving consent has to give consent along each step of the way. “You could say yes to one form of sexual activity, and no to another,” says Maturi. “You could say yes yesterday, and no today.”

Maturi also oversees the program LMU CARES, Campus Awareness Resource Education Services, where she provides education and awareness for students on why bystander intervention is so important. She stresses that students and friends need to be there for each other. If someone has had too much to drink, it is OK to step in and tell him or her that it is time to go. Maturi compares bystander intervention in regards to sexual activity to drunk driving. She believes that this college-aged generation does a great job in taking car keys from a friend when they know they are too drunk to drive. It should be the same when it comes to hooking up.

LMU Cares

At Syracuse University in particular, the Greek Community took part in Sexual Assault Awareness Week from Nov. 3-7. The campaign was called "Yes Means Yes: Greeks Against Sexual Assault," alluding to the shift in the anti-rape slogan. The Panhellenic Programming Director at SU, Emily Key, believes that it is time for the campus to start talking about sexual consent. "Silence doesn't mean yes, drunk doesn't mean yes, only yes means yes," says Key. The Director at the Office of Health Promotions at Syracuse University, Katelyn Cowen, speaks on the awareness of SU's non-consensual sex policy on campus. "Our policy is very similar to 'affirmative consent' or 'yes means yes' policies that campuses are beginning to adopt," says Cowen. "The key elements of consent are that it needs to be informed, voluntary ... freely given, sober, enthusiastic, and mutual." According to Title IX Coordinator, Cynthia Maxwell Curtin, Syracuse University has been a forerunner in speaking out against sexual assault and the importance of consent. The university earned a spot on the Top 10 Colleges with the best sexual health by Trojan Condoms. Schools were ranked based on programs in education availability or contraceptive, STD and HIV Testing for students, operation and accessibility of health centers’ and quality of sexual health information and resources online.

Yes Means Yes

Educators and college administrators aren’t the only ones helping to prevent sexual assault. Mother of two college-aged kids, Lee Ann Allman, was inspired to “help alleviate the culture of confusion, fear and abuse on campus” after talking with her family. Allman recalls she and her husband becoming more aware of sexual assault on college campuses after recent news in the media surrounding the Dear Colleague letter and hearings in the Senate with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. The Dear Colleague letter, sent out by President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education, addressed that the sexual harassment of students interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and crime. This urged Allman to begin having conversations about affirmative-consent with her 19-year-old and 22-year-old. On both of her children’s campuses, they had friends who were either victims or accused of sexual assault. “They [her children] were confused about what someone was suppose to do if now they needed to be asking for affirmative-consent,” says Allman. “They didn’t know what questions they should be asking or how they should be answering them.”

Allman and her children started to brainstorm tools that could be used to help them understand. As the younger generation looks for solutions, they often look and see if there is some way that technology can answer their questions. This is how she decided to create the affirmative-consent app, Good2Go.

“One of the hurdles that we had to overcome was that it [the app] wasn’t going to be so cumbersome and complicated that young adults wouldn’t want to use it, but on the other hand, it would be a tool that would help them understand what giving consent actually meant.” After talking to a variety of college students for several months, Allman and her children came up with the final design of two questions. Before having sex, either person can open the app and have the partner answer the question: “Are we Good2Go?” The options are: “No, thanks”; “Yes, but… we need to talk”; or “I’m Good2Go.” If you answered the first question with “I’m Good2Go,” the second question is the sobriety question. As long as the person answering the question is not “Pretty Wasted,” then one of the partners enters his or her private code into the other partner’s phone. The final reminder for the app reads, “Remember! No means No! Only Yes means Yes BUT can be changed to NO at anytime!” With these tools, Allman hoped that the app would teach young adults the language of affirmative consent.

At colleges nationwide, administrators, students and faculty are speaking out about the awareness of sexual consent. This activism has forced politicians to reckon with what goes on when students have sex. Even The White House has jumped on this trend. The Obama administration has taken steps to help bring an end to campus sexual assault by sending guidance to every school district, college, and university that receives federal funding on their legal obligations to prevent and respond to sexual assault. Now, fraternities on college campuses are expected to hold training sessions about preventing sexual assault and encouraged to sign on to a campaign called “It’s On Us.”

Although many believe that these new sexual assault policies on college campuses are a step in the right direction, it speaks to a history of hidden and untold accounts of sexual assault that have been covered up by universities for decades. Sexual assault on college campuses has always happened and social actions to fix these problems have been made in the past. Education and sexuality graduate student at Columbia University, Frances Early, explains that it is particularly interesting that more people are willing to acknowledge the existence of a problem nowadays. “Maybe it’s because more cases are being reported than before, or maybe it’s that these issues are now permeating into more frequent, higher-profile cases,” says Early. “It begs the question of how many cases are still not being reported?”

The lack of questioning around the origins of accepted behavior that leads to sexual assault concerns students like Early. Campuses are small bubbles that reflect our larger society. In many ways, it is far more controlled and monitored. It is a place that facilitates the growth of the privileged youth of our society to attend college. “We need to look at these cases of sexual assault and sexual violence against students as a broader societal problem in which we have created cultural norms that promote behaviors in boys and young men to act in ways we now define as sexual assault,” says Early. “As well as the reactions from spectators that lend to solidifying an established ‘rape culture.’” If social action is to be made on addressing this issue in education, these points of discussion should happen early on. Early believes that the two different approaches to teaching Sexual Education, Comprehensive Sex Ed and Abstinence Ed, in our school system today do very little to prepare young adults to handle these issues and have the knowledge to engage in discourse. The discussions about sexual assault should be around authentic, meaningful topics that have to do less with the biological aspect of sex and more to do with sexuality and gender.

The sudden spark of discussion around the definition of consent among students, faculty and administration supports the need for campaigns, media attention and federal programs. Whether it is signing an affirmative-consent bill, defining consent in four words or creating an app to help young adults learn the language of affirmative consent, the quest for safer campuses nationwide is underway.

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