Campus | June 13, 2016 at 6:00 pm

Combatting Sexual Assault: Consent Classes at Harvard

By and

Consent should be simple. As a popular tea analogy makes clear, “if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea…then how hard is it to understand it when it comes to sex?” Indeed, when we talk about sexual consent, it can be easy to assume that everything is straightforward and intuitive. Yet a sexual conduct survey released earlier this year revealed that the seemingly intuitive logic doesn’t always play out in real life. The survey reported troublingly high rates of sexual assault at 26 undergraduate colleges, including Harvard. The report has also prompted Harvard to consider a variety of strategies geared towards reducing sexual assault. The recent sexual assault case at Stanford has sparked a national dialogue—but few comprehensive solutions have emerged.

One idea, spearheaded by Harvard’s Consent Advocates & Relationship Advocates (CARE), is to offer consent classes. These workshops are especially salient in light of the Undergraduate Council mandating sexual assault training for certain clubs that receive UC funding. CARE is even looking to make consent classes mandatory for upperclassmen houses. While most students agree that trainings should be mandatory, there is less of a consensus on how these trainings should be structured. Fortunately, the HPR had the opportunity to sit in on one of CARE’s recent consent classes in Adams House. We share our overall impressions of the workshop and suggestions for other organizations that wish to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault.

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Why You Do Need Consent Lessons

Despite all the initiatives, there are some students that are skeptical of consent classes. A popular Tab article titled “Why I don’t need consent lessons” argues that consent classes are patronizing and ineffective. The author, George Lawlor, a student of Warwick University, claims that “any decent, empathetic human beings” understands that “yes means yes” and “no means no.” However, it seems unlikely to us that the 11.7 percent of students who report nonconsensual sexual contact are encountering indecent humans who lack the capacity for empathy or morality. Lawlor also argues that consent classes are “full of people pointing out the obvious, thinking they’ve saved the world.”

Fortunately, that is not the approach that CARE takes. The workshops delve into many nuanced and rarely discussed aspects of consent. For instance, CARE’s consent definition intentionally differs from legal definitions that students are likely to encounter. Instead of focusing on the conditions in which consent is broken, CARE’s definition focuses on how to proactively ensure consent. Moreover, the definition provides two potentially original requirements for consent: it should be “enthusiastic” (as opposed to pressured or apathetic), and it should be ongoing. Not only does CARE present this definition, but their workshop consists of a dissection of the definition as it applies in real life.

“Are you still enthusiastically consenting to participate in this ongoing sexual experience?” This may be the most ideal and unambiguous way to receive consent, but it is not sexy, and therefore not a norm that everyone is likely to follow. Instead of dismissing concerns about issues of “awkwardness,” CARE responded with clever ways to ensure consent without “killing the vibe.” For instance a question like “does X feel good?” was offered as an effective way of gauging enthusiastic consent.

The CARE workshops successfully avoid the common criticisms of consent classes. They are not solely concerned with the obvious, they are not patronizing or condescending, and they are not echo chambers. Nonetheless, they are not perfect, and they are not designed to tackle every issue relating to sexual assault prevention.

Sex in the Real World: Suggestions for CARE

Sex is complicated by topics such as masculinity, femininity, and objectification. However, CARE’s workshop seemed to bypass these important concerns, focusing its attention on the issue of consent. In an interview with the HPR, CARE member Andrew O’Donohue ’18 explained why the CARE workshops do not delve into these issues: “The problem is there are so many conversations that we’d love to have, but we only have an hour.” Since the time constraint limits the scope of what CARE can achieve, it is essential to ensure that every minute of the workshop is used optimally.

While the majority of the workshop was engaging and informative, there are minutes that could be cut in favor of alternatives. For instance, the beginning of the workshop consists of groups of two to three people discussing their previous education about sex. These conversations were unstructured, which allowed them to delve into interesting topics that were nonetheless ultimately unrelated to the goal of understanding consent.

In order to teach students how to preempt or stop nonconsensual interactions, CARE should incorporate more skill-building exercises. For instance, one of the strongest aspects of the workshop was a discussion on bystander intervention. While most students would likely agree that being an active bystander is important, relatively fewer feel comfortable actually serving that role. As the CARE workshop points out, it can be awkward, embarrassing, and accusatory to walk up to someone and ask, “hey, are you sure you’re actively consenting to be part of this potential sexual encounter?” Instead, CARE offers subtle and creative ways to check-in on friends. The use of phrases like “Hey, want to grab a drink?” or “Come dance with me!” offer effective ways to make sure someone is fully capable of giving consent at the moment.

CARE may also want to consider hands-on activities that allow students to practice these skills in real-life scenarios. Swarthmore freshman Monie Deb told the HPR that one of the most effective aspects of her consent education involved a role play with “dialogues between characters that were very relatable.” It is essential to ensure that consent does not just sound good on paper—it needs to be applicable to real life. It may be especially valuable for students to practice asking for consent in romantic circumstances, because doing so is typically perceived as a weird or awkward anti-norm.

Vegas Longlois ’16, a student who attended a CARE workshop at Adams, believes that the workshops need to be expanded: “I think a lot of times all of these conversations are centered around what is going on, but not necessarily modeling how to do things right,” she told the HPR. By shortening less critical activities, CARE classes would lay out more concrete steps for obtaining unambiguous, ongoing, and enthusiastic consent through role-playing conducted by its members.

It Takes More than CARE: Alternative Solutions

Consent-oriented workshops tend to be more palatable than programs focused on discouraging potential perpetrators. Moreover, consent is arguably the most immediate culprit of college rape culture. On the other hand, the CARE workshops excluded many fundamental cultural issues such as flawed notions of masculinity, entitlement towards women’s bodies, and attitudes that treat sex as an act of dominance. These chronic problems with our sex culture deserve separate attention, potentially spearheaded by multiple student groups in conjunction with CARE. In order to be effective, classes that address those ingrained issues will need to ensure that students, especially male students, do not feel overly antagonized. Steven Hyman, the Chair of Harvard’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault, reiterated the difficulty of educating male students in a non-accusatory way: “The people who you’re most worried about easily reject those messages. And in the report I made sure that we didn’t use any buzzwords that would alienate them, although they are precisely the ones we have to reach. So we can’t talk about the patriarchy and so on,” he told the HPR.

It is crucial for consent education to target potential perpetrators without alienating them. The same is true for potential victims. UCLA student Scott Mulligan’19 highlighted these issues with UCLA’s freshman orientation on sexual assault. He told the HPR “the education is not towards the women at all. It’s all towards the dude, like hey, ‘don’t be a rapist.’ It’s never saying to young women, or young men—because men could be raped as well—don’t drink as much.” When reaching out to potential perpetrators, accusing them of morally dubious character is unlikely to keep them engaged. However, perpetrator-focused trainings are essential to identify implicit or explicit cultural biases that could lead to assault. When reaching out to potential victims, it is crucial not to perpetuate the harmful normative stereotype that people have the responsibility to dress or act a certain way to avoid rape. Yet victim-focused trainings can provide potential victims with useful strategies to lower their risk of being assaulted. Training workshops that target different groups should take these factors into account to ensure that their audiences stay engaged and open-minded.

Harvard University President Drew G. Faust convened the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault in 2014, commissioning a group of students, faculty, and administrators to offer policy recommendations on the prevention of sexual assault. The Outreach and Communications Subcommittee’s report touched upon a broad range of problems, stressing target behavior change of individual perpetrators and of Final Clubs. The report identified these groups as “perpetuat[ing] gender inequality and an unhealthy social climate.” But these prevention ideas are not reflected in freshman orientation or upperclassman workshops. Additionally, the consent classes do not publicize recommendations by the Task Force that have been implemented.

Even if the Task Force and student organizations like CARE were to collaborate more, a major dilemma remains: how many workshops about sex education and consent should Harvard mandate? Title IX Coordinator Emily Miller told the HPR that she believes that it would be most effective to provide different trainings to students each year to address specific opportunities and challenges that arise as students advance through their Harvard careers. She said, “The training that you get as an incoming student should be different than the training that you get as a rising senior.” Miller also expressed the importance of striking the right balance between providing people with information and inundating them with information to the point where they tune out and it is no longer effective, stressing, “There’s definitely a threshold.” Her assessment is echoed by Freshman Yard CARE advisor Amanda Morejon, who noted to the HPR the infeasibility of scheduling a second round of mandatory workshops for freshman in the spring after first-year students have familiarized themselves with the social atmosphere at Harvard.

Therefore, the success of extended education on healthy sexual relationships relies on voluntary participation by students. A new General Education course on sexual ethics could garner popularity, allowing students to engage with sexual harassment prevention from an academic perspective. But it remains a challenge to mobilize students to voluntarily attend movie screenings, conversations, and a plethora of other events that OSAPR regularly hosts. Student-led programs like CARE’s workshops offer a phenomenal first step in the fight against sexual assault and harassment. But in order to truly achieve broader cultural change, it will be essential for students to take advantage of optional educational resources—and apply their knowledge outside of these workshops. The national conversation about fighting rape should include more detailed proposals. It is far easier to criticize existing policies than it is to design new ones. Fortunately, CARE has taken a productive first step. While its consent classes are not perfect, they offer specific, concrete, detailed way to educate students. Activists and administrations at other universities should follow CARE’s example in the fight against sexual assault.

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