With a crisis in college sexual assaults sparking national debate, what does it take to create a campus-wide culture of consent?

The set has all of the trappings of a serious make-out scene: two college students, a couch, and the suggestion of a keg in the background, props familiar to most college graduates, whether you came of age watching Happy Days or Jersey Shore.

But as the action begins, the woman expresses discomfort as the man’s advances grow more aggressive—the dynamic shifting from mutual consent to possible coercion. That’s when two students observing from the sidelines chime in like a Greek chorus, explaining all of the things that are wrong with this picture. “What’s up with him?” the female onlooker demands, pointing to the woman’s obvious distress. “Does that seem like enthusiastic consent?”

“Mr. Suave here thinks he can change her mind because he’s just that good,” says her male counterpart.

“But she’s clearly not consenting clearly and actively…” she says, watching with approval as the young woman on the couch suggests her date step into the shower, so she can slip out the door to safety.

There are no celebrities in this clip, or even a funny cat, but this video could well be one of the most watched on college campuses this year. Part of “Not Anymore,” an interactive online training effort taking aim at the high incidence of sexual assault on college campuses, the program has just become part of the curriculum at Princeton University, the University of Iowa, and a host of other institutions. All of them are trying to keep pace with Title IX standards that compel colleges to investigate and resolve student reports of sexual assault, whether or not these incidents are reported to the police.

While these provisions have been in place for years, a rising tide of student activists have complained that many colleges aren’t taking reports of rape seriously enough—in fact, one study found that fewer than a third of sexual assault cases result in expulsion. Findings like these prompted the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to issue a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011 to clarify the obligations colleges have when it comes to creating a safe environment for all students. Currently, 86 colleges and universities are under federal investigation for concerns about how they’ve handled reports of sexual assault.

The list includes Ivy Leagues such as Harvard and Dartmouth, small liberal arts colleges including Swarthmore and Sarah Lawrence, and large public universities from the University of Michigan to University of California–Berkeley. Also on the list are 12 schools undergoing a more sweeping “compliance review,” including the University of Virginia, where a recent controversial—and later questioned—Rolling Stone report about an alleged fraternity gang rape has inspired nationwide soul-searching about why cheating among college students is often investigated more aggressively than is sexual violence.

That’s one reason why Caroline Vellenga-Buban ’17 (Monmouth, Ill.) says she has no complaints about being required to watch the “Not Anymore” training program before arriving on campus as a freshman last year. Macalester has made the program mandatory for every new student since 2007, part of a campus-wide effort to make students aware of the school’s zero tolerance policy toward sexual assault. The program also promotes the concept of affirmative consent—replacing “no means no” as the slogan of choice with the “yes means yes” definition gaining hold across college campuses. (In September, California became the first state in the nation to adopt the language as the new definition for sexual consent—a move applauded by many victims’ rights advocates.)

“It’s easy to think that because you’re on a small campus and you recognize most of the people you see everyday, that sexual assault isn’t a problem,” says Vellenga-Buban, a student coordinator of Feminists in Action/Students Together Against Rape and Sexual Assault. In fact, a study from the White House Council on Women and Girls reports that one in five women are the victims of sexual assault during their time on campus—regardless of the size of the school—and only 12 percent will report the attack. “It makes me feel reassured that Macalester’s being so proactive about this and reminding people of the risks. It makes me feel safer to know we’re all being educated about it.”

A Proactive Approach
A generation ago, many campus sexual violence prevention programs offered little more than tips for keeping track of your drink, or how to call a campus escort when leaving the library late at night. “I would say 25 years ago it was more about promoting personal safety, maybe calling in a martial arts instructor,” says Lisa Broek, associate director of health services. That model was based largely on the myth that the risks students face come from outside the campus community; more recent studies have found that nearly 90 percent of college sexual assault victims know their assailant.

While college women are still more likely to be victims of sexual assault, 15 percent of men are also victims of forced sex during their time in college. More than a quarter of college men, and more than 40 percent of college women report experiencing violent and abusive behaviors— including assault, stalking, and cyber-bullying—from someone they dated.

“The stranger myth is reassuring in a way, because it means you just have to avoid that guy,” says Keith Edwards, director of Campus Life. “It’s harder to think I have to be thoughtful about the person I’m interested in, or my lab partner, or the friend who offers to walk me back to my residence hall at night.” That’s why, over the last decade, Macalester has created a multi-tiered approach to sexual violence prevention designed to convey everything from what consent really means in an intimate relationship, to what a healthy relationship should look like, to what bystanders can do to stop sexual violence before it happens.

For transfer and first-year students, the training starts with the “Not Anymore” module that every student views before they can register for classes, and continues with “This Matters @ Mac,” a freshman orientation session that covers the college’s academic and community values. The concept of affirmative consent is addressed early on, with orientation leaders taking turns demonstrating sexy ways to ask for consent from an enthusiastic partner. The message, often repeated, is that sexual consent calls for an active and ongoing yes—affirmation that’s not possible if your partner is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. (Alcohol plays a role in 75 percent of campus assaults.)

“We really overplay it and it can be kind of silly, but the idea is to help remove some of the stigma and taboo of talking about sex,” says Maya Agata ’16 (La Crosse, Wis.), an orientation leader and a volunteer with SEXY (Students Educating X’s and Y’s), a peer-run program of the Health and Wellness Center. “It tells everyone that this is a conversation we’re going to have at Macalester. It’s not something we’re going to mention once and never talk about again.”

The potent mixture of alcohol, new faces, and unfamiliar surroundings combine to make the first 15 weeks of freshman year a particularly high-risk time for students, studies have found, which is one reason SEXY volunteers fan out to dormitory floors every fall with a program about sexual health and safety. SEXY educator Hannah Lair ’16 (Chicago) often breaks the ice by asking audience members to share their perceptions of what’s normal in the world of college sex. “I’ll ask, ‘What do you think is an average number of sexual partners?’” she says. “One…two… three?” As the numbers go up, hands start to rise—the same trend Macalester’s health and wellness center sees when they ask students to share their perceptions of marijuana and alcohol consumption on campus.

“The big myth is that college is some bacchanalian orgy, but that’s not reality at all,” says Edwards. In spite of a sexually super-charged music and media culture, the boundaries haven’t been pushed back nearly as much as some students may think. “People who are not having sex or having sex in a monogamous relationship are sometimes thinking ‘I must be weird,’ when in fact, they’re normal,” he says.

Another program that gives students a better roadmap for navigating relationships is “Consent is Mac,” a student-led campaign that encourages classmates to sign a pledge (see facing page) committing to their rights and responsibilities in intimate encounters. Among the tenets: I have the right to trust my own instincts and experiences; I have the responsibility to check my actions and decisions to make sure they are good for me and others; I have the right to change my mind whenever I want. Launched nearly a decade ago, Consent is Mac is a consistently popular program—not just because of the free T-shirt that comes with each promise.

“I think consent has become part of our culture at large,” says Alejandra Marin ’15 (Santa Ana, Calif.), who coordinates the program. Consent is Mac sponsors a popular sex trivia event every year, and posts to a tumblr blog that keeps the concept of consent at the top of students’ minds. “Just making consent part of the conversation is so important. We’ve definitely had people thank us for doing this, especially transfer students. It’s something that defines Macalester and who we are.”

Complications of Consent
As the conversation about campus sexual violence builds momentum, so too have reported cases nationwide. A 2014 study from the Washington Post found there were more than 3,900 reports of sexual offenses on college campuses in 2012, a 50 percent surge over the past three years.

“One of the challenges is that the better we are at educating students about this, the more sexual assault numbers we’re going to see,” says Edwards, who lectures widely on the subject of sexual violence prevention, and who recently served as chair of the College Student Educators International’s Commission for Social Justice Educators. “In my talks, I tell people I’m not scared of the campus where they have a high number of sexual assault reports over the last few years—but I’m petrified of the school that has none. It doesn’t mean it’s not happening— it means no one is getting the resources they need.”

Associate Dean of Students Lisa Landreman, who coordinates all of Macalester’s sexual assault prevention efforts, says her office handles about a dozen initial inquiries from students every year, about half of which proceed through an official reporting process with possible sanctions for accused students. Although Title IX complaints can include everything from criminal reports of rape to hostile classroom environments, Landreman says, “Most often it’s people who either are casually dating or haven’t chosen to date but make an agreement to have some sort of initial intimacy, and often what they’re describing is consistent until one person says, ‘Wait, I didn’t agree to this part.’”

An online reporting form and a small campus Sexual Assault Support Team are designed to provide student victims and potential perpetrators fair process and privacy. In many cases, Landreman says, the victim doesn’t want to see the accused student expelled, but also doesn’t want to see the person every day—a virtual impossibility on a campus as small as Macalester. “The challenge is that we’re a residential community and everybody knows each other,” Landreman says. “On the positive side is that people pretty universally care about this issue, they care about people being harmed in this community, and they want to prevent it.”

Direct, Delegate, Distract
Mac’s tight-knit community can be a source of strength when it comes to preventing sexual assault, one reason the college has put a growing emphasis on the value of bystander intervention. Studies suggest that one in three sexual assaults begin in the presence of a bystander who could take action to prevent the problem—skills Hannah Lair learned more about at a Green Dot Training program the college provided for student leaders.

“We talk a lot about the three D’s—direct, delegate, and distract,” says Lair, who prefers the direct approach when it comes to keeping friends safe. “If someone’s dancing on you at a party, I’m not afraid to say, ‘Are you okay with this? Is everything good?’” Delegating a potential problem to an authority figure is another strategy; causing a distraction by spilling a drink or demanding a private conversation can work just as well. “You can tell someone that their car is being stolen, or because we’re at Macalester, that their bike is being stolen,” she says. “The idea is that if you’re concerned, you need to do something. Even if you cause an awkward situation, your intentions were good.”

Lair joined a recent Continuing Conversations discussion titled “Your Defining Moment,” in which students strategized ways to help friends caught in unhealthy relationships or potentially dangerous situations, one of many conversations Mac students have been having about the topic. Every Monday, a small but growing group called Mr. M—short for Macalester Reimagines Masculinity—explores how to shift away from the “toxic masculinity” that fuels violence and sexual assault.

“I define toxic masculinity as that ‘boys will be boys’ attitude that boys are taught from a young age,” says Jake Greenberg ’17 (Boston), who says that Mr. M discussions often explore the ways sexism contributes to creating a culture of rape. “I think one of the most harmful attitudes is ‘I don’t commit sexual violence, therefore I don’t need to care,’” he says. Sexism and the potential of becoming a victim of sexual assault “is not something that hurts women every once in awhile, it affects them in different ways every day—there’s never a day when women don’t have to think about it.”

Conversations like this are a hopeful sign that campuses can turn the tide on sexual violence, says Edwards, and become safe havens for all students. “Rape may be a reality, and we need to be mindful of that, but a proactive approach asks, how are we going to stop that from happening? How are we going to learn about whom the perpetrators are? How can we educate them, how can we reach them? How are we going to change the culture?

“Those of us who’ve been doing sexual assault prevention work have long said, ‘Can you just imagine what we could do if we got the attention this issue deserves?’” he says. “Now this topic has everyone’s attention, and I think it could be transformative.”

LAURA BILLINGS COLEMAN is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.

January 23 2015

Back to top