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Yale program to shift sexual assault culture goes beyond rape prevention

Beyond Rape Prevention
June 5, 2013

BOSTON -- Here's one variation on a common scenario: A student wakes up in the middle of the night to find that her roommate has crawled into her bed and is groping her. Afraid that if she resists, he might act out and even rape her, she has sex with him.

What makes the scenario common? The fact that the woman didn't want to have sex, but still describes it as consensual. This makes it the sort of case -- like so many that unfold on campuses -- that could never be prosecuted in a student judicial system.

"I do not want to teach our students to consent, I want to teach our students to hold out for that really mutually desired moment," Melanie Boyd, a scholar on gender issues and assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University, said here Friday at the annual meeting of the American College Health Association. Boyd shared several stories of students who grudgingly accepted sexual advances because it was "easier than not" or they "wanted to be a good girlfriend" or "didn't want to be the ones who refused" -- but still considered the sex consensual.

"By just figuring out whether it's consensual," Boyd said, "we're ignoring the realities of how this stuff happens."

Making sure students know what sexual violence is and how to prevent it is of course critical on college campuses, said Boyd (whose own campus was recently fined $165,000 for by the U.S. Education Department for misreporting sexual offenses). But in doing so, she argued, many campuses are overlooking an equally if not more important step: proactively fostering a more positive sexual culture.

"It's important for us to shift our core focus away from targeting just sexual violence to thinking about consensual sex," Boyd said, "and shift from a strategy of saying, 'Here's the problem we must address,' to fostering ideals."

That means no longer thinking about rape and assault as things that happen outside a normal sexual culture.

"That separation is not accurate -- it's not accurate to the experience of our students or to the research that we have in the field, and I also don't think it's terribly useful," Boyd said. "Sexual violence is really closely tied to consensual sex."

Another example: a woman and her passed-out friend are hanging out together after a night of heavy drinking. Worried that one of the guys will take advantage of her friend, the conscious woman starts fooling around with both men in an attempt to distract them, until one starts having sex with her and the other moves over to make out with her friend.

In the woman's mind, despite her not being a willing participant in the sex, she didn't say no, so it was consensual. To address this misconception, some college health campaigns encourage students to ask for affirmative, verbal consent before having sex. But that's only dealing with part of the problem, Boyd argues.

As those examples demonstrate, "consent" within the normalized campus sexual culture is not always true consent. That's because some of the factors apparent in these situations -- power dynamics between men and women, vulnerabilities and intoxication as a way of tuning out instincts -- can be manipulated by someone who doesn't really care if they get consent or not, who can sidestep it altogether without stepping outside of the norm. (Of course, these contextual norms aren't unique to college campuses, but students report that they often dictate sexual interactions.)

In this context, on this "big, complicated, messy continuum," Boyd said, adjudicating cases in a student court becomes difficult, to say the least. "We have been arguing that there are clear answers to this, but experientially, many of our students are not seeing these clear answers."

So there's just one thing to do, Boyd says: change the contextual norms so the focus is less on stopping rape and training to recognize and ask for consent (though, of course, consent is still an issue), and more on enhancing positive experiences and training for enthusiasm.

The tenets of the new normal: self-awareness and "agency," whereby students make active choices about their sexual desires. Respect and recognition, through which students recognize the realness of other people and understand they might make different decisions or want different things. And mutual enthusiasm about sex, whereby the key question is no longer whether a student gives consent but whether he or she actually desires what's about to happen.

"It's that shifting of, can you raise those expectations to the point where things that are not tolerable stand out," Boyd said. "It's the kind of work that we're doing that's making them say, 'That's not normal.' "

At Yale, Boyd and a group of diverse, bright and enthusiastic students are doing that through the Communication and Consent Educators. Now in its second year, the CCE program is intensive and competition to get in is tough.

The students need to be capable because initiating a culture shift is far from easy. Training is extensive, and as these students are deemed mandatory reporters who must pass along assault allegations to administrators, they must understand everything from student culture and sexual violence to reporting procedures, from federal law to incident response.

The CCE runs mandatory workshops for freshmen and sophomores (on the "myth of miscommunication" for the former and on bystander intervention for the latter), and offers other opt-in workshops on topics such as healthy relationships.

It's all part of actively shifting campus norms, Boyd said.

"With newly sharp eyes, students look for patterns, practices and dynamics and see what they would want to change and think about how they would change it," she said -- always asking, what are the ideals and how do we make them realities? "They don't see it as prevention work."

Sometimes interventions are informal (redirecting troubling conversations, or agreeing to stop discussing hook-ups at brunch because the constant chatter skews reality and intensifies sexual pressures). Others take place behind-the-scenes (talking to campus publications brought an end to "slut-shaming" on a gossip website, and the groups works with campus groups and administrators to plan events).

Bigger interventions are more organized and pronounced. In some cases, the efforts focus on specific events or communities.

For example, at Yale's annual "Screw" event, students go to a dance on blind dates, drink heavily beforehand, and get stuck talking only to each other all night. Uncertainties about whether anyone's expecting sex are inevitable. So, CCE hosts the "Screwlyweds game" outside the event, where couples get two minutes to learn everything about a given topic as it pertains to their date (say, books or movies). Then they play a Newlywed Game-style quiz.

Besides keeping things lighthearted and group-focused, the activity encourages students to see their dates as real people, as opposed to just potential sex partners. The CCE also hosts mocktail parties outside Screw, where they have team members walking around getting people talking to each other.

CCE also organizes panels and exhibits targeting population-specific issues. Topics have included race and dating, sex and performance (for athletes), and faith and sexuality.

"It's breaking down all those barriers and starting conversations that people would not otherwise have," Boyd said.

Sometimes, the interventions fit into long-term goals for certain student groups. As Boyd noted, sexual violence can be a major problem in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, in part because they tend to be tightly knit. The LGBT group "admission card" is often being sexual, Boyd said. So CCE focuses on creating more non-sexualized modes of community participation, such as a "Pie Baking/World Making" event, where students bake pies (one regular and one gluten-free) and talk about what they want out of life.

"I'm not saying that we in this room.... should stop thinking about sexual violence altogether," Boyd said at ACHA. "But when we're doing prevention work and educational work, what we are talking to them about can change."

 

 

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