Careful Consent

Author discusses her new book on "hookup culture" on college campuses and how universities can improve their education around sex and Title IX.

October 22, 2018
 

Ahead of the Trump administration's release of new regulations around Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal gender antidiscrimination law that governs how institutions adjudicate cases of sexual violence, Donna Freitas, a noted expert, speaker and consultant on college students and sex, and visiting associate professor at Adelphi University, has released a new book, Consent on Campus: A Manifesto (Oxford University Press). In it, she discusses the flaws around Title IX enforcement and how universities can better teach their students about consent in a realistic way.

Freitas answered some questions about her book via email.

Q: Why do you think Title IX with regard to sexual assaults failed under the Obama administration? In your book, you discuss the messiness of Title IX coordinator duties being assigned. Had this improved by the time U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos yanked the 2011 Dear Colleague letter? You say Title IX is necessary but should be the final step after an incident of sexual violence. What should colleges do to change how they operate before it reaches a complaint?

A: What’s happened with respect to Title IX since Obama is a mix. Some colleges have used Title IX pressure to educate their communities and address complaints as effectively as they can; as an opportunity to put into place important resources, people and processes to contend with systemic sexual violence and harassment -- usually this happens on the student affairs/admin side of things. Other colleges have rolled out a hodgepodge of measures designed to prove compliance and little else.

But most important of all -- and we shouldn’t need a Title IX letter to be doing this -- are preventative measures and consent education on our campuses. These measures need to be enacted outside and inside the classroom. The inside the classroom piece, in my experience, is the biggest unmet challenge. It requires the academic, faculty side of the university to contend with sexual violence and harassment as systemic, intellectually rigorous issues, worthy of faculty research and classroom time -- that’s the only way we are going to make a dent in this issue, in my opinion. But while I believe that doing education in the classroom is the most important, most effective thing we could be going, I almost never see this happening on a campus.

Q: You discuss consent policies and the requirements of some state laws and colleges that explicit verbal consent come before any sexual act. What should universities do to be, in your view, more realistic about teaching their students about consent and the way it works?

A: It’s not simply that teaching verbal consent is impractical -- it’s impoverished. The notion that consent equals yes means yes and nonconsent equals no means no is woefully inadequate. It ignores the complexities of sex, sexuality and sexual intimacy on every level. It ignores the fact that consent is about ethics -- sexual ethics; that consent gets to the heart of who we are as people in relationship, of our self-understanding as people -- or it should. We are just scratching the surface of what consent is and what it points to about our communities, ethics and social justice. Teaching verbal consent does little to address and transform systemic sexual violence. It gives our students the how but not the why of consent.

Q: What is the unhealthiest part of “hookup culture” on college campuses at the moment and how should colleges remedy it?

A: First, a culture of hooking up (not simply an individual hookup) peddles the notion that apathy toward one’s partner and within situations of sexual intimacy is “normal,” even ideal. It passes on an “anti-ethic” about sex -- the idea that sexual intimacy can occur outside of an ethical framework. We must content with the fact that such a culture presents us with a paradox with respect to consent education, because consent education, at its most foundational level, teaches us that we must practice a basic attitude of care toward our partners.

To remedy this, colleges must take a far more complex approach to consent education (as I describe above) -- the kind of complex approach that can really only happen in the classroom. It requires ongoing discussion and equally complex readings that analyze societal structures and embedded attitudes that enable and perpetuate systemic sexual violence. How could such an effort possibly occur outside the classroom?

Q: How does "hookup culture" play into the overall debate around Title IX policy?

A: What I’m talking about shouldn’t even need Title IX for us to address it. Why should we need a government law to force colleges and universities to contend with systemic sexual violence? Shouldn’t we be doing this irrespective of Title IX because our missions and identities require it of us? Isn’t that what universities are meant to do in the first place? Shouldn’t we be communities that work toward the common good -- not under threat of losing federal funding -- but because we see it as core to who we are as privileged institutions with tremendous resources for doing just this kind of work?

Q: Should colleges and universities start making efforts to unpack the stereotypes around masculinity and how it plays into sexual violence, and how should that manifest on campus?

A: Of course. We need to expand our lens on sexual violence and harassment beyond women and the LGBTQ community, to include all men. The idea that this is a “women’s issue” is as outdated as it gets. All colleges and universities should have courses that address men, boys and masculinity, and we need the subject of masculinity to begin to appear as a topic on syllabi across the disciplines -- not only in courses exclusively dedicated to its study.

Q: After your research on the culture on campuses, what concerns you about the administration’s release of Title IX regulations?

A: What would be scandalous -- truly, truly scandalous -- would be for certain colleges and universities to undo what they were forced to put into place under Obama. Can you imagine? Universities using this as an opportunity to go back to the status quo of brushing complaints under the rug (as often was the case) and turning their backs on victims and this issue? If any admin or university board members are even considering doing such a thing, they should be ashamed of themselves. The ways that colleges and universities systemically ignored this issue (over all) prior to that April 2011 Title IX letter was shameful and scandalous. To go back to that shameful, scandalous state -- I can’t let myself go there. No university should let itself go there.

I still believe in the idea of the university -- the notion that we are communities responsible for working to promote the common good. I have hope that colleges and universities will choose to do the right thing here, even when our government and its politicians are doing the wrong one on this issue in every way.

How can we not do the right thing? To not do it is to leave students and community members that depend on us vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment. How could we possibly live with ourselves?

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