Colleges Are Doing a Shitty Job of Teaching Consent
They're spending more—but the message isn't evolving.
Guille Faingold / Stocksy
For many, freshman year is a two-semester long haze of cheap beer, squeaky dorm bunkbed sex, and fidgeting in class due to social overstimulation. Along with mastering the art of all-nighters and getting Chipotle to take your meal card, are freshmen also gaining sexual health skills before they graduate? Do they know about condom vending machines and affirmative consent? Or do these much-needed conversations surrounding "no means no" dissipate once fall semester begins?
Colleges have increased spending (an average of five new staffers in the past few years) to combat sexual assault on campus, the Washington Post reports, in response to new findings that 20 percent of female undergrads were victims of sexual misconduct. This stat doesn't even account for the incidents gone unreported. With news of a college lecturer raping a graduate student to the lingering disgust of Brock Turner's light sentence for rape, many students wonder whether there's enough consent education incorporated during freshman year, an incubator year where they're still trying to navigate their new faux grown-up life.
Anais Perez, a sophomore at Cal State University Long Beach, finds that the topic is treated with over-the-top fragility, as if people her age have never heard of a vagina before. Her freshman orientation class spent roughly 15 minutes on the sexual health and consent component. "They ushered us into a room with a projector and warned of a touchy topic and that if any of us were uncomfortable with the topic [could] step out at any time." She says students were required to watch two videos, one about bystander intervention and sexual assault, and the other was a consent video using the janky analogy of tea.
There was a discussion session after the first video, but Perez felt as though it was awkward and brief because there wasn't much participation from students or the presenter. "Once the videos were done, we left with not a word of it again….The videos were okay, but it felt like we rushed discussion so as to keep people from feeling too uncomfortable." Much of the orientation seemed to focus more on academic success rather than personal life, consent, or birth control options, Perez explains.
Other students at CSULB say that while the university provides enough violence prevention—they haven't "seen any sort of altercations occur on or off campus"—it may have been more effective if there was an emphasis on the severity of issues like sexual assault through real-life testimonies and scenarios from the student body.
Sometimes a more engaging medium is necessary to get students to listen. Brady Root, prevention education coordinator for the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers, helped coordinate the SCREAM Theater Program, which uses improv theater to educate students about issues relating to sexual violence, bystander intervention, violence prevention, and consent. "We believe the programming and messaging must remain consistent after orientation," Root says.
At Indiana University, Mark Rich, a sophomore and former orientation leader says his university incorporates consent education and sexual assault scenarios through a student-led musical, "Welcome to College: A Musical." After the musical, orientation leaders facilitate a discussion, debrief and break into small groups to talk about some of the scenes from the musical. "After every session, I felt that all students walked away with complete knowledge and understanding of sexual health on our campus and as a whole."
Ryan Sanchez, a student and freshman orientation advisor at CSULB, says in the past few years since he's been involved with the program, it has evolved to incorporate more talks surrounding consent education in part from student feedback and conversations among other advisors on how to enhance the curriculum. "We hit consent a little harder over the last two years as opposed to when I first started. When I first started, it was briefly mentioned and the following year, we included it a little more and more intentionally."
Across the country at Penn State, Paul Apicella, director at the office of sexual misconduct prevention and response says consent education is delivered on different platforms, through a tiered approach. All first-year and new transfer students are required to take online modules that discuss alcohol consumption and healthy behavior, and sexual violence and assault. In 2015, the university held a task force and climate survey that looked into the issue of sexual misconduct on campus and made recommendations for improvement.
Alexis Campos (who prefers to use an alias), a senior at University of La Verne in California, says she's witnessed a heightened level of sexual health and consent awareness on campus. "In response to current events and things happening like Brock Turner, and sexual misconduct happening on other campuses, our [administrators] responded and said, 'let's talk about it,' says Campos, who adds there seems to be more events this year that are geared toward talking about consent education.
Though Campos appreciates the campus' efforts to promote sexual health awareness, she says she still received much of her sexual health education through conversations with her sorority sisters, as well as her personal experiences. "I established what consent means, and what I was comfortable with, through social interactions rather than university programs and resources and orientation."
Conversations about safe sex, bystander intervention, sexual assault prevention, and affirmative consent are discussed during orientation and throughout the school year through various campus workshops and programs, says Loretta Rahmani, the dean of student affairs at the University of La Verne. The campus student health center also provides information about safe sex and STD testing, Rahmani says.
Every administrator contacted for this piece stressed that they have a robust sex ed plan for freshmen. But while learning about how to put a condom on is great, the more pressing issue might be a more extensive conversation about knowing when to back off a sexual situation that isn't clearly consensual, regardless of how intoxication can blur boundaries. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are approximately 327 active sexual assault investigations on campuses across the US.
Daren Rikio Mooko, associate dean and Title IX coordinator, helped lead a portion of orientation for all new and incoming students at Pomona College last August. Mooko had a more pronounced concern for teaching consent: "I think the discussion on sexual violence on campus is the very first thing we do during orientation, aside from move-in day," he says. Before students arrive to school, they are also required to complete the online Title IX training otherwise, they can't register for classes.
During the orientation, Mooko helped go over the definition of affirmative consent along with university policy and campus resources. "The lack of a 'no' or the lack of physical resistance does not equate consent. Consent is 'yes,'" he says.