After some freshman counselors questioned the content of the “sexual consent” workshops they were expected to lead for freshmen Thursday night, masters and deans stepped in to teach the material instead.
Melanie Boyd ’90, special advisor to the dean of Yale College on gender issues, instructed freshman counselors last Thursday on how to facilitate a “consent and communication” workshop in each residential college using materials Boyd had designed. The workshop was to be the first of many discussions freshmen will have this fall regarding sexual misconduct. But after several freshman counselors told administrators they felt uncomfortable presenting the material — including a clarified definition of “sexual consent” — the counselors’ role was limited to leading small group break-out sessions.
“I talked about this with other frocos, and the way ‘consent’ was worded gave the impression that [a negative] sexual culture at Yale pervaded the campus and that it’s impossible to avoid,” said Louis Gilbert ’12, a freshman counselor in Branford College.
An excerpt from the Undergraduate Regulations on sexual consent was distributed to freshmen at the Thursday night workshops. That document defines consent as “clear, unambiguous and voluntary specific agreement between the participants to engage in sexual activity.”
Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, Yale College Dean Mary Miller and Boyd all said that this year’s revised freshman orientation was not a direct result of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ investigation into allegations that Yale’s sexual climate violates federal Title IX regulations. But Boyd acknowledged that some conversations between administrators that occurred because of the investigation have influenced orientation.
Gentry said Yale tweaked its definition of consent after Boyd consulted extensively with “other experts” and peer institutions over the summer.
Boyd told the News in March that the practice of obtaining consent may not always correspond with the way sexual encounters actually unfold. When interviewed Thursday, Boyd said the definition of consent presented to the class of 2015 is not new.
“The definition of sexual consent was rewritten over the summer, but only to put it into clearer words,” Boyd said. “As before, we strongly encourage but do not require verbal consent.”
Five of eight freshmen interviewed after the consent workshops said they believe Yale College’s definition of consent is unrealistic. Keren Abreu ’15 said she thinks many sexual encounters on college campuses take place when students are under the influence of alcohol, but the Undergraduate Regulations state that a person “mentally or physically incapacitated” automatically cannot grant consent.
She added that the informal, small group discussions with freshman counselors helped her better understand the issue.
The information presented to freshmen at Thursday night’s meeting included several tips to prevent sexual misconduct, such as, “Don’t disappear; don’t abandon each other,” “Be wary of anyone who seems in a hurry to get you alone” and “The causal problem is coercion and violence, not vulnerability.”
Gilbert said many freshman counselors did not feel comfortable reading the College’s consent curriculum to their groups.
“A lot of freshmen counselors were not happy for a number of reasons. A lot of them felt awkward having that conversation directly with the freshmen,” Gilbert said. “The way it was initially presented is that we were going to have to read from a script. A lot of us felt that it was hard to really convey anything, and that we were being used by the administration. They had this clear agenda.”
Miller said that Yale is always working to improve its freshman orientation, adding that the Office for Civil Rights had not directed Yale to change the program.
Yale College was taking steps to reform sexual misconduct and prevention education before 16 Yale students and alumni filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights on March 15.
The Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Education and Prevention, which Yale convened after Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanted offensive slurs on Old Campus in October, released a report March 2 that called for all registered student organizations to send representatives to a series of workshops on sexual misconduct prevention starting this fall. Miller said her office would hire 36 undergraduates to lead these sessions, which the extracurricular representatives will have to attend in order to register their organizations.
The report also advocated improvements to sexual misconduct education during freshman orientation, and recommended that the University form a non-disciplinary standing committee on sexual misconduct.
Miller said the exact charge of this standing committee will not be determined until the new University-Wide Committee, which is a disciplinary body, is more firmly established.
The University-Wide Committee went into effect July 1.
Jordi Gassó, Gavan Gideon and Sam Greenberg contributed reporting.