Freshman workshops emphasize communication

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Photo by Joy Shan.

The new sexual misconduct prevention workshops for freshmen launched this week are drawing on recent research about sexual relationships to encourage students to listen to their instincts in social situations.

Rather than reiterating the definition of consent — the traditional approach to sexual misconduct prevention — the 75-minute workshops examine common communication patterns in social situations, according to Melanie Boyd ’90, assistant dean of student affairs. A majority of freshmen interviewed said the workshops, which centered around role-play exercises, were more engaging than sessions on sexual consent held in the fall, though some said they felt the workshops failed to deepen their understanding of the issue.

The program was announced in December as part of an administrative push to improve the campus climate amid national scrutiny of how the University addresses sexual misconduct. Pairs of communication and consent educators (CCEs), 40 undergraduates who promote sexual misconduct prevention strategies, will have led the workshop within each freshman counselor group by next Wednesday. CCEs may offer a version of the workshops to all undergraduates through their residential colleges in the future, Boyd said, adding that the workshops will likely become a part of freshman orientation next fall.

Boyd said by paying attention to social cues, students can recognize when they are making someone else uncomfortable and adjust their behavior before the situation escalates. She added that research shows that people rarely directly respond “yes” or “no” to a proposition but still communicate through other less direct phrases, as well as through body signals and tone of voice.

“We’re focusing on pressure because it is an early trouble sign,” Boyd said. “By calling attention to the dynamics of pressure, we’re hoping to help students respond at the first signs that someone is not respectful of their wishes. That pressure isn’t the same as assault, but it can be the first step in an assault.”

She added that she hopes students can “uphold a standard of mutual interest and enthusiasm” before confirming their plans.

During the role-play activities, the CCEs ask students to simulate different scenarios involving social pressure. Conor Crawford ’12, one of the CCEs, called the workshops “groundbreaking” in how they shift emphasis from the definition of consent to nonverbal signals during interactions.

People are naturally skilled at picking up behavioral cues about how their partner is feeling in a given situation, Crawford said, but they may not always trust their instincts.

“[The workshops are] really about helping freshmen realize that they have communication skills to decide whether someone is enthusiastically agreeing to what someone is asking for,” said Yemurai Mangwendeza ’13, another of the CCEs.

All nine freshmen interviewed said they understood the importance of talking about sexual misconduct, but they disagreed about whether the workshops would help them in future situations.

Monica Chen ’15 said she felt the workshop was “more pertinent” to students’ daily lives than previous discussions held for freshmen about sexual misconduct, which she said tended to focus on “worst case scenarios that don’t happen that often.” She added that she found the workshop’s emphasis on communication applicable to both sexual and non-sexual encounters.

Jadon Montero ’15, who volunteered to role-play one student pressuring another, said participating in the mock scenario demonstrated how people display their feelings through visible signals.

“The same discomfort we all felt when we simulated the situation is exactly the same discomfort you feel in the real world when people ignore social cues,” he said.

Still, four students interviewed said the workshops reviewed material they already knew. Amanda Chan ’15 said she did not think the workshops would change the behavior of students who “weren’t already concerned about consent.”

The final series of workshops will take place next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

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