STANLEY-BECKER: On sexual consent, an elaborate dance

I will be frank: If Yale intends to take sexual misconduct seriously, as it absolutely must, it should address the issue head on. So far, in freshman orientation, the University has only danced around the question — with frozen yogurt and little else.

“Do you want to go get froyo?” This was the question weighing on every freshman’s mind last weekend when the entire class was required to attend communication and consent workshops. In sessions organized by freshman counselor group, volunteers acted out a series of awkward dialogues, all surrounding a simple proposition for a late-night froyo run.

In ensuing discussion, the lessons drawn were sensible if simplistic. People communicate using nonverbal cues, and, when pressured, we often display discernible discomfort. I credit the student leaders for engaging us dynamically at least on these topics. The tone of the discussion was just right, but the issues were all wrong.

The Calendar for the Opening Days of College lays out the workshops’ aim: “The interactive sessions offer conceptual frameworks and concrete strategies: What does it look like when one person pushes at someone else’s romantic or sexual boundaries? How do you avoid doing this? How might you respond if someone puts pressure on you?”

Talk of conceptual frameworks stopped at froyo. Concrete strategies were nonexistent. And there was little mention of any boundaries, sexual or otherwise. The workshops treated the fleeting discomfort stemming from a spurned froyo invitation with more candor than the lasting harm of actual violations of sexual boundaries.

This is a real shame. The workshops were freshmen’s sole introduction to these issues and could have set the tone for honest dialogue about sexual misconduct — the forms it takes, the responsibility it imputes and the scars it leaves.

The forms it takes, for instance, can be complex. As much as we might wish it were so, a sexual encounter is not a categorical matter. Consent is messy; it falls on a spectrum, not at two extremes. Inebriation, for one, complicates the requirement for consent. If someone is too drunk to give consent verbally, sex cannot be consensual. But what if someone’s level of intoxication is difficult to gauge? What if we just don’t know?

Yale recognizes this complexity — this inability to impute clear responsibility — and offers victims of sexual misconduct two options: a formal complaint resulting in a hearing at which both parties testify or an informal complaint with no formal investigation or disciplinary measures. The former may result in punishment from the Executive Committee or beyond, while the latter may only result in the accused being asked to stay away from the victim.

Absolutely none of this was discussed at my workshop. Instead, we talked about froyo.

Perhaps an introduction to Yale’s sexual climate ought to have included a discussion of past wrongs, informing freshmen of the abuses that continue to weigh on our collegiate psyche. Most have heard by now of the infamous DKE chant. Instead of pretending such wrongs never happened, what about using them as concrete examples for our edification?

Ignorance leads people to blindly accept, or even encourage, atrocious acts of sexual violence. In Friday’s News, Courtney Hodrick cited Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd’s defense of the College’s silence on past indiscretions: “Boyd convincingly argued that to tell freshmen these are things that happen every year would perpetuate the belief that these are things that happen every year — and are therefore okay.”

This logic seems backwards. I can’t imagine how educating freshmen about past transgressions would legitimize those transgressions. What is more, these things do happen nearly every year, in some fashion or another: The 2010 DKE chant, which was a repeat of a 2006 incident: “No means yes, and yes means anal!” The 2009 “Preseason Scouting Report” ranking freshman girls based on “how many beers it would take to have sex with them.” And the 2008 incident when Zeta Psi fraternity members shouted “Dick, dick dick!” outside the Women’s Center shortly before uploading to Facebook a picture of themselves with a sign that read “We Love Yale Sluts.” These wrongdoings are not isolated, but recurring, and they leave real scars.

It’s clear that these acts are not tantamount to rape. What is also clear, though, is the powerful connection between the sexist behavior and derogatory language condoning sexual misconduct and the misconduct itself.

Changing the way we think and talk about sexual violence is the only way to prevent the deed itself. So forget the froyo and talk about the real issues at stake. This talking should begin with freshmen. We’re still waiting.

Isaac Stanley-Becker is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at isaac.stanley-becker@ yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    New consent conversation:

    May I hold your hand?
    No.
    May I put my arm around your shoulder?
    No
    May I kiss you on the cheek?
    No.
    May I kiss you on the lips?
    Yes.
    Does that mean we have a relationship?
    No.
    May I see you again?
    If you have eyes.

    PK

  • River_Tam

    “Don’t rape people, mkay?” only goes so far. A cultural change is required.

  • eli1

    How many times does it need to be clarified that the zeta guys were not chanting “dick, dick, dick,” but rather “dke, dke, dke” in order to attempt to divert the blame to their rival fraternity. The whole dick chant was a figment of some womens center board member’s imagination in order to further play the victim card. Anyway, good to see the WC has indoctrinated another generation of naive freshmen with misinformation, propaganda, scare tactimes, and the ways to play the role of “victim” most effectively. Who needs individual responsibility anyway?

    • SY10

      It really is shocking that the evil Women’s Center is teaching freshmen not to commit rape. After all, just like with all other crimes, it’s always the victim’s fault, right?

      • eli1

        Pretty sure everyone who gets into Yale already knows that commiting rape is one of the most vial and despicable offenses which can be commited. What the WC is good at is crying foul and playing the victim at every unsavory and sophmoric act commited on campus which effectively turns their actual mission of preventing rape (a very noble mission in itself) into an absolute joke.

        • metempsychosis

          Most people would be willing to agree to that nominally, sure. The problem is what their culturally formed understanding of rape is. Few people would self-identify as a rapist or sexual assailant. Some of the people who would never identify themselves that way are wrong.

          Actually, the phrase “individual responsibility” that you used is something that underlies some of the most significant and terrifying misconceptions about rape and victim-blaming. When I went through the consent and communication workshops last year, it was appalling to me to hear how many of my fellow freshmen–intelligent people! strong women! caring men!–were willing to say things like, “if she was dancing with him in a sexual way, then she’s set an expectation, and he has the right to act on that explanation unless she tells him she’s changed her mind.” Or “she should have known that she was putting herself in that situation when she agreed to leave the group with him.” It’s not that these people would disagree the the general mission of the WC to prevent rape–like you, they’d likely call it “very noble.” But they come from diffuse backgrounds and with wildly different understandings of what constitutes appropriate communication and consent.

          • SY10

            This is spot-on. One fascinating (and terrifying) fact is how many men will admit in surveys to having committed rape when the questions are framed in terms of asking them about whether they performed specific actions that constitute rape, even though most would not when asked directly if they were rapists. The public discourse on rape is so terrible, with widespread dismissal of serious acts of sexual violence as not “real” rape (think Whoopi Goldberg saying Roman Polanski wasn’t guilty of “rape rape”), that simply to assume that freshmen actually know what’s ok and what isn’t is deeply irresponsible. Of course, it’s also quite disturbing how many freshmen refuse to take presentations of this sort seriously, which suggests that the problem is less ignorance and more a strongly embedded patriarchal consciousness that requires a lot more work to change. Hence, why the Women’s Center is awesome (and I say this as someone who was not a member of it in college; heck, I’m not even a woman).

          • eli1

            I disagree with your opinions but I appreciate your responses and think you both raise many interesting points. I do like when people respond constructively to my comments instead of dismissing me as a troll (which I really try not to be).

    • siggi

      Or perhaps Yale people have problems with spelling and pronunciation?

  • The Anti-Yale

    What’s Yale supposed to do? Lose millions for non compliance? It’s a catch-22.

  • nba94

    Great article. Well written and insightful.

  • penny_lane

    Here’s a concrete strategy–it works surprisingly well and is less awkward than many will claim:

    Ask: Do you want to have sex?

    The question is only made awkward by lack of experience, I think. By the time you’re in your mid-20s, you’ve realized that questions like this help ensure a satisfied partner. Isn’t that the goal anyway?

    • River_Tam

      They say yes, but they’re drunk. Or they say yes, but they really only say that because they are emotionally vulnerable because they just broke up with their boyfriend. Or/and in the middle they start to regret it but they don’t say to stop. Or they feel pressure to have sex because they’ve been flirting all night and, hey, everyone does it. Or they initiate but then want to back out because then they’re a tease. Or he’s rough when she wanted gentle.

      None of these things are morally equivalent to violent and coercive rape, but all of them have the potential to wreak emotional havoc the woman involved (or the man, I suppose). And all of these are far more common than violent, coercive rape, especially on Yale’s campus.

  • siggi

    Isaac,

    You are more intelligent, mature, and responsible than one could expect nowadays from an Ivy League male, and more so than the Yale Administrators lording over you. In fact, of all the journalists in Ivy League newspaper whose work I have read, your work is the only one which is not junk. Yale has some hope yet (and I did not go to Yale). On the contrary, Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Penn do not have that hope.

    If a woman says that a man attacked her sexually, then the man attacked her sexually. It is the responsibility of the man, to society AND to himself, not to get himself ever to face that possibility. If that means an increase in masturbation and an uncool appearance among such cool transfers from the University of Nebraska – whoever heard of Nebraska, let alone a real university there – so be it. Such a concept is not so hard for most Ivy League students to understand, if they think with one head instead of the other. It is not too much for Richard Levin to expect that much from the students in his charge, and he should have such an expectation if he were an honorable man.

    On a slightly different topic, the Yale admissions officers have one part of their anatomy way up another part, given that they admitted somebody as a transfer, who did 4 high schools in 3 years because of a sport typically having participants who engage in sexual misconduct. Everybody involved in such a decision got his/her priority wrong. Yale is expected to have more wisdom than this. Not only was that decision stupid, it was one which appeared to copy Harvard’s stupidity. (How’s that for ultimate insult?)