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.