Consent education still relevant to UD

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Emergency buttons stationed around campus are wired to immediately alert the Irving Police Department of students in distress. Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

Sexual assault on college campuses is an issue we cannot overlook. That should not need repeating. Sadly it has to be repeated, over and over, along with the facts about sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in five females and one in sixteen male students suffer sexual assault during their time in college. We are fortunate to live in an age where conversation around this issue becomes louder by the day and many schools and students — if not always higher administration — are taking steps to put those statistics in the past. One such example is the national It’s On Us campaign, recently taken up by the Office of Student Affairs at the University of Dallas.  

Few things in recent months have done a better job to convince me of the glaring need for consent education than an article printed in last week’s edition of this paper, in which a writer argued against that very need. I intend here to continue the conversation by responding to that article. I would like first to address the misunderstanding of consent itself.

The author begins with the claim that the first pillar of the campaign — consent education — is insulting to students because, supposedly, everyone already understands consent. I’m surprised by this statement, because if it were true, sexual assault would be a much smaller issue.

He goes on to claim that consent education is not a useful solution for preventing sexual assault because people “communicate in many different ways which are far from being clear and well-defined,” suggesting that the conversation between prospective partners can be made too confusing by non-verbal cues, body language and alcohol.

These unfortunate statements only serve to illustrate the need for consent education. The very lack of clarity the writer describes is not an impediment to discerning whether consent has been given, it is an impediment to clear consent itself.  

I would invite anyone who is similarly confused to take a look at the definition of consent as outlined in the discussion guide It’s On Us has on their website. This guide is free to anyone with internet access, five spare minutes and a willingness to learn.

Briefly put, sexual consent must be freely given without pressure. It must be clear, verbal, mutual and continuous. This, as any assault survivor will tell you, is not up for debate. In terms of consent, all anyone is asking for is clear communication. It is not an excuse to say, “human beings communicate in complicated ways.” It does not have to be complicated. Unless under the influence of a drug or extreme tiredness, you as an adult are capable of saying outright to your prospective sexual partner, “Do you want this?” and they are capable of giving a clear verbal response.

If either party is unclear on the subject, consent has not been sufficiently given. If one or both parties are intoxicated, the situation changes significantly and consent is functionally impossible. Although qualifications vary from state to state, intoxication is legally considered to preclude sexual consent on some level throughout the United States. It seems fair to say that to strive to leave sex out of the equation where alcohol is involved, especially in a party atmosphere, is common sense.

As for the issue of bystander intervention, that is not complicated either. Trust your instincts; if you see someone who is about to be taken advantage of, you will know. If it turns out you were wrong, you cannot be faulted for trying to do the right thing. Surely the safety of others is worth risking a little social embarrassment.

Now to another issue raised in the article; why bother with consent education at all? There is a claim  in the article which I found particularly disturbing: “[The conversation around consent] often seems to create a false dichotomy that non-consensual sex is wrong while consensual sex is fine.”
I challenge you to say that to an assault victim’s face without a prick of your conscience. I understand that as Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of marriage and the sinfulness of premarital sex. However, I implore you to remember that firstly, not everyone follows those teachings, including some Catholic students. They may be doing wrong in the eyes of the Church, but that does not mean we should set aside consent as a hugely important factor in that wrongdoing. Everyone has the same right to not be raped.

Secondly, there is no denying that alcohol is a major part of our school culture, and although I enjoy those traditions as much as the next person, I am keenly aware that it creates an atmosphere where sexual assault under the influence can happen not just easily, but frequently. Anyone, practicing any level of devotion to chastity, can fall prey to this.

Therefore, yes, consent education is vastly important. Just because a movement does not directly source its motivation and information from the Catholic Church does not mean it is not good or useful. The common good may be serviced in many ways. One cannot only listen to a  priest on every topic without also taking into account the good of secular movements such as It’s On Us, which, although imperfect, is ultimately founded in respect for human dignity.

If anyone really believes that a positive and supportive environment for survivors already exists, I’m afraid you are wrong. According to the NSVRC, 90 percent of college campus sexual assault victims never report the crime. We can change this.

Junior politics and economics major Elisa Ron told me, “the campaign, for me, is a sign of solidarity with survivors. As a survivor myself, it means the world to me to know that a meaningful dialogue about these atrocities has been opened up on our campus.”

Lastly, and this I say directly to anyone who agrees with the article in the last issue: I’m sorry that you feel insulted by It’s On Us. I urge you to set aside the notion that assumptions have been made about you. You have simply been asked to listen and learn, and to be supportive of victims; that doesn’t mean anyone is doubting your ability to do so.

The Church teaches us to care for the needs of our neighbor above our own pride. Please, please remember this in discussions about sexual assault. “Us” includes everyone. It includes me, it includes the administration, it includes you. You lose nothing but ignorance by listening.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Katie,

    While I appreciate that you are continuing this very important discussion, and I believe you offer some valuable insight, I think you unfairly reduce the argument in last weeks paper to one the author was not actually making. I do not think the author was arguing against consent education in principle, but was instead arguing for a more effective sexual awareness campaign which addresses the “roots” (a perverted human nature, he argues) rather than the “symptoms” of the problem (the definition/understanding of consent, bystander awareness, etc.). This quote from the article will give you a sense of this “thesis,” so to speak: “It attempts to provide the solutions to symptoms rather than to the disease. With consent as its great standard bearer, the campaign grazes the surface of the problem rather than striking at its roots.” In other words, it is not that consent education is meaningless or irrelevant (it is, in his own words, part of the “surface of the problem”), but that a more effective sexual awareness campaign would address the deeper-set problems that are arguably the real causes of prevalent sexual assault (as opposed to a lack of education as to what consent is and is not).

    Furthermore, I think you also misunderstood the author’s intention in addressing Catholicism in regards to the sexual assault debate. It is not that the debate needs to be “sourced” by the Catholic Church in order to be “good or useful.” Instead, it is that we have the opportunity as a Catholic school to bring Catholic values and teachings into what is predominantly a secular discussion. Infusing the argument with a Catholic perspective is an opportunity to enrich it and to allow for a fuller vocabulary, so to speak, while discussing the issue. This was at least my impression of the author’s argument here. Whether or not you agree or disagree with these arguments, I think it is important when responding to another author to do their argument justice by fairly and clearly identifying and understanding it.

    Lastly, I would caution you from oversimplifying arguments/definitions that are controversial, effectually labeling anyone who disagrees with your definition or argument as ignorant or unwilling to learn/accept the facts. For example, you partially define consent as necessarily verbal, asserting it is “not up for debate,” while, in fact, there are several very good definitions of consent I have come across in my own research of this issue which do not define consent this way. The University of Michigan, for example, had a very good definition which did not necessitate verbal consent: “a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words OR actions, to engage in a particular activity.”

    In the same vein, you argue against the other author’s claim that communication can be complicated, saying, “It does not have to be complicated. Unless under the influence of a drug or extreme tiredness, you as an adult are capable of saying outright to your prospective sexual partner, ‘Do you want this?’ and they are capable of giving a clear verbal response.” This is true, but that is a big UNLESS, considering that over 80% of sexual assault cases on college campuses involve alcohol (according the the Journal of American College Health, 2009). To your credit, you do address alcohol later in your article, though you perhaps did not have time in this column to address the more complex and controversial debates surrounding it. For example, there is substantial debate on where to draw the line of one’s capability to consent when under the influence. So a person could be saying “yes” to sexual activity, but may not legally be capable of actually consenting to it. This certainly complicates communication, wouldn’t you agree? All this to say, while there are many definitional and practical elements of consent and sexual assault which I believe are, and should be, black-and-white, I believe it would be a disservice to the progressive discussion of sexual assault as a whole to preclude discussions of definitions or instances which tend to be a little more grey.

    Thank you again for continuing the discussion. I believe that these conversations are crucially important to spreading awareness.

  2. your attempt to whitewash the subject of sexual misconduct falls short. “consent education”…how ‘tidy’. when excess alcohol is involved, there is no consent ‘for or against’, but a perpetrator with the upper hand will likely take advantage of the situation. I don’t think people understand how it feels if it hasn’t happened to them. Consent Education wasn’t available to me as a UD Sophomore (Class of ’75). I wish it had been; it may have given me the support I needed to speak out about what happened, and how I was treated by fellow students afterwards. you are lucky to now be encouraged to have the discussion in order to possibly prevent putting yourself at greater risk via participation in risky behaviors. Don’t minimize the opportunity available to you now. Look at it; learn from it; honor yourself; and honor the voices of those affected.

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