Two weeks ago, the University of Dallas community received an email from Sheryl Dellinger, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, outlining a campaign dubbed “It’s On Us,” which is a “national movement to end sexual assault.”
The campaign asked “everyone — students, community leaders, parents, organizations, and companies — to step up and realize that the conversation changes with us. It’s a rallying cry to be a part of the solution.”
The campaign was said to be built on three pillars: consent education, increasing bystander intervention, and creating an environment that supports survivors.
The campaign pledge, which students were asked to take in exchange for a free t-shirt, requested students “To RECOGNIZE that non-consensual sex is sexual assault. To IDENTIFY situations in which sexual assault may occur. To INTERVENE in situations where consent has not or cannot be given. To CREATE an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.”
While seemingly harmless, the problem is that these “solutions” don’t fully take into account or understand the complexity of human beings and their interactions. In effect, the solutions that follow from these pillars are weak and ambiguous at best.
The first pillar, consent education, fails in two ways. Rhetorically, it insults the audience by assuming that the UD community doesn’t understand the basic concept that non-consensual sex is sexual assault. Substantially, it fails to understand that consent becomes difficult to determine within the context of actual social interaction.
Human beings communicate in many different ways which are far from being clear and well-defined. This is especially true regarding sexual encounters where both parties often prefer to communicate via body language rather than words. Combine this with the consumption of alcohol, and the ability to determine whether consent has been given becomes a very difficult task. The point being that consent is a rather unwieldy measuring tool when applied to sexual behavior in humans.
This follows into the second pillar, increasing bystander intervention, where consent often becomes even harder to judge from a second or even third person’s perspective. Often times, situations are misread or seen in differing perspectives. This added element can infuse even more confusion into an already complicated situation.
The third and final pillar again insults students by assuming that they don’t already wish to create an environment where victims are supported and sexual assault is unacceptable. In addition, anyone who does not support this type of environment will most definitely not change their mind thanks to awareness campaigns such as “It’s On Us.”
While the campaign presents solutions that are ambiguous and ineffective in nature, its core failing occurs in its trajectory. 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.
The problem of sexual assault, at its core, is a perversion of human nature. A desire to objectify and use other human beings for one’s own pleasures. Consent says nothing about this basic truth. Rather, it often seems to create a false dichotomy that non-consensual sex is wrong while consensual sex is fine.
As Catholics, and as people with a deeper understanding of human sexuality, we understand the dignity of every person. We understand that no person should ever use another no matter the context of consent. This deep yet basic truth has been lost in our society in a sea of pornography, promiscuity and sexual perversion. By failing to stand up to society’s faulty understanding of sexuality and remaining silent on core issues which lead to sexual assault, the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) and the student volunteers have missed a great opportunity to make a real change on our campus and in our world.
A suggestion to the Office of Student Affairs: “Us” includes you too.
Note: The contents of this article have been edited since its original posting in order to remove an unsupported statement.