On College Campuses, Consent Education is Lacking, New Book Argues

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, discussions about sexual harassment and assault are taking place in homes, workplaces and college campuses. Among the topics within the overarching conversation: how universities deal with accusations of sexual wrongdoing.

In 1972, Title IX was enacted to prohibit federally funded institutions from discriminating against students and employees based on sex. At the time, the law primarily focused on gender equity within athletics, and it wasn’t until President Barack Obama’s 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” that sexual harassment and violence was explicitly included under the sex discrimination umbrella.

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That letter stressed mandatory steps for universities to take in addressing sexual harassment and violence on college campuses. In 2013, the Campus Save Act required universities to teach all those on campus – including students and administration – to be educated in sexual misconduct prevention.

But for many, the scope of education on the topic isn’t enough. The new book “Consent on Campus: A Manifesto” argues universities and their presidents need to do more when it comes to consent education.

Joining us to discuss what universities are doing and how they can do it better is the book’s author, Donna Freitas.

Below, an excerpt from ““Consent on Campus: A Manifesto.


Dear All University Presidents ...

When I first thought about writing this book, a manifesto really, about the crisis of sexual assault on campus, someone asked me who the audience would be. I answered, only slightly joking: “Everyone.”

Pressed for a more specific response, I blurted out: “Every single college president in the United States.” When these words came out of my mouth, so forcefully and passionately, I was surprised. Until that moment I hadn’t quite realized that, yes, I wanted every college president in America to read this book. Felt that they needed to read this book.

I wanted to reach the faculty, too— that I’d already known to my core. The faculty are some of the most important and influential people on campus and in many ways are the people best positioned to address the issues at hand. And I wanted to reach the students, of course, because they are at the heart of this crisis. And the Student Affairs people, because they are my people, too; I worked in Residence Life for six years when I was a graduate student.

But perhaps the most important audience for this book, however audacious it might sound, is university presidents. I will tell you why.

I’ve spent the last decade lecturing all over the United States about my research on sex and hookup culture on campus. The campuses where the president shows up for these conversations— or any conversation with students about anything to do with sex and relationships— have completely different climates than other campuses. The faculty, too— don’t get me wrong— are tremendously important to the climate, but there is just something about the president of the college taking the time to show that she or he cares that makes an enormous difference. It empowers everyone to take up the conversation and with gusto.

I’ll give you an example— one of the most memorable of the 150 or so lectures I’ve given about sex on all types of campuses. A Catholic liberal arts college not far from Chicago invited me to give the annual lecture that the college president hosts each year in March. Prior to my visit, the president met with a faculty and staff reading group on a regular basis to discuss my book Sex and the Soul. When I arrived on campus, the president hosted a dinner with the reading group and some faculty and staff to welcome me. At one point during the dinner, he smiled, chuckled a bit, and told me: “You know, there’s a rumor going around among the students that I’m very angry you’re here.”

“Wait— what?” I asked, confused by what he meant, since he was obviously not angry and was about as welcoming and jovial as anyone I’ve met during a campus visit.

This president is also a member of a Catholic order of brothers, which is an essential piece of this story.

“Well,” he went on to explain, “the students think I am against all talk of sex, so they believe that you’re here against my wishes.” At this point everyone else at the table, the faculty and staff, chuckled along with him.

In that moment, I realized how important it was that the students— and everyone else on campus who might have doubts— know that I was at this university to lecture at the president’s invitation. On the afternoon of my talk, the hall was packed with hundreds of people, mostly students, but many faculty and staff as well.

Everyone was mixed in together— all these different members of the community sitting with each other in an effort to think and reflect about sex on campus. Somewhere around the third or fourth row was the president, wearing that same welcoming smile he’d had on his face during dinner. As I stood at the front of the lecture hall, I wondered whether the students even realized he was there. The first thing I did as I welcomed everyone was to point out who was in attendance. I asked students to raise their hands first, then student staff (the resident assistants), then professional staff (Student Affairs and Campus Ministry). Then I asked all the faculty in the room to stand up— and there were many, perhaps the most I’ve ever had at one of my lectures. I wanted the students to see, to notice, every single member of the faculty in the room, so they would also know that the faculty are people who are willing to come to the table to talk with them about sex on campus— that these faculty were open and willing conversation partners. But the last thing I did was mention the rumors I’d been told regarding the president, and I explained that he was, in fact, sitting there in the audience. Then I asked him to stand up and wave at the large crowd— which he did.

A ripple of whispers moved through the audience.

The students were fairly stunned to see him, I think. In a good way.

His presence mattered a great deal to them. It let new air into the room and allowed people to breathe, to sigh with relief, as they realized the following: The president is here at the table with us for this discussion. The president cares. The president is open. The president wants us to think about this. The president wants to think about this with us— with all of us. He is one among many possible conversation partners in our community, and his presence empowers the rest of us, gives us permission to think about this issue critically and honestly.

Showing up for an hour- long lecture may seem like such a small thing, so insignificant and not even that taxing— the president walked into the hall and sat down in a chair where the students could see him. How much, really, does that cost a president? Nearly nothing. But the impact of this act on the students was tremendous. The same goes for the presence of so many faculty. Just by being there, they told the students that thinking and talking about sex in its many and complicated dimensions was both intellectually worthy and institutionally worthy. It was something they were going to talk about and think about on this campus, and everyone would be involved, both inside the classroom and out.

I wish all campuses were like this. It’s not the answer to everything, but it goes a long way toward facilitating conversation around sexual assault and consent. And that is a conversation that needs to happen on every campus if we are going to transform our campuses for the better.

I will give you another example of the effect a college president can have, one that is less admirable, before I move on.

The preface to my first book about college campus life, Sex and the Soul, tells the story of a class I taught on dating and relationships. The students decided to produce a newspaper entirely devoted to discussing sex and hooking up on campus, and they wanted to pull every person they could into this conversation— students, faculty, staff, administration, and yes, the president. Not only did they find willing and open conversation partners everywhere they looked among their peers, Student Affairs, and Campus Ministry, but twenty-six faculty members (on a small liberal arts campus) from all disciplines, including mathematics and the sciences, agreed to devote some or all of their class time to discussing the newspaper the day it was released. This thrilled and surprised my students. BUT— and this is a big but— the president refused to see them or talk to them about it. His refusal bothered my students so much they kept returning to his office, hoping he would change his mind.

They asked for a meeting, wanting to present him with a copy of what they wrote, wanting, in so many ways, his approval— not necessarily of everything they said, but of the effort itself. They’d poured their heart and soul into this paper they offered up to the campus. Full of courage and willing to take this risk, they’d taken all the intellectual and human passion inside of them and bared themselves to their community, in the hope of transforming it for the better. And isn’t that what college is for?

The president never came around. He refused to meet with these students who had labored night and day to write smart, honest, respectful, careful, critical, and intellectually astute articles that questioned attitudes about sex and hooking up on campus; he refused to engage with students who were calling for an intergenerational conversation and reassessment of these issues in their community.

On the day their newspaper came out, the students left a copy with the president’s administrative assistant, hoping that maybe after he’d seen what they’d done he’d get in touch, but they never heard a word from him. Despite all the conversation they generated across the campus among students, faculty, and staff, it nagged at them that the president refused to be part of it. His refusal had the effect of diminishing what they’d done. It was a de facto disapproval of the conversation itself, of the attempt to bring critical discussion of sex and relationships into the classroom, into the daytime reflections and thoughts of his students.

I understand that college presidents have many forces bearing down on them, most of all from boards and wealthy alumni. Many board members and alums are business people who care more about university finances and avoiding scandal, and they may regard sex as a flashpoint for potential damage to the institution’s reputation, and therefore a topic to be avoided at all costs. But, regardless of such forces, and whether we like it or not, the president can set the tone for how these issues are dealt with— or if they’re swept under the rug. They can be dealt with in ways that are shameful, silencing, and dehumanizing. Or the president of a college can empower the entire university to courageously take up these issues in all their complexity and difficulty.

The faculty come next.

If you are a member of the faculty and you are reading this, you need to realize how much your students appreciate when you open up even a single class discussion to issues related to sex and hooking up and relationships. You need to realize how much they care when you show up to a talk on campus that has to do with these topics and sit among them to listen. Your students notice when you show up to the table for this conversation.

They want you there, and they appreciate it when you participate.

Ultimately, this is a book for everyone, because sexual assault and consent are issues that we all need to think about. This is a book for students who have to deal with these issues directly, and it is a book for the people on campus who take on these topics and the education around them (staff in Student Affairs). It is the responsibility of all of us to tackle these issues on our campuses. But I am talking to you, the university presidents in this country, because you hold so many of the cards and so much of the power to do right or wrong on this issue. Whether you want this responsibility or not, it is yours.

Adapted from Consent on Campus: A Manifesto by Donna Freitas. Copyright © Donna Freitas 2018 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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