Broad Recognition

A Feminist Magazine at Yale

Students React to New Sexual Consent Curriculum

Photo: Life Magazine, 1964

In past years, mandatory sexual consent workshops have been perhaps the most notoriously campy part of Camp Yale. Relationships: Untitled, the student-produced video presented to the classes of 2013 and 2014 during orientation, was almost a parody in its portrayal of sloppy drunk girls and predatory boys—not to mention its use of ominous music to warn of lurking sexual aggressors at Toad’s. During one particularly insightful segment, one of the protagonists goes to freshman screw in a full-body cow suit. And keep in mind that Relationships: Untitled was the improvement that Yale made over the “Sex Signals” skit that was traditionally performed at orientation after the 2008 Zeta Psi “We Love Yale Sluts” incident and the Women’s Center’s subsequent call for reform.

To be fair, the question of how to administer the kind of prevention and coping advice offered in these workshops in a way that will resonate with 1,300 eighteen-year-olds of vastly different backgrounds, orientations, and levels of sexual experience during their whirlwind first week of college is a difficult one to say the least. How can you be stern without being condescending? How can you convey the frequency of unwanted sexual encounters without making people scared? Melanie Boyd, a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies lecturer, currently acting as Special Advisor to the Dean of Yale College on Gender Issues, called freshman orientation an “impossible challenge.”

This fall, in the wake of last semester’s Title IX complaint, the sexual consent portion of Camp Yale took on quite a different shape than “Sex Signals” or Relationships: Untitled, with respect to both structure and content.

The initial plan for the 2015 workshop, sketched out by the Freshman Orientation Committee in the spring and developed by Boyd and others over the summer,  was first to have deans and masters deliver hard facts—definitions, resource information—for twenty minutes, and then for freshman counselors to lead structured, “highly scripted workshops,” in their small groups. (The Dean’s Office and SHARE determined the topics to be discussed and the specific language to be used.)

The strategy in the past was to have some kind of stimulus—the skit, the video—and then have FroCos lead open-ended discussions, but Boyd and others were concerned about how easily those conversations could get away from them. “If you bring people into really open conversations,” Boyd said, “there are so many myths that you can easily get a group of people who reaffirm each other’s misperceptions.” Peter Wilczynski, a freshman counselor in Calhoun College, confirmed the difficulty of what he called the “common denominator problem,” where, in an attempt to be inoffensive and “not show their hand,” people gravitate toward the opinions of the most vocal person in the group.

The idea for the new workshop was rooted in new research about sexual violence prevention strategies by people like Victoria Banyard at the University of New Hampshire, Moira Carmody at the University of Western Sydney, and Charlene Senn at the University of Windsor. Boyd said their work shows that the most effective programs are small groups where people can “really talk reflectively about their own beliefs and practices.” This, Yale can pull off. But the research also says that the conversation needs to be sustained—happening over four or six sessions  instead of in one—and this, at least for now, will not be mandated, although the Dean’s Office is developing programs for students who do want more extended discussion.

Even the culture change that she did have planned didn’t manifest—at least, not in the way that she envisioned.  Boyd had two hours on the last day of FroCo training to teach the counselors how to lead her 90 minute workshop. She was worried—time was limited and the materials were extremely detailed. The concerns were founded: by the end of the session, many FroCos decided that they could not carry it out.

Wilczynski felt that the primary reasons people felt uneasy were logistical, adding that in addition to the time-crunch, absolutely no one knew what was going to be in the script until it was presented, and that it was “pretty uniformly an uncomfortable script to read.”

For the scheduled session on September 7, the masters and deans took on a larger role in explaining Yale policy and resources. Among other goals, they set out to clear up a couple of longstanding confusions about Yale’s sexual consent policy that tended to make people feel as though the standards outlined in the policy were impractical enough to dismiss the notion altogether. (According to the Yale Daily News, five out of eight students thought that the sexual consent policy was unrealistic). The first confusion is that people with any alcohol in their system at all can’t give consent. The legal standard that is actually reflected in Yale’s regulations is that people can’t give consent if they are truly incapacitated (i.e., not talking, throwing up, lost on campus, etc).

The other big misconception is that the policy requires consent to be verbal, which it does not. Boyd pointed to current research findings that “sexual communication includes both verbal and non-verbal elements, signals that are extremely legible to even casual sexual partners.”

“The problem is not miscommunication,” she said, “it’s a willingness to disregard those clear signals.” Of course, she recognizes, communication is always useful—both for good consensual sex (in which we want to know details beyond consent/non-consent) and for more coercive situations, in which it’s important not to get stuck trying to clarify a signal that someone else is ignoring.  Still, Boyd said, “the traditional hard feminist line of ‘it has to be verbal’ might actually be counterproductive.”

Wilczynski disagreed with the script on a number of levels academically, but the only “boldfaced thematic statement” that made him truly uncomfortable was “Sexual Assault Is Never the Result of Miscommunication.” He said the idea runs against the grain of the rest of FroCo training—which operates on the premise that freshmen don’t know what they want or how to communicate it, and that counselors should “help them crystallize their expectations”—and does not accurately reflect his experience of the sexual culture at Yale.

The script did resonate with Wilczynski as a self-aware senior—he thinks it’s a great theoretical framework through which people who know what they want can view these issues and communicate their desires. “But that’s almost an indictment of it,” he said, “because for freshmen the modus operandi is to assume nothing.”

In any case, the workshop was intended to transcend myth busting and prevention strategies. Boyd described consent as a very bright line; the goal is not to be right next to that line, but well above it. There are a lot of sexual practices on campus that are pressured and uncomfortable, but don’t sink to the level of sexual assault. “We have higher aspirations than just to not rape each other,” Boyd said. “What we’re looking for is self-awareness, communication, and respect.”

Ryan Caro, a FroCo in Ezra Stiles College, was excited about Boyd’s vision of moving beyond consent, but didn’t see how it played out in her presentation. He emphasized the idea of “how to have good sex” in his own group, and they were enthusiastic. But he felt like Boyd’s workshop  “turned out to be just another session on not raping people.”

When the counselors decided not to lead the workshops, the master and dean segment of the training was expanded to fill the void. (FroCos did meet in small breakout groups to discuss the topics after their masters and deans spoke.) The masters and deans were all given two cards to read from (both of which were then distributed to freshmen). One was a list of sexual misconduct resources at Yale, the first of which was the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education (SHARE) Center. Relationships: Untitled highlighted SHARE counselors as a therapy resource, but did not describe the Center’s full capacity as an outlet to get medical attention and file a police report or disciplinary complaint as well. The card also lists the Yale Police Department, the University Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, the school’s Title IX Coordinators, and the new Consent and Communication Educators (CCEs), a group of undergrads headed by Boyd, who “help communities prevent and respond to sexual misconduct by building a more positive campus culture.”

The second card lists “Strategies for Increasing Safety”: Communicate well; If you encounter pressure, act swiftly; Build a strong network of friends; Be able to leave, wherever, whenever; Avoid isolation; Trust your feelings; Avoid excessive alcohol and/or drugs; Stand with survivors when they speak out; When you see something troubling, act; Even with the best of strategies, sexual violence can still happen. (All of these are followed by a short description. The bottom of the card encourages students to contact Boyd if they “want to learn more about effective resistance and building a safer campus.”)

The Sexual Consent Undergraduate Regulations are printed on the back of each card, as rewritten by Boyd and her team this summer to try and eliminate the opacity of the legal language in which the policy has historically been written. (None of the actual substance of the regulations was changed.)

Some deans and masters mostly stuck to the script. Others hit the main points quickly and then supplemented the facts with anecdotes and other personal touches—for example, Judith Krauss, the master of Silliman College, used to be a psychiatric nurse and was quick to remind people that someone in the room was probably a survivor, according to a freshman in attendance, Julia Calagiovanni.

Caro noted that many of his freshmen felt like they had questions or concerns that weren’t addressed by the deans, and to be sure, some felt that the workshop was lacking on a very basic level. Calagioavanni said that the Silliman session “definitely had a very binary ‘man assaults woman’ mindset,” with only a passing mention that assault can happen in other ways, and also that there was very little discussion of intimate partner violence. (Wilczynski also thought the workshop employed a “binary system,” but one of victim and perpetrator.) Pierson College, when the whole class reconvened after their breakout discussions, one boy got up and warned against approaching this so heteronormatively, according to a freshman girl who asked that her name be withheld.

In these respects and others, there is still a long way to go. If all goes according to plan, next year, although deans and masters will still have an important role, the CCEs, who are two-thirds of their way through Boyd’s training, will play a very significant part in freshman orientation. Silliman FroCo Pete Croughan told me in an email that perhaps “phasing it to (well-trained) CCE’s would perhaps make the discussion appear more bottom-up, which might be more effective at changing campus culture.”. Given the sensitivity of these issues, nothing can ever be certain. But whatever happens, Boyd’s vision is for the workshop to focus not just on safety and resources, but on “more abstract ideas about what values should be shared on a community level.”

Emily Rappaport is a sophomore in Yale College.  She is the business manager and a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.

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