When classes end for the summer, staff who have been officebound for the grueling 28 weeks that constitute an academic year are allowed out into the blinding sunshine of summer. While some repair to the beach or the mountains, others take advantage of the subsidized opportunity conferences provide to visit a new city or resort for a professional development experience.
And so it was for the several hundred members of the American College Health Association who descended on Boston last month to gather at the Boston Marriott Copley Place to discuss such pressing topics as enhancing college student sleep, eliminating waiting lists, and, of course, meeting the needs of students with autism spectrum disorders in a college setting.
There were also the inevitable workshops about the willy-nilly sex in which college students engage. This year’s exciting twist on the perennially crowd-pleasing topic broaches the hitherto unexplored realm collegiate sexuality where not only does “no” mean “no,” but so too do “yes,” “by all means,” “ok,” and “let’s go to it.” We have entered the land of low self-esteem, and something must be done before one more chick afflicted with this terrible malady cheerfully suggests to her boyfriend that they get it on. Because you see, she isn’t really in the mood: it’s her low esteem making that booty call.
You think I’m making this stuff up? Well, I’m not. See: Beyond Rape Prevention by reporter Allie Grasgreen in June 5’s Inside Higher Ed.
Allie picks up the story as Melanie Boyd, a scholar on gender issues and assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University, opines
“It’s important for us to shift our core focus away from targeting just sexual violence to thinking about consensual sex,” Boyd said, “and shift from a strategy of saying, ‘Here’s the problem we must address,’ to fostering ideals.”
“That separation is not accurate — it’s not accurate to the experience of our students or to the research that we have in the field, and I also don’t think it’s terribly useful,” Boyd said. “Sexual violence is really closely tied to consensual sex.”
A woman and her passed-out friend are hanging out together after a night of heavy drinking. Worried that one of the guys will take advantage of her friend, the conscious woman starts fooling around with both men in an attempt to distract them, until one starts having sex with her and the other moves over to make out with her friend.In the woman’s mind, despite her not being a willing participant in the sex, she didn’t say no, so it was consensual.
Are you with me so far? A woman in a bar starts “fooling around” with a couple of guys. She initiates the petting. OK? According to Dean Boyd the woman has not given consent (true enough, the better description would be “she issued an invitation”) and her assumption that she has given consent is, in fact, a “misconception,” says the dean. What to do? Writes Grasgreen, “some college health campaigns encourage students to ask for affirmative, verbal consent before having sex.” It is incomprehensible to me how a woman who volunteers to make-out could simultaneously ask the objects of her affection to ask her for “affirmative, verbal consent” before agreeing to make-out. It is almost as incomprehensible as “hanging out” with a “passed-out friend.”
“consent” within the normalized campus sexual culture is not always true consent. That’s because some of the factors apparent in these situations — power dynamics between men and women, vulnerabilities and intoxication as a way of tuning out instincts — can be manipulated by someone who doesn’t really care if they get consent or not, who can sidestep it altogether without stepping outside of the norm.
Is your head spinning yet? I think it boils down to what the definition of “is” is, as someone well acquainted with power dynamics, sex, and college-age woman once observed.
So there’s just one thing to do, Boyd says: change the contextual norms so the focus is less on stopping rape and training to recognize and ask for consent (though, of course, consent is still an issue), and more on enhancing positive experiences and training for enthusiasm.
The tenets of the new normal: self-awareness and “agency,” whereby students make active choices about their sexual desires. Respect and recognition, through which students recognize the realness of other people and understand they might make different decisions or want different things. And mutual enthusiasm about sex, whereby the key question is no longer whether a student gives consent but whether he or she actually desires what’s about to happen.
“It’s that shifting of, can you raise those expectations to the point where things that are not tolerable stand out,” Boyd said. “It’s the kind of work that we’re doing that’s making them say, ‘That’s not normal.’ “