For their senior thesis in 2014, Emma Sulkowicz (who uses they/them pronouns) spent the academic year lugging an extra-long twin mattress around the campus of Columbia University—a nod to the type of mattress the college places in its dorms, similar to the one on which Sulkowicz said they were raped during their sophomore year.
Their project, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), marked a turning point for colleges, many of which suddenly saw the importance in hosting frank discussions about sex on campus, according to Donna Freitas, author of the new book, Consent on Campus: A Manifesto. But Freitas believes many universities still lag behind when it comes to providing resources to students on issues such as consent.
Freitas, an author and research associate at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, has talked to college students about sex on campus for over a decade. After the Sulkowicz project, she noticed the nature of her conversations changing. “The tension on campus when I would walk into a room to give a talk was so intense,” she told VICE. “The conversation became this ticking time bomb on campus.”
Consent on Campus is aimed squarely at college presidents, who she believes have been “looking the other way” for decades. And she believes university leadership should be in charge of creating healthy dialogue on campus to address the complex issues raised by Sulkowicz’s project, as well as to challenge hookup culture—and, by extension, create a culture of consent.
Consent on Campus examines why sexual assault on campus is such an intractable problem, and what schools and students can start to do to change that. As Freitas told VICE, it’s a “large-scale examination of consent education.” Sometimes, as in the case of Columbia University, it takes a national scandal to start dealing with the problem. “It is a statement about the valuing or devaluing of women at the university,” Freitas said.
It's particularly egregious that universities—meant to be lofty, educational institutions at the forefront of culture change and critical analysis—would lag behind on this issue. Campus assault is a huge problem. The US government has conducted 502 investigations of colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. As of this writing, 192 cases had been resolved, and 310 remain open.
Freitas wrote The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy in 2013, and much of her previous research has been devoted to exploring hookup culture on campus. Her latest work broadens her research beyond hookup culture—although roughly a third of the book is spent dissecting the lessons hookup culture sends to college students—to include a thorough examination of the “academic bias and faculty reluctance” that prevent administrators and students from having intimate, complex discussions about sex. And these discussions, Freitas argues, are at the heart of creating a healthy culture of sex on campus.
The book also includes a “crash course” in Title IX, the 1972 federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, which President Obama mandated all universities must comply with to receive federal funding.
Freitas had a personal experience with Title IX when she was in graduate school in the 90s. When a professor repeatedly harassed her, and the university did not offer support, she was forced to hire a lawyer—a situation that, she writes, “saddens me still.” She uses the example to reinforce two points: Title IX is not new, even if our attention to it is; and Title IX also has a “dark underbelly.”
While Freitas sees the value in the mandate, she also sees it as a “last resort,” and instead attempts to provide a blueprint for universities to foster healthy dialogues about sex that will change the way that students think about, and engage in, sex. Instead, many universities have grappled with the mandate to comply with Title IX with a "cover our asses" approach, she writes.
Freitas uses many examples to illustrate the way universities have failed to address sexual assault in a comprehensive way. Some have passed policies that require affirmative consent, but don’t offer other guidance or support on how to have conversations about consent. Others instated mandatory one-hour programs that aim to teach students about consent, but aren’t sufficient in-and-of themselves.
In some cases, universities actively reinforce conditions that perpetuate sexual assault. When Baylor University was found guilty of covering up sexual assault perpetrated by 19 members of its football team in 2016, the result was the resignation of the university’s president, athletic director, and Title IX coordinator, and the firing of its football coach. But Freitas points out that it was framed as a “sports scandal,” highlighting the fact that universities often place high value on athletes and athletic departments, worrying about the future of their teams and the money they bring to the institution—a 2016 report showed that over 24 universities drew in more than $100 million annually from their sports teams—over worrying about what happens to victims of assault.
Part of the issue is hookup culture, which promotes ambivalence and dominates the narrative about sex on college campuses, Freitas said. But that ambivalence is at odds with teaching students to communicate about consent, and presents a paradox that she says universities need to contend with. Given the lack of dialogue between sex partners, Freitas said the emphasis on what she calls "technical consent" is "such an impoverished way of thinking" about the issue.
Hookup culture, further, hands down a narrative that “enables” rape culture. “At the heart of hookup culture is apathy towards sex and your partner,” Freitas said. “Rape culture thrives on this type of apathy. You do not care about another person. You are indifferent.”
This is an important point to consider when universities address the attitudes that perpetuate sexual violence. And Freitas suggests some solutions to this kind of apathy. One way to teach students to care about the people they have sex with is to introduce hypothetical scenarios related to sex on campus into the classroom, and have the students debate the issues—a way to encourage discussion without having to place the onus on students to disclose their personal experiences.
An entire industry has emerged in response to the Title IX mandate to help universities comply: Some schools host hour-long orientation programs like “Sex Signals,” in which an entire freshman class might gather together in an auditorium for a comedic-style performance about sexual assault, and a number of new smartphone apps like We-Consent and SaSie are also on the market.
Freitas sees these efforts as the result of scarce resources Student Affairs receives in order to tackle a highly complex problem. And while Freitas does not want to “malign people who are doing this work,” she takes issue with the fact that this is how universities are choosing to address the problem. Stuffing 800 people into a room, she contends, is not the right environment to address these issues. “These people are filling a slot that universities have offered for consent education,” she tells me. “But the slot itself is problematic.”
Campuses are now talking about sex more directly, she says, which is a good thing. “People are getting used to the conversation. There's been a shift [to knowing that] this is a conversation we're all going to have.” Still, “there's a lot of fear now,” Freitas says. “There's a lot of anger. And fear and anger are not the best circumstances in which to engage in dialogue on this really complicated topic.“
This is precisely why it’s so critical that these conversations happen in small group, or in the classroom. When she was in college in the 90s, Freitas says, “they gave us a rape whistle.” Colleges are doing better now. Over the last couple of decades, she’s seen a “shift in understanding sexual assault”—and she remains optimistic that universities will “keep this ball rolling,” especially since they now have the infrastructure in place to deal with these issues. “In theory, faculty and the classroom should offer a counter-cultural narrative and a critical eye toward hookup culture,” she tells me. “Thinking about masculinity, the valuing of the body.”
“Consent education” Freitas says, “requires that we get students thinking about who they are as people.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.