Campuses strive to educate about the meaning of consent
UMass Crisis Intervention Specialist Maxene Anderson conducts a meeting with fellow UMass Women's Center counselors on the UMass campus Thursday. Purchase photo reprints »
UMass Amherst Everywoman's Center Associate Director Becky Lockwood in her office on the UMass campus Thursday. Purchase photo reprints »
Experts in preventing campus rape and sexual assault say a concerted effort to educate students about what constitutes consent, as well as drawing bystanders into the mix, is the best prevention campaign a campus can take.
“Students don’t understand consent and so they say that someone can ‘accidentally rape someone.’ I hate that term — it shows such a lack of education that students don’t know when a rape has occurred,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus.
The need to educate is urgent when you consider the risk factors.
According to “Acquaintance Rape of College Students,” a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Policing Services, students are most vulnerable to rape during the first few weeks of freshman and sophomore years — with the first few days of freshman year the riskiest. Alcohol plays a major role in college rapes. About 75 percent of acknowledged date rapists said they sometimes got women drunk in order to increase the likelihood of having sex with them, the Department of Justice report states.
About 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by someone known to the victim — a classmate, friend, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend or other acquaintance (and in that order).
Most of these rapes don’t occur on dates. Rather they take place when two people are in the same place, such as a party or studying in a dorm, the acquaintance rape report states. And in about 10 percent of reported acquaintance rapes, the victim is a man. Yet, rape prevention typically focuses on the less likely crime of stranger rape. Blue light call boxes, organized ride/walk home programs and Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) training generally assume a rapist is waiting in the bushes.
“We give women a list of things not to do: don’t drink, don’t walk alone, make sure to be with your friends, carry mace, cover your drink, and many times on a Saturday women follow this checklist and they are still sexually assaulted,” Kiss said.
In terms of education and prevention, most colleges offer some form of sexual assault awareness training, usually in new student orientation. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, awareness programs are woven into orientation and “My Student Body,” an online test about alcohol use and sex that every student must pass to attend the university. Smith College recently started distributing an online test, too, consisting of five questions about sexual relationships and the college’s assault policy. It isn’t mandatory, but school officials say they get a high response rate.
Besides this training, skits, notices and other forms of education that take place on college campuses, the high rate of rape continues. Some advocates say training is failing to educate the entire community.
“We need to make a shift in training from blaming men to making sure they’re invested in not letting this happen to someone, stopping others,” Kiss said.
Indeed, widespread misunderstanding about what sexual consent and rape are continue to contribute to the high rate of sexual assaults nationwide and on college campuses, where one in four women suffers a rape or attempted rape.
Rape prevention training has been largely ineffective, advocates say, noting the persistently high rate of rapes on campuses. And reaching out to men — a critical point among advocates — often falls flat as men may feel blamed for rape instead of educated about how to stop it.
Kiss notes that awareness training sometimes causes men in attendance to feel like they’re being called a rapist.
“The training hasn’t worked because young men in the audience say, ‘I would never do this’ and they’re turned off by a program that blames men,” Kiss said. As a result, many advocates are now pushing for bystander education— teaching the whole community about what constitutes consent and how to talk with their peers about positive sexual relationships.
“I still hear a lot of misinformation, like somehow sexual assault is a misunderstanding, which is ridiculous,” said Rebecca Lockwood, associate director of the Women and Community Center at UMass. “In our culture, we’re very good at blaming the victims of sexual assault.” That, she said, leads to victims who are convinced they will not be believed.
In Massachusetts, rape is defined as insertion of a body part or other object into another person by force and against the will of that person, or by threat of bodily injury, or if the person is drugged or unconscious. It can be committed by a man or a woman and comes with a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in state prison.
Many of the Five Colleges’ student handbooks define, clearly, what consent actually means. UMass defines consent as “informed, freely and actively given, mutually understandable words or actions which indicate a willingness to participate in mutually agreed upon sexual activity.” The handbook notes that consent can be withdrawn.
The Smith College handbook states what consent is not: “Silence is not consent. ‘No’ is not consent. ... The fact is that you cannot have sex with someone unless you have consent.” The college also notes that submission isn’t necessarily a green light for sex. “There is a fine line between persuasion and coercion. Having sex with someone who reasonably believes that there is a threat of force meets the legal definition of rape in Massachusetts,” the student handbook states.
Most institutions also spell out when someone is unable to give consent. Here are examples UMass supplies of scenarios in which someone cannot give consent:
e_SBlt consent may never be given by minors (in Massachusetts, those under 16)
e_SBlt persons not legally competent to make their own decisions
e_SBlt anyone incapacitated by alcohol or other drug consumption, voluntary or involuntary
e_SBlt those who are unconscious, unaware or otherwise physically helpless, or in need of medical attention as a result of alcohol consumption or any other cause.
e_SBlt agreeing to a sexual act as a result of coercion, intimidation, threat of force, or force is not consent.
In its student handbook, Amherst College adds that “consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms. ... Consent at one time — including prior romantic and/or physical relationships — does not imply future consent.”
Hampshire College puts the onus of consent on the initiating party. According the handbook, “Students will not be held responsible if they don’t give consent, whereas they may be held responsible for not getting consent. ... When in doubt, stop and ask.”
Bystander training key
Of course, the vast majority of men don’t rape. Rape is most commonly committed by the same men over and over again. In a 2002 study of 120 admitted rapists, it was found that 63 percent of the assailants were repeat offenders, committing about 5.8 rapes each, or 91 percent of the sexual assaults reported by the men to David Lisak, the UMass Boston professor who conducted the survey. Of these men, 80 percent reported raping women who were incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol.
“Most men on campus are not raping the women on campus, but the ones who are, are serial rapists,” Kiss said.
Advocates say bystander training is critical to preventing rape. Bystander training focuses on giving people the words to address potentiality threatening behavior, such as a man pressuring a woman for sex or making degrading jokes about assault, and how to talk to victims.
“We know a perpetrator may have an intention to sexually assault a student, but we also know there may be 20 to 30 people in the middle of that who could speak up before it happens,” Kiss said.
Step Up! is a bystander intervention program developed by the University of Arizona in partnership with the National Collegiate Athletics Association promoted by advocates that include the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Step Up! encourages students to speak to their peers as soon as they notice a sexual assault may occur or has occurred.
What follows are some principles offered in the program:
e_SBlt don’t joke about sexual assault; comments and jokes that are meant to “ease the tension” or are “just kidding around” can trivialize the severity of the behavior.
e_SBlt notice if someone is getting ready to have sexual intercourse with a partner who is incapacitated.
e_SBlt many perpetrators are unaware that what they have done is a crime. (They may say, “Yeah, that was messed up, but it was fun.”) Let them know that what they did was not right and was against the law.
And if a person knows an assault has occurred or is occurring:
e_SBlt believe the victim
e_SBlt tell the victim it is not his or her fault
e_SBlt encourage a report (to campus or local police, to the dean of students, to a campus health center counselor, etc.) Realize however, there may be reasons that the person does not want to report. Respect that decision.
e_SBlt don’t pry or try to get information out of the person if he/she is unwilling to be forthcoming with information; be ready to listen when the individual is ready to talk.
e_SBlt if you learn of the perpetrator’s identity, don’t suggest physical or any other form of retaliation.
Advocates are also pressing for better systems that support victims to report the crime and then punish the assailant. Now, few rapes are reported. On campuses, somewhere between 5 and 22 percent of rapes are actually reported to police, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety and Security’s September report, “Analysis of College Campus Rape and Sexual Assault Reports, 2000-2011.” About 56 percent of rape victims said they did not report the assault because they did not think it was “serious enough to report”; 42 percent said they didn’t want anyone to know that they were raped; and 40 percent said they were afraid of reprisal by the assailant or his friends, according to the 2007 “Campus Sexual Assault Study” by the National Institute for Justice.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not track false rape reports, but does monitor the number of unfounded reports, which include baseless claims in which the evidence-standards of the crime were never met, and false reporting. In 1998, for example, 8 percent of reported rapes were unfounded, according to the Acquaintance Rape report, which questioned this figure. Researchers of this paper said the 8 percent number could be inflated by police making reporting errors, such as incorrectly thinking that a rape report is unfounded or false if the victim had a prior relationship with the offender, the victim used alcohol or drugs at the time, there is no evidence of injury, the victim delays disclosures, or the victim fails to immediately label herself an assault victim or blames herself for the rape.
At UMass, after widespread protest over a consequence for a sexual offender erupted on campus in 2010, the university has made it a requirement that all punishments for serious crimes be evaluated by the dean of students.
Lockwood says that is a good step.
“If people hear that sexual assault is happening on campus and there are no consequences, then it promotes that kind of behavior,” Lockwood said. “If we can get everyone on the same page, giving the same message, then eventually things will change, the culture will change, but this takes a long time.”
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.