By Dana Fleitman, JWI Program Coordinator
“First of all, sex is great. It’s a good thing.”
So began my presentation on sexual assault and consent last week at the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) International Leadership School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Despite my strangely high comfort level in front of crowds – I do stand-up comedy regularly and have always loved public speaking – I was still a bit intimidated to be one of the few women in the room and in front of a crowd of 200 fraternity brothers for an hour-long session on sexual assault and consent. I was there to promote the Safe Smart Dating program, a new national partnership with JWI, ZBT and Sigma Delta Tau that focuses on dating abuse, sexual assault and being an active bystander, which will launch in fall and go to campuses with ZBT and SDT chapters across the country. This session seemed like a great opportunity to talk more in depth about sexual assault and consent.
How does a woman – or anyone, for that matter – engage young men on one of the largest issues on college campuses today without vilifying, alienating or blaming them? Nearly one in five undergraduate women will experience attempted or completed sexual assault before they graduate, and the vast majority of perpetrators are male. It’s pretty challenging to meaningfully address a privileged group on social issues without putting them on the defensive.
As I learned last week, it’s a ZBT tradition to snap your fingers in support, approval or agreement with something. When I explained that the session would be about sexual assault, I could feel the apprehension and nervous energy in the room. After the overview, my first slide was a picture of a guy and girl giving a thumbs up across from a bed with the heading “Sex is great!” I explained that sex is a positive, fun thing that people enjoy, and my goal was to make sure that they build skills around consent to have wonderful, consensual and mutually enjoyable sex. The crowd erupted into a round of impromptu snapping: Victory!
Framing anything as prevention makes the topic inherently negative. Whether we’re talking about sexual assault, pregnancy, smoking, bullying or diabetes, prevention is about what to avoid and how not to behave. No one likes a list of things they aren’t supposed to do. An engaging discussion should provide realistic, doable steps towards positive social change that empower people as potential allies rather than scolding them as potential perpetrators.
On a topic like sexual assault, I think it’s key to be down-to-earth, sex positive, and approach men as well-intentioned. There may be a selfish sociopath or two in the audience hoping to “get away with” sexual assault, but those people need serious help; no hour-long presentation is particularly likely to reach them. It’s tempting to paint consent in black and white and tell young people that it’s oh-so-clear in every situation, but that’s simply not an accurate or constructive approach. The truth is that any sexual activity that takes place without the explicit consent of the recipient is defined as sexual assault; that means that unwanted sex between romantic partners or friends that happens in a drunken state with poor communication is on the continuum of sexual violence, which can go all the way up to highly violent rape. Neither of these situations is acceptable and both can be highly traumatic, but the former is much more common than the latter; over 90% of perpetrators of sexual assault on women are intimate partners or acquaintances.
To me, this indicates that people simply are not thinking critically about consent. We’ve all heard “no means no,” which puts the responsibility on the objecting partner to speak up instead of on the initiating partner to check in. Instead of assuming everything is fine until someone is yelling “NO!” at us, we need to be tuned in to what our partners are thinking, feeling and wanting. This means asking for consent, and it doesn’t have to be done in a clinical, mood-breaking, awkward way. I encouraged the audience to move slowly with a partner to give him or her time to react, be tuned into the partner’s body language and sounds, and to check in by asking questions like “What do you like? How do you like it? Does that feel good to you? What do you want?” These types of questions are great for gauging a partner’s level of enthusiasm and getting consent, and they’re also just good questions for ensuring an enjoyable experience with a partner. If a partner isn’t responding positively to these types of questions, then there is probably an issue.
On a college campus, pretty much everything happens in a social space. Sexual assault is usually committed or initiated at a party or in a dorm, not in some isolated area. This is why engaging men as active bystanders is also key: men are powerful influencers of other men, especially in a fraternity where students have a built-in mentorship system and pride in their group identity. I encouraged them to keep an eye out at parties and dorms, say something when they notice a potential issue, get other people involved and think about their daily conversations and assumptions around sex and gender.
The presentation also covered gender constructs around sex (media examples and the idea that men “get some” and women “give it up”); consequences of sexual assault for the survivor and perpetrator; more in-depth strategies to be an active bystander; consent and alcohol; and other information and statistics. While the worst case scenario of asking for explicit consent is awkwardness and potential rejection, the worst case for a sexual assault conviction can include severe social, academic and legal consequences, and it’s important to recognize the weight of these choices.
The evaluations showed largely positive responses to the presentation. More than three out of five respondents agreed that they would think more critically about consent as a result of the presentation and/or could see themselves applying the strategies discussed in their own lives. It was great to see comments like “very applicable, a lot of information that is useful,” “very clear and down to earth,” and an appreciation for “the conversational feel to it.”
“I hope you guys have lots of great, consensual sex.” So ended the presentation.