On Monday night at the Michigan League Ballroom, Keith Edwards discussed changing the University of Michigan’s campus culture surrounding sexual violence and consent. The goal of his talk, titled “Creating a Culture of Consent”, was to encourage and empower the attendees to spark change in the community. The event was hosted by Prevention Regarding Instances of Sexual Misconduct, and was a result of a student-led collaboration between the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and Fraternity and Sorority Life as part of SAPAC’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Edwards travels across the country to speak out about sexual assault on college campuses and has given a TED Talk called “Changing the conversation around sexual violence.” He said his general mission is helping people realize their full potential, and the goal of this visit was to help the University community realize their full potential.
Edwards said sexual violence is a broad umbrella term, and he wanted to further define the associated terminology such as sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape.
“I want to be clear about this term because the media usually uses them interchangeably and wrong,” Edwards said. “Words or gestures of a sexual nature that are unwanted is sexual harassment, any touching of a sexual nature that is unwanted … is a form of sexual assault and any penetration without consent is rape, and all of that is a form of sexual violence.”
Edwards outlined four ways he believes people can best support survivors of sexual violence: make sure they are safe, believe them, say “it’s not their fault” and empower them.
Edwards said sexual violence has been a topic of conversation on college campuses for 40 years. He stressed solely talking about sexual violence as a women’s issue is a large problem, highlighting sexual violence impacts men and transgender individuals, as well.
“Without (women’s advocacy), there wouldn’t be laws in the books, resources in place, or shelters in existence,” Edwards said. “(Women) do the vast majority of the work and don’t get the credit they deserve.”
Edwards discussed why he believes it is important to address sexual violence from the male perspective.
“Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of sexual violence,” Edwards said. “(To) prevent this from happening in the first place, we need to stop thinking about sexual violence as a women’s issue and start thinking about sexual violence as a men’s issue.”
He said discussing sexual violence with men can be difficult, and recalled the first time he heard a message holding men responsible for sexual violence.
“I was defensive,” Edwards said. “I was angry. I was frustrated.”
Edwards said being proactive is necessary to solve the issue of sexual violence, noting sexual violence often occurs because of miseducation of the perpetrator.
“Informed consent is the two simple words,” Edwards said. “If you have informed consent, then it’s making out, or it’s hooking up, it’s having sex. If you don’t have informed consent, then it’s sexual harassment, sexual assault.”
He broke down the definition of informed consent, first explaining consent as affirmative and freely given. Edwards said it is being able to make an informed, legal decision.
“Can you have something to drink and be able to make an informed decision? Absolutely,” Edwards said. “Can you have so much to drink that you are no longer able to make an informed decision? Absolutely … If I’m not able to make a decision about buying a car, I am not able to make a decision about who I want to be engaging with sexually.”
Edwards ultimately encourages others to try to intervene and diffuse situations to help prevent sexual encounters when both people are not in the right state of mind to give informed consent.
“The challenge with college students is not to educate people with what sexual assault is and ‘don’t do it,’” Edwards said. “The task is unlearning. And you all know what you’ve been taught. You know what’s harder than learning? Unlearning. … and the reason we have to unlearn is because we live in a rape culture. Rape culture is a culture that encourages, condones, and teaches.”
Edwards highlighted examples of rape culture, such as a magazine advertisement for Nikon.
“In our culture, we teach very narrow, rigid ways men are allowed to think, feel, and behave,” Edwards said.”
He stressed confronting the objectification of women and sexist comments is not enough to confront sexual violence.
“We also have to confront the homophobia in the locker room and the racism in the dining hall and the other intersections that reinforce it,” Edwards said.
Edwards said effectively ending rape and sexual violence requires intervening where sexual violence is permitted, as well as intervening at the roots of sexual violence.
“We all have a chance to speak up and take a stand,” Edwards said. “… every single day.”
Edwards said he stands up for women primarily for three reasons: for potential survivors he knows, for potential survivors he will never know and for men including himself.
“We are all capable of caring about sexual violence, whether it’s people we know and love and care about, or whether it’s friends or it’s acquaintances or people in our community or campus or in Detroit or Minneapolis,” Edwards said.
To conclude his presentation, Edwards emphasized social change requires people working together, so all the attendees can spread his message.
“I’m not here to talk to you,” Edwards said. “I’m here to talk to all the people you’re going to talk to. If every one of you left here and talked to five people in the next 24 hours, you could reach hundreds.”
Art & Design sophomore Betsy Stubbs, a member of SAPAC and Fraternity and Sorority Life, explained how they heard about Edwards and why he came to the University.
“During PPE (Panhellenic Peer Educator) training, they actually showed Dr. Edwards’ TED Talk and it was just super impactful and it had been an example of great educational programming in this field,” Stubbs said. “We wanted to create an event that could start off this PRISM program, so a thought was, ‘Let’s just try to see if we could get Keith Edwards to come.’ We thought it was a long-shot, but then when we heard back from him, it just seemed like an amazing opportunity.”
Public Policy senior Allison Berry said the SAPAC and Fraternity Sorority Life community brought in Edwards because they want to flip the narrative regarding sexual violence.
“One thing we know about the University of Michigan from our 2015 Campus Climate Survey is that members of Fraternity and Sorority Life are two and a half times more likely to experience sexual violence while at the University of Michigan,” Berry said. “For our community to take the reins on ending sexual assault on campus really speaks to a self-awareness of our organizations and speaks to this desire for change.”
LSA senior Sebastian Capp, one of the co-leaders of PRISM, said he felt the most important part of bringing Edwards in was the inclusive discussion to help eliminate sexual assault on our campus.
“I think with the legacy that’s been left already before us and what is to come from this event, we hope that others are encouraged to be a part of the conversation and be activists and active bystanders in certain situations, as well as partake in all the programming that is already available through SAPAC and new initiatives through FSL — and hopefully join PRISM, too.”