With an epidemic of sexual assault sweeping college campuses across the nation, as well as the University of Michigan, there are countless topics of uncertainty and controversy. In a four part series, James Brennan seeks to explore them with interviews and personal research. This is part 1.
Trigger warning: The following article includes descriptions of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.
In the past year, the University has become ground zero for the crisis of sexual assault on college campuses. From the school’s bungling of the sexual assault case involving former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons, to recent campus demonstrations, including the spray-painted phrase “EXPEL RAPISTS” across the Diag, students and administration alike can no longer sweep sexual assault under the rug. At the same time, a national movement to prevent sexual misconduct has gained steam, highlighted by the White House-sponsored “It’s On Us” campaign, which Central Student Government has enthusiastically supported.
Meetings have been convened, profile pictures have been changed and PSAs have gone viral — but what does this all amount to for students? What will this mean for survivors and their allies from all walks of life? What exactly does “stopping sexual assault” look like?
Over the past month, in interviews with dozens of peers, student leaders and members of administration, along with additional research, I’ve tried to make sense of these questions and dozens of others. What follows is the first column of a four-part series examining sexual assault on college campuses. My findings and opinions are by no means conclusive; this is an attempt to shed light on some of the many moving parts that students grapple with when it comes to this issue, especially the aspects we find most confusing, painful and polarizing.
To any perspectives I left out or simply glossed over, I hope you will write to me so I can continue to learn. I also hope you’ll consider writing your own viewpoints in The Michigan Daily so that all students can hear your voice.
When it comes to sexual assault and its endless list of related problems, the only true consensus amongst students seems to be confusion.
While most of the students I interviewed gave relatively similar definitions for “sexual assault” as a term, their ability to confidently draw lines around consent, alcohol and coercion typically came up short. This is not because our student body is stupid, but rather due to the all-encompassing language that deals with sexual misconduct.
According to the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, sexual assault covers a broad range of behaviors, from violent, penetrative rape, to one-time instances of groping without consent and everything in between. This was pretty consistent with the definition most students gave me. But SAPAC doesn’t stop there, also making sure to include any unwanted sexual contact obtained through threat of force, intimidation or coercion. A handful of students even went so far as to say that sexually explicit speech, gestures or text messaging fell under the increasingly large umbrella of sexual assault.
Anne Huhman, SAPAC program manager for education and prevention, sat down with me to try and make sense of this terminology.
Huhman, who has been at SAPAC for a decade, explained that the broad language is meant to emphasize the core issue behind consent: the experience of the individual. Because every person has a unique life and perspective factoring into their boundaries, the language around sexual assault is intentionally left open-ended. According to Huhman, this is a huge part of SAPAC’s Relationship Remix workshop for first-year students in an effort to get students focusing on what they as individuals want out of relationships and sex.
LSA senior Kathryn Abercrombie, a former SAPAC volunteer coordinator, expressed a similar viewpoint, saying that handling sexual assault should be all about empowering the survivor.
In large part, the ambiguities of consent come from the intensely personal nature of sex and sexual assault. These individual variations are most clearly present in what may be the blurriest of the lines surrounding sexual assault: the role of alcohol.
Drawing a line between consent and over-intoxication was by far the most challenging question for most of the students I interviewed. A handful of students emphasized a person’s ability to communicate or appear coherent, with one senior defining it as a person “doing things they would not normally do.” But this poses challenges. One senior noted her ability to appear completely sober and put together while blacked out, even to the point that her friends can’t tell she’s been drinking. Moreover, this strategy is hard to apply to a person you don’t know very well or have never seen intoxicated.
“We try to validate that we know that happens,” Huhman said regarding consensual sex under the influence. However, she also expressed concerns about the confusing physiological roles played by food, sleep and a person’s tolerance.
“If what we are aiming for is good, positive, healthy, satisfying sex, it’s sometimes harder to accomplish when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs,” Huhman wrote in a later e-mail, also noting that “it’s important to remember that people who sexually assault others will intentionally use alcohol and other drugs as tools to sexually assault.
“It would be a lot easier if we could just draw a line,” she said, a sentiment that most students seemed to share.
Like issues surrounding alcohol, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to getting clear consent. Of the students I interviewed, most explicitly asked for or were asked for consent less than half the time they had sex. One senior told me that while he usually asks permission, many times he has been “too drunk to remember” if he asked or not. For the most part, however, men said they didn’t ask because they were familiar with their partner or they thought it would be awkward and “kill the moment.”
Abercrombie, when asked about these barriers to affirmative consent, answered with a pointed question of her own: “Are you honoring awkwardness over your partner’s safety and sense of security?”
This fear of an awkward moment may also be unfounded; most of the women I surveyed had no reservations about a partner who paused to ask for consent, and many in fact preferred it. One senior said she thinks it would “actually be kind of awesome” if men made it a point to stop and ask. I should note that this line of questioning was asked, at first, in a very gendered, heterosexual fashion: men were asked about getting consent, women were asked about giving it. However, even as I began asking students without gendering the question or assuming their sexuality, men discussed getting consent while women discussed giving consent.
As Huhman emphasized in the beginning of our conversation, sexual assault is an intensely personal concept. From affirmative consent, to alcohol, to just defining terms, erring on the side of caution is the only way to ensure a potential partner’s safety. At first, I was somewhat disappointed by my own inability to make gray areas black and white, a frustration that only increased when dozens of interviews failed to help me. But rather than being vague, these concepts are meant to be inclusive
While the law may attempt to draw lines around what is and isn’t assault, and different levels of sexual violence, it can never come close to defining the trauma that each individual survivor feels from any variety of forced sexual contact. In accepting these terms as broad, we are in fact accepting the reality that caution is our only choice when faced with a decision that could potentially permanently ruin another person’s life.
“I have witnessed these beautiful beings … they just change,” said Hannah Crisler, an LSA senior and campaign director of I Will — a student initiative to spark conversation about sexual assault on campus — describing friends who survived sexual assault.
“The light is snuffed out.”
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.