After reading the Daily’s special report and editorial on University procedures for responding to reports of sexual assault last week, I was enraged and disheartened. My countenance hardened into a piercing glare as I walked around campus last Wednesday morning. Immense aggravation and embarrassment consumed me as I realized the University would, yet again, add to the prevalent narrative of sexual assault permeating college campuses. I was dismayed at hearing the University associated with sexual assault and inaction. I was tired of feeling as if the threat of sexual assault continuously looms on college campuses nationwide — especially when definitions of consent remain immersed in misinterpretations.
I tossed around a multitude of heated musings: Why can’t we settle on an explicit definition to protect every individual? Why — as a population of highly educated young adults — is establishing consent shrouded in uncertainty? Why is this knowledge gap so apparent as students enter college? Shouldn’t these issues have been discussed earlier in our lives?
The last question prompted me to consider my own experiences. I asked friends to describe what definition of consent they were exposed to and when that exposure occurred. However, when they redirected the question to me, I was at a loss. I couldn’t even remember how old I was when I learned anything remotely resembling the recently disputed definitions of consent.
I knew I had learned about practicing safe sex. I remembered numerous lectures about waiting until marriage. I vividly remembered learning biological processes responsible for pregnancy. I recalled discussions about “saying no,” but knowing a clear definition of what actually constitutes consent wasn’t apparent until I came to college — which is extremely problematic.
The issue of consent needs to be addressed far before students cross the threshold into their first dorm room on move-in day. Universities must be held responsible for ensuring the continual education and safety of their students. In fact, Holly Rider-Milkovich, the director of the Sexual Assault and Prevention and Awareness Center, recently demonstrated an excellent example of this by responding to an appeal from the Daily’s Editorial Board.
Arguing that the phrase “ ‘mutually understandable words or actions’ is too ambiguous” and that “the current policy sets a dangerously low threshold for consent that can be misconstrued and misunderstood,” the editorial called for the elimination of inconsistency between SAPAC’s definition and the definition offered by the University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, and for more specificity in each definition. Rider-Milkovich, responding to the request in a recent op-ed piece, notified both the Daily and campus at large of SAPAC’s actions to revise its definition to diminish the discrepancies.
However, despite the admirable receptiveness of institutions such as SAPAC, the knowledge offered by universities should act as a supplement, rather than the foundation of a student’s knowledge.
The editorial also acknowledged the inadequacies of the University’s sex education programs. While current initiatives may be beneficial and enlightening in some respects, assuming one or two programs during the first year or so of a student’s academic career is sufficient is a highly flawed preparation method. It’s like saying one doctor’s appointment is sufficient to ensure one’s health for a period of four years. Yet, college programs and initiatives aren’t meant to act as substitutes for information students should have received when we were younger. They should be effective, continual enhancements to a knowledge base fostered early in our lives.
Just as discrepancies exist between the University’s definitions of consent, inconsistencies within sexual education programs across the nation may further knowledge gaps and risk leaving students in precarious situations. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute stated that “four in 10 millennials report that the sex education they received was not helpful.” To further illustrate the ineffectiveness of these programs, 37 percent of those surveyed claimed that “their education was ‘not helpful’ in navigating decisions about sex and relationships.”
In an effort to explain why millennials feel underprepared, Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, highlights the variation of content taught in programs across the country. She stated: “Many were in school during a time when schools taught only abstinence. Others may have received clinical information about disease or pregnancy prevention, but few were provided the information young people truly need to traverse puberty, understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, develop a positive body image, make informed decisions, communicate effectively or navigate the health care system.”
Another critique was offered by Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, an AIDS-oriented community health organization, as he urged the idea school sex education programs are far too delayed to be truly effective. In fact, a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found 71 percent of Americans have sex before the age of 19 — suggesting that a majority of students may need to know about obtaining clear consent before even coming to college.
Rather, to ensure future generations — along with our own — fully understand the tenets of consent for sex as “sober, verbal and enthusiastic,” comprehensive sex education must not remain confined to college or even high school classrooms. Age-appropriate education regarding consent should be taught throughout our lifetimes, beginning at childhood.
Our relationships — sexual or not — evolve over time and so too must our understanding of demonstrating respect for our friends, peers, classmates and our potential sexual partners (especially considering these individuals may come from one of the previously mentioned groups). While I certainly don’t advocate exposing children to inappropriate material, steps can be taken to shape children’s mindsets about consent in non-explicit manners, such as avoiding touching or hugging a friend without their permission, developing empathy toward one another, stressing the importance of listening and respecting someone’s decision to say no, straying away from talking about individuals in an objectifying manner or simply waiting to hear someone verbally and enthusiastically say “yes” before partaking in any potentially uncomfortable activity.
We need to treat sexual encounters like any other interaction with those around us — with mutual respect, understanding, empathy and agreement. Consent must not remain an issue we solely view in hindsight. We need to correct the current state of consent education and extend it to younger generations who can assist in breaking the cycle of sexual assaults. These problematic attitudes and behaviors must be corrected before they become an issue that can cause future emotional and psychological harm.
Melissa Scholke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.