Trigger warning: This essay discusses rape and sexual assault.
Last month, a reported 12 million women shared stories of “Me Too,” a 10-year-old campaign started by Tarana Burke and revived in a tweet by Alyssa Milano in light of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations. Since then, many more high profile sexual assault survivors across industries have shared stories of abuse and harassment – mostly at the hands of male authority figures. While the social media movement has critics, it also serves to demonstrate what women already knew: the culture of abuse, complacency, and denial of women’s experiences is pervasive.
With the backdrop of this challenging time for survivors, a recent scandal in Indiana is a startling reminder that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
We can’t forget that it’s not just powerful, entitled men who don’t respect women’s agency — especially considering the horrific statistic that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in college.
Important educational posters had recently been posted around the Indiana University Bloomington (IU) campus, explaining the importance of consent in sexual encounters. On September 24th, several of those posters were replaced by lookalikes. These new “prank” posters promoted a culture of gaslighting, victim-shaming, and mockery of survivors. It is an incident that should remind us to continue questioning college-aged adults’ understandings of consent and sexual assault — even while powerful men in Hollywood seemingly (and hopefully) may begin to actually face consequences for their actions.
On the posters, the definition of consent was replaced by the words “ consent is a generic buzzword that we use to shove our own personal brand of feminism down your throat,” and sexual assault is described as occurring “when attention whores (like you) need extra sympathy.”
The website listed at the bottom of the fake poster was later found to be malicious.
Toby Klein, senior and director of outreach for Raising Awareness of Interactions in Sexual Encounters (RAISE) at IU, described the poster to me as “the worst kept secret on campus.”
Within a day the poster had gone viral, aided by people like Mike Strunk, an Indiana University sophomore who shared the poster on Snapchat with the caption “They replaced the actual ones with these, this is great.” (He later issued an apology on his now-deleted personal Twitter account that included the phrase “but let’s be honest people it’s just Snapchat.”)
“I saw it playing out as a high school rumor,” said Klein. Klein, who runs violence prevention and training on campus, told me the campus’s reaction reminded her of the “shocked” statements of some non-people of color following Charlottesville’s white supremacist rallies earlier this year: “I can’t believe we’re still racist in 2017!”
Klein and Courtney Schwerin, a member of IU’s Feminist Student Association, told me that some people on campus – especially men – were appalled that someone would use such cruel language to describe sexual assault.
“What surprised me the most was that people were so shocked this was happening. You can walk on campus and walk down Kirkwood [main restaurant and nightlife street in Bloomington, Indiana] and hear the same thing,” said Schwerin, who is a senior. “Everyone wants to believe our campus is the safest, [that] we’re the outlier in this world of rape culture.”
“What’s jarring is that [the message] was all written down in a manifesto of sorts,” said Klein, who explained that it’s not so much what was being said, but how it was presented that left an impression on people. It was a physical representation of what so many overhear on a daily basis.
On September 25th, the IU Division of Student Affairs released a statement denouncing the “fake and offensive posters” and listed resources for victims of sexual assault. It’s important to note that IU is one of the 55 colleges and universities under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for Title IX sexual violence cases (the total number of institutions under investigation has since quadrupled to a reported 304 open cases).
The posters appeared shortly before #MeToo began trending on Twitter, and just days after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era Title IX guidelines, a decision activists say forces survivors of sexual assault further into the shadows.
The managing director of End Rape on Campus, Jess Davidson, told me, “DeVos’s actions create more room for messages like that poster” and pave the way for “the opportunity for people to think it’s permissible to undermine survivors.”
Given government’s and institutions’ inabilities to put survivors’ wellbeing at the forefront of policy, it’s up to individuals to hold themselves accountable. The passive reaction to IU’s fake consent poster forces us to confront the question: How are college students learning consent? Do they understand it?
I asked Dr. Nicole Serena Kousaleos, senior lecturer in Indiana University’s Department of International Studies, whose research focuses on gender violence. “They do [understand]. People rape because they can get away with it, not because they don’t understand consent,” she argued.
The way consent is generally practiced in our society – and not just in sexual encounters – helps perpetuate sexual assault.
“Consent is about respecting another person’s agency, and we do not live in this manner in general today,” said Dr. Kousaleos.
The way women and men are educated, explained Dr. Kousaleos, allows for the more “entitled” members of society (mostly men – and mostly white, financially successful men) to disrespect the individual freedoms of others (majority women and women of color).
“So how in this toxic environment can young people authentically communicate about sexual behavior and choice?” Dr. Kousaleos posited.
Many students, like Klein, don’t believe Indiana University is doing enough to stop rape on campus (or protect survivors once they come forward, for that matter). The university’s Office for Sexual Violence Prevention and Victim Advocacy (OSVPVA) sponsors several prevention programs, but even if they did go above and beyond, “Any effort at a University level is useful but is almost late in the game,” said Dr. Kousaleos. (OSVPVA declined to answer a request for an interview.)
The best way to transform our society into a culture of consent is by teaching age- appropriate sexual education early on – starting at the kindergarten level.
Standardized sexual education across the country – and a standardized definition of consent – “is the key to ending sexual assault,” reaffirmed Davidson, “But we don’t have anything remotely close to that.”
The differing and convoluted messages students receive about consent, combined with the common policy of abstinence-only sex education are further barriers to ending rape culture.
Mariah Sloat, a second-year Masters of Public Health student at IU and health educator at the OSVPVA, told me that consent is a “new and uncomfortable topic” for many incoming students.
“Students coming from Indiana high schools have primarily had abstinence-only education. Therefore, they are lacking even the most basic information about safe sex practices, let alone understanding consent,” Sloat explained.
We take this matter very seriously and IU is making every effort to investigate and respond appropriately. Info: https://t.co/Yr5iTeTabV
— Indiana University (@IUBloomington) September 26, 2017
So, do college students understand consent? Yes – for the most part – but that doesn’t mean they’ll practice it. Why? Because they’re in a society that turns a blind eye to rape culture and allows it to flourish.
To end sexual assault and rape, said Dr. Kousaleos,“We have to change the way we think. The posters are a great and sickening example of this — just like white nationalists rallying to attempt to shut down the progress of Black Lives Matter, those posters are an attempt to reaffirm the power imbalance, reinforce rape culture, and silence people.”