ConsentFest unites schools against assault

Last Saturday and Sunday, approximately 50 students from as far as Chicago, Ill. gathered in Griffin Hall for ConsentFest, co-sponsored by Men for Consent (MFC) and the Office of Student Life. The day’s activities focused on workshops and discussions and culminated in a keynote speech from Meg Bossong ’05, manager for community outreach at the Boston Rape Crisis Center.

In her keynote speech, Bossong advocated for the “performance model of sex” which likens intercourse to a piece of music performed by two people and thereby requires discussion and collaboration. Although consent is “integral to empowered, joyful, healthy sexuality,” Bossong said, the language of consent alone cannot solve the problem of sexual assault. Bossong spoke about what she perceived as the need to shift the conversation away from asking for consent, which can become a type of victim blaming, because “consent work is not actually directed at the people who are committing sexual assault.”

“The language we use literally shapes how we think,” Bossong said. She argued that a focus on consent can be problematic because many people think of it as a “transactional understanding,” and that it is often understood to be “permanent” once it is given. More problematic, however, is the fact that sexual assault is generally viewed as “a product of misunderstanding,” when in fact it is “intentional behavior,” Bossong said. “It’s very hard to hold the knowledge that there are people in communities that we love” who are committing sexual assault, Bossong continued. This also leads people to view sexual assault as the product of a miscommunication instead of a nefarious act.

To change these attitudes, people must begin by feeling empowered to set their own boundaries. This is difficult because multiple factors, such as race, legal status and physical ability, influence the level of ownership people feel over their bodies in American society: “Not everyone has had the same level of access to boundaries,” Bossong said. She spoke about the obstacles that get in the way of forming boundaries, using the example of situations in childhood in which children are pressured to be in physical contact (such as hugs) with relatives against their will. Bossong posited that support for this boundary-centric approach to sexual assault would have to come from within the power structure of college communities.

The response to Bossong’s talk was largely positive, though some raised concern about the alignment of Bossong’s speech with the message of consent ConsentFest set out to promote.

Groups from six other colleges were represented at ConsentFest: Bennington, Bowdoin, Colby, Smith, Hamilton and the Art Institute of Chicago. The groups shared strategies they had put to use at their own schools to encourage a culture of consent and discussed ways to provide survivors of sexual assault with the right kind of support. Students from Bowdoin, which has seven campus groups focused on sexuality and gender equality, led a discussion on facilitating campus dialogues about sexual assault and consent. Emily Nuckols ’15, who is co-chair of the Queer Student Union and was recently elected College Council’s vice president for community and diversity, led a talk addressing misconceptions about queer assault, saying that “all bodies are equally capable of committing sexual assault” and that one particularly damaging myth about sexual assault is that it is “less prevalent” in the LGBT/Q community than among heterosexual people. Student groups from participating institutions led other events throughout the day.

The planning for ConsentFest began last spring, when Henry Bergman ’15 and Long Dang ’15, co-presidents of MFC were developing their plans for the coming year. The planning began in earnest in July, when Bergman approached Dean Bolton for her help in contacting other schools’ leadership.

In organizing the events, Bergman and Dang “thought about conversations that we had had in meetings and questions we wanted to ask other groups” and then reached out to the College’s Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN) and QSU to lead events.

“Though MFC took the lead in organizing ConsentFest, we wanted more [of the College’s] voices in the conversation than just us, so it made perfect sense to include [RASAN and the QSU],” Bergman said. “Finally, Bowdoin Men Against Sexual Violence offered to lead a workshop about how to lead facilitations and we couldn’t say no to that.”

Bergman considers this year’s ConsentFest, its inaugural iteration, a success. He plans to use the momentum created by its impressive debut to make it an annual event, though he is not yet sure whether the event will take place at the College again or be hosted by other NESCAC schools on a rotation. However, MFC plans to handle logistical issues like these as they come up.

“The conversations we had, the ideas we shared, the connections we made, all contributed to getting MFC excited for the coming semester and planning new projects,” Bergman said. “The second major product of ConsentFest is that we collected a lot of material and notes that we plan to collate into a single document that someone could use to start or bolster a student movement. It is essentially going to be a how-to guide to make a group like MFC. It’s going to have event ideas, poster designs, tips, issues that might arise, collected wisdom.”