The limits of consent

As diligent readers of the Record already know, the keynote speaker of ConsentFest last weekend chose to focus on the limitations of advocating for consent as a means of ending rape and sexual assault on our campus. Her argument is straight-forward, and quite frankly completely accurate: Consent only serves to separate the good people from the rapists. It does nothing to stop rapists because they do not care about consent.

In my experience as a member of various groups and task forces that address issues related to sexual assault, this very simple fact is not discussed. In her presentation, Meg Bossong ’05 gave a very compelling reason for why this may be: We don’t want to admit that there are rapists in the student body. This can be seen in the way we talk about the link between drinking and sexual assault. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told to consider instances when both the male and female in a sexual encounter were “too drunk” to give consent. Inherent in the question is the askers’ desire to come up with a model of sexual assault that somehow does not include perpetrators.

Do not be fooled by this question. It is an arbitrary thought experiment to address the fear that if you get too drunk and forget to get consent, the activists will ruin your life. At best, you will face the highly unlikely scenario of having assaulted someone who chooses to report, and you will then be asked to take a mere semester off for raping a fellow student. If you’re sober enough to use your sexual organs, you’re sober enough to at least point and say, “May I?” If that’s too difficult then, yes, you deserve a timeout.

Instead, consider the possibility that people who fit the profile exist on this campus. Consider how they should be treated, not just by the administration once a formal report is filed, but by their teammates, by their entrymates and by their friends. Chances are, if you know a survivor, you know a perpetrator. Chances are, if you know someone has perpetrated once, they will perpetrate again.

The statistic is that one in four college women will be sexually assaulted. That does not mean one in four men are committing sexual assault. This means a small group of repeat offenders are sexually assaulting multiple people. Research around sexual assault has found a fairly consistent pattern for how male perpetrators operate both from prison samples and college populations. They usually stay sober or drink a relatively small amount for their size. They’ll go to a social gathering where they know there will be multiple “targets.” Often, they use alcohol as a date rape drug substitute. Then, they isolate the target from friends so that there will not be bystander intervention. At this point, they will attempt to bring the target to their room and will usually ask for consent – they just do not care about the response or believe someone would say no. (Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists, Lisak and Miller, 2002).

I hope that you picked up on the remarkable similarity between the perpetrator’s M.O. and the script for a typical hook-up. Here is where advocating for consent helps: It makes the one distinguishing feature between a perpetrator and an awkward Williams student struggling to avoid confessing sexual needs much clearer. On the other hand, it accepts a rather depressing status quo in which our model for hooking up is one step removed from criminal activity. Changing this is important and essentially the mechanism by which we end “rape culture.”

Men For Consent (MFC), in putting on ConsentFest, has perhaps stumbled across its role in the battle to stop sexual assault on this campus. By facilitating conversations about consent and dating at Williams, we will shift the hook-up culture in a more sex-positive direction, thus eliminating the similarities between a “good hook-up” and a “bad hook-up.” By finding their niche, they have exposed a gaping hole in the way Williams addresses these issues. We have no group on this campus that is dedicated to both political advocacy and prevention work. MFC could fill this niche if its members went through the same kind of rigorous training the Rape and Sexual Assault Network (RASAN) members do. As it is, we are asking a group of well-meaning non-experts to do more than they can, by forgetting that a knowledge of hook-up culture at Williams is not a substitute for dedicated research on trends, policies and the facts of sexual assault.

I do think the advocacy gap, in large part, is because the kind of student who would found or lead this group usually joins RASAN, but is then constricted by the group’s maintenance of an apolitical image. Of course, this is already a dubious claim, as Take Back the Night is a historically politicized event centered around the usually taboo notion of female anger at the sexual violence they have experienced. In fact, based on the one Take Back the Night I have attended, I have become suspicious that the dedication to remaining apolitical is to the detriment of the original intent of the night. For example, the opening poem for the evening was a man – traditionally, only women have attended, although I am glad that all are welcome – whose message was that men should be more responsible because women are delicate and beautiful. A beautiful sentiment, but hardly the right tone to set if we are trying to make women feel comfortable expressing their rage.

Both RASAN and MFC do valuable work on this campus, and we should not be asking them to do more. However, we should not pretend that these groups are preventing sexual assault. In doing so, we maintain the similarities between the hook-up culture and rape culture that allow the few number of perpetrators among us to maintain the one in four statistic.

Rhi Alyxander ’13 is a psychology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major from Windsor, Calif. She lives in Perry.