Let’s talk about consent

By: Elizabeth Sawka

Opinion Contributor

I was very pleased to come back to campus to see the Sexual Violence Bill of Rights  posters on display in various campus buildings.  Canisius has also printed that its definition of consent on the back of the planners in addition to the Bystander Intervention training Orientation Leaders and Resident Assistants receive during summer training.   Orientation Leaders, Resident Assistants, and a variety of faculty members were witness to a presentation from Title IX Coordinator Dr. Terri Mangione on Title IX, the New York State Enough is Enough Campaign, and the procedure the College follows when victims of sexual violence seek justice.   

As an Orientation Leader, a student, and a woman, I was pleased that the presentation was included during training to make the Orientation Leaders and Resident Assistants mandated reporters. In fact, it had to be.  Mandated reporters are required to report knowledge of sexual assaults, which means that if we learn of a sexual assault that involves a Canisius student, we are required to report the location, time, and day of the attack. The victim remains anonymous throughout the process; rather, the goal is to record an accurate number of reported cases.  

New students had a similar presentation from Dr. Mangione and though they were not made mandated reporters, consent was thoroughly explained and a conversation about sexual assault was a part of orientation.  I was not present for this presentation, but I am pleased that Canisius is making tangible efforts to start the conversation about consent with students early in their career at Canisius.  As men and women for others, it is our responsibility to ensure we have an educated and safe campus.

I attended the Fall Club Summit this past Saturday, and Dr. Mangione gave another presentation on Title IX .   There was less time allocated to Dr. Mangione for the Summit than there had been for summer training, but the limited time was not what disappointed me about the presentation.  I was disappointed with the direction the conversation took when Dr. Mangione used a student example during her presentation.  She asked two students to volunteer for the example which involved one student putting their arm around the other student.  It is disturbing that during a presentation on consent, there was physical contact initiated between students without a prior conversation.  Discussions of consent are to encourage students to think before they act and show a respect to the personal space of others.  

I am not suggesting that this was sexual assault, but this is a prime example of why the nature of conversations about consent are so important. Though Canisius has made serious strides to open the dialogue about consent, the way Canisius structures the conversation is just as important as having the conversation in the first place.  The student example was further problematic because the mood of the room became very lighthearted.  Students were laughing at Dr. Mangione’s example, which took away from the validity of the presentation.  It’s a serious subject.

Speaking of consent, perhaps you remember the faux pas that was “Zero Shades of Grey” last spring, an unfortunate circumstance that the Student Programming Board could not have foreseen.  Students who attended remember the unprofessional presentation that focused on the friend zone and dick pics and little else.  A large problem with this presentation was its blatant heteronormativity: a male attacker taking advantage of an innocent, unsuspecting, young girl.  The presenters made jokes and did not address rape culture as appropriately as I had anticipated.  

It is incredibly important that conversations about consent and sexual violence are taking place, but the nature of the conversation are equally important. If the conversations Canisius is having about consent are done in an unprofessional and comical manner, then we are failing to create a safe and welcoming campus and we are perpetuating victim shaming.  Jokes cannot be incorporated in these presentations because it automatically suggests rape is a safe topic to be joked about.  

Many students at the club summit were neither Orientation Leaders, Resident Assistants, nor new students, so this was their first conversation about consent from Dr. Mangione.  The Club Summit is full of student leaders who are, for the most part, hearing an administrator discuss consent for the first time, and if they are to leave the Summit with that presentation as their impression of campus efforts on combating sexual violence, they are leaving with a misrepresentation of Canisius.  The posters and programs are important, but the way we engage students reveals much more about our climate than allocating money for new posters.

Lighthearted presentations about sexual violence contribute to victim shaming culture because if our presentations on consent are jokes, then victims are taught their crime will not be taken seriously.  In the future, Canisius administrators must refrain from making light of the consent conversation because it negates the efforts our campus is making to combat sexual violence on campus.  The summit presentation suggests administrators do not take sexual violence seriously and though I know this is not the case, we as a community must always be conscious of the impact our conversations are having on the campus climate.

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