What is consent? At Penn, it's an open question
October 28, 2013, 1:05 am · Updated October 28, 2013, 10:16 am·
Right after it happened, Cam told herself it wasn’t rape.
She went on a date with a guy she liked, whom she’d gotten to know on a trip. The two drank some wine during their date — not enough so she was drunk, she said, but enough to get her tipsy. Back home, they started hooking up. Cam told him she couldn’t have sex that night. She was on her period, and she had a tampon in.
“He said, ‘Oh, I won’t put it any further than this,’” Cam said, at which point he wasn’t inside of her. She thought he would stay true to his word and didn’t fight him off.
But then, she said, he shoved himself inside of her. She felt searing pain. The next day, she took herself to Planned Parenthood to get her tampon removed.
The assault was one of the factors that contributed to Cam taking a leave of absence from the University her junior year. She never reported what happened to the University or the police.
Cam’s name, along with those of all other victims in this series, has been changed at her request to protect her identity.
She still isn’t sure how she feels about the incident now. She still asks herself: What counts as consent? Is it rape if you don’t fight?
Learning to ‘Call It What It Is’
Although the University attempts to set out clear definitions of consent, victims of sexual assault — like Cam — are often left in the moment questioning what happened to them.
Uncertainty over the definition of sexual assault is the second most-common reason students cited for victims not getting help after a sexual assault, according to a recent Daily Pennsylvanian poll of Penn undergraduates. Forty-six percent cited “uncertainty over whether what they experienced was sexual assault” as one of the top three reasons victims might not report sexual assault — second only to “shame or guilt.”
Penn’s messaging starts with New Student Orientation. The task isn’t easy. Consent is not as straightforward as not saying “no.” Silence, as University policies make clear, is not a substitute for a verbal affirmative, nor is a “yes” after repeated “no’s.” Alcohol clouds the issue further: Blurry nights leave students wondering how to define what happened to them the night before.
University policy and Pennsylvania law provide written definitions of sexual assault. The University’s Sexual Violence Policy defines sexual assault as forced sexual contact or sexual contact with someone unable to consent due to “incapacity or impairment.” The Pennsylvania Crimes Code defines rape as not just forced intercourse, but intercourse with someone who is unaware that sex is occurring.
“[People] might not have a clear conception of what sexual assault and sexual violence is,” One in Four president and College senior Jeremy Pincus said. “Some people just don’t realize that any kind of unwarranted sexual contact, sexual experience where consent is not explicitly given — that technically constitutes sexual assault.”
Pincus’s group, the all-male One in Four, is one of several student-run groups that help fellow students work out the definitions of assault. One in Four, along with Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention and The Vagina Monologues, aims to raise awareness about sexual assault and spark campus dialogue through events and presentations to peers.
Every year, the Interfraternity Council coordinates a session to teach new members about sexual assault. New Member Education Chair Chris Yamamoto said one of his biggest struggles is that most people don’t even understand the definition of assault.
“I’ve heard stories of people who never even realize they were assaulted,” Yamamoto, a College senior, said. “One of the parts is trying to get the definition across, but that’s sometimes difficult.”
In a college culture today where acquaintance rape — rape committed by a known perpetrator as opposed to a stranger — dominates the discussion, the University has devoted significant efforts toward educating students on what counts as consent. One of the earliest days of New Student Orientation found freshmen packed into Irvine Auditorium for the “Safe Living” presentation, where they learned about everything from fire safety to bike locks to sexual assault.
The section on sexual assault, presented by Division of Public Safety Special Services Director Patricia Brennan and Penn Women’s Center Director Felicity Paxton, began with a video: “Call It What It Is.” The clip, featuring student actors, defined sexual violence and gave examples of dating violence and stalking, imploring students not to shy away from recognizing them for what they are.
The “Call It What It Is” video is supplemented by brightly-colored posters on the walls of the college houses with messages such as “alcohol is not an aphrodisiac” — stark reminders to students to confront assault for what it is.
The campaign “empowers students to accurately name, and speak out against, sexual assault, rape, dating violence and stalking,” Paxton said in an email statement. She added that the campaign’s “frank messaging — conceptualized with the help of students — directly confronts dismissiveness.”
‘I can’t really make up my mind’
Michelle hooked up with her rapist for three months after it happened. Michelle, now a senior, had gone home with an older guy she’d met after at a social event two years ago. They were playfully kissing and taking each other’s clothes off, she said, and ended up naked in his bed. Michelle realized they were going too fast.
“I started to pull away and he became more forceful,” she said. “He started having sex with me, and I tried to push him off and repeatedly said, ‘No, stop.’” He was bigger than she was. Finally, she said, he stopped after she repeatedly kept pushing him — only to start performing oral sex on her. Michelle protested, but said she was “so relieved I just let him do it.”
The next day, she bragged to her friends about hooking up with an older guy — and only remembered him having sex with her as she was telling them the details. She laughed it off.
Michelle casually hooked up with him for the next three months, even though, she said, he treated her terribly. He insulted her looks and told her that she should wear more makeup, and slept with other girls the entire time.
She said it took her about half a year, long after they’d stopped hooking up, to realize what had happened to her: She was raped.
“Everyone has this stereotypical rape scene in their head, which consists of a woman walking alone at night in an alley where a stranger attacks her,” said College senior Nicole Grabowski, who is on the boards of both ASAP and the Vagina Monologues. Most college rapes, however, don’t fit that narrative. “Deconstructing that and understanding that sexual assault isn’t limited to those instances is really how to dismantle that thinking.”
Those who experience assault by members of the same sex often face an even harder time defining what happened to them, said Associate Director of the LGBT Center Erin Cross.
“A lot of societal perceptions are that if a man assaults a man that’s a fair fight — you should have fought back, that there isn’t really a victim,” she said, “or women can’t really assault other women.”
Yamamoto, the IFC New Member Education Chair, has heard a range of definitions of sexual assault. “Some people think it needs to be aggressive — the girl has to be in no way, shape or form coherent,” he said. Others, he said, count a decision made when both parties are drunk that they wouldn’t have normally made as a form of assault.
As Jane, a College junior, was assaulted for the third time during her years at Penn, she said no repeatedly. Eventually, she stopped.
Over the summer, she walked home from a bar with a guy she knew, having what she thought was a deep conversation. They went back to his room and started kissing. When he started to take off her clothes, she told him she didn’t want to have sex.
He said he would never force her and they continued making out. But for the next 30 minutes, she said, he periodically tried to force himself inside of her as she pushed him away. Every time Jane got up to leave, he apologized profusely, promised her it would stop, and she stayed.
“Eventually when he tried, I didn’t push him away,” she said.
When he finished, he kissed her forehead and went to get a cigar. She made up an excuse and left while he was still smoking.
“I don’t know why I didn’t just get up and leave,” she said. “I was somewhat petrified and depressed and scared. I don’t consider what happened to me here rape — after all, I feel like I let him, even though I explicitly said ‘no.’ But I know that victims have a tendency to blame themselves, so I can’t really make up my mind as to how I should feel.”
‘I can’t remember any of it’
When one or both parties are drinking, consent can become considerably harder to define.
Ruth, a student at Penn, went with her friends to a party at a fraternity house last fall. She got much drunker than she’d intended at the party and met a guy.
She didn’t remember leaving with him, but she said she found pictures on her phone the next morning of the two of them at bars on campus. Later, Ruth heard from some acquaintances that they’d seen her stumbling home on the street with him.
Don’t take advantage of her, they asked the guy. Just take her home.
“That didn’t happen,” Ruth said. She realized it, she said, when she woke up at his fraternity house and he was on top of her.
Ruth went to Student Health Service to get the emergency contraceptive, Plan B. “Was it consensual?” asked the woman helping her.
“Without hesitation, I just said yes because I couldn’t — I guess I almost felt like I didn’t know if I was allowed to really think of it as assault, because you think it was my fault for getting too drunk,” she said. “Maybe I did give consent, who knows, because I can’t remember any of it.”
Ruth still isn’t sure if she should call what happened to her assault. Although she told a couple of her closest friends, she never reported the incident.
Carol Tracy, the director of the Penn Women’s Center from 1977 to 1984 and current executive director of Philadelphia-based advocacy organization the Women’s Law Project, said that often people believe that if they’re drunk, they are responsible for both their behavior and for their assailant’s behavior.
“Sometimes they think it’s a misunderstanding,” Tracy said. “The problem is when they think about it a year later they know it was a bad experience. It wasn’t just a misunderstanding.”
Alcohol and consent is a gray area. The Student Guidelines for Penn’s Sexual Violence Policy clearly warn that sexual violence may be committed by “causing another’s intoxication or impairment with alcohol or drugs” or taking advantage of someone’s intoxication or incapacitation. But during this year’s NSO presentation to freshmen, Brennan of Special Services acknowledged that the issue has its nuances.
“I used to say … sex with an intoxicated person is rape,” she said. “But people drink to release inhibitions — they drink to go out and have sex at the end of the night.” Now, she told the Class of 2017, she revised her statement to: “Sex with an intoxicated person might be rape; sex with an incapacitated person is rape.”
Coping with the aftermath
Cam cried for days after her assault. When she told her friends, they all told her it was rape, but she didn’t want to believe them. Part of her still hoped that the guy actually liked her and that what had happened wasn’t what she thought it was.
“I don’t think what I said counts as consent — in fact, I think it was the opposite of consent, and therefore it becomes rape,” she said. “But how hard do you have to fight? Does it have to be violent?”
Cam has a strong martial arts background and still feels like she should have hit the guy. She said she should have had him “pinned to the ground in seconds.”
“But something happened to me,” she mused. “That’s it — it happened to me, not with me. I was passive in the whole thing.”
For Joanna Kahmi, College junior and chair of ASAP, the rule of thumb is simple: “I would say if something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right. I wouldn’t want to see people stifle feelings of uncomfortableness because they’re just not sure.”
A year after her incident, Ruth is still struggling to work through a definition of sexual assault as it applies to her.
“It’s a hard thing to talk to people and be like, ‘Oh, I was sexually assaulted,’ because everyone has a different definition of what that is,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has a concrete definition.”
She’s never spoken to the guy again.
Sarah Smith can be reached at email@example.com.