Consent Awareness 101: It’s Not Always About Sex

November 30, 2018

Amanda Nagy

Five students in front of a blue painted rock
From left, Deborah Johnson ’18, Natalie Phillips ’18, Kira Findling ’19, India Wood ’18, and Joy Castro-Wehr ’20 paint one of the "founders rocks" in Tappan Square to celebrate Consent Month in April 2018.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Suzanne Denneen

Students’ and parents’ reactions have reaffirmed the value of Oberlin’s “Let’s Make Consent a Conversation” campaign.

Sometimes it seems like the work that comes out of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is only about sex.

Rebecca Mosely, director of the office and Oberlin’s Title IX coordinator, will be the first to tell you that it’s hard to talk about sex, but the matter of consent isn’t just sexual.

A year ago, Mosely’s office launched Oberlin’s first consent awareness campaign. The slogan, “Let’s Make Consent a Conversation,” has a multitude of meanings: make consent a conversation with yourself; a conversation with your partner; a conversation at home with your parents.

Although a majority of students were aware of the college’s sexual misconduct policy, there were just as many who had questions about how to practice clear consent.

“Being on a residential campus, college is the first time where you’re not going home at night to somewhere your friends are not,” says Mosely, who began her Oberlin career in residential education before transitioning to her current role.

“At home, if you wanted to avoid a person or not hang out with them, you just went home. Here, you’ve living, dining, and going to classes with them,’’ she says. “Really understanding how to ask for and gain consent in a relationship is more important than it has ever been before in students’ lives.”

In spring 2017, Mosely and Suzanne Denneen, program coordinator in the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, attended a training workshop offered by the Ohio Alliance to End Sexualized Violence, a statewide anti-sexual violence coalition. With the training came an opportunity to receive grant funding for a consent awareness campaign. They immediately started brainstorming ideas on the car ride home.

“What they talked about at the training really resonated with us,” says Denneen, noting some of the market research they gleaned from the conference.

“We feel like there’s new energy coming in with this generation of students. For Gen Z, the digital world is very noisy, and they’d rather be invited to be a part of something instead of being told what to do. This sparked ideas about how the campaign should be more print-focused and more in-person.”

While there is no model or federal mandate for consent campaigns on college campuses, it’s considered a best practice. Before the campaign launched, Oberlin was already meeting four of the state of Ohio’s standards; a consent campaign was the final piece. Mosely and Denneen were awarded a $10,000 grant to make it happen.

“Oberlin had spent prior years working on other best practices, such as creating solid education for our students, editing our sexual misconduct policy, and conducting climate surveys to gauge student experiences, behaviors, and perceptions. To me, consent awareness was the natural next step,” Mosely says.

The survey says

Oberlin’s peer education program, Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct (PRSM), trains first-years on the essentials of both consent and Oberlin’s sexual misconduct policy. All first-year and transfer students are required to attend two PRSM-led training sessions their first year.

The fall workshop covers the basics of consent and the second workshop in February focuses on bystander intervention—educating people on how to intervene when there is potential harm. Student PRSM trainers had already been using the slogan “Make Consent a Conversation,” but the message only existed on a sticker and a pen and hadn’t gained much traction.

Mosely’s office conducted a focus group in summer 2017 to gauge students’ interest in a campaign and get more information about issues surrounding consent on campus. A survey with those questions was sent to all students that summer, and the responses significantly influenced how they moved forward and shaped the campaign.

“One of the things we heard was what type of products would be useful,” Mosely says. Students told us we should use stickers and buttons, because trying to ask for or understand consent can be really awkward, and you don’t know how receptive the other person will be.

“Having some kind of visible sign that would indicate that the other person understood consent and wanted to talk about it was a way for them to feel more comfortable breaking into that kind of conversation.”

During the initial brainstorming, “We were hearing that some students didn’t really know how to talk to each other about sex, let alone how to ask for consent or say no,” Denneen says.

Armed with all of that information, they created a brochure that was sent to all students, and they engaged with other staff members on campus to develop posters, stickers, pins, and a series of videos. They also sent a letter to parents of first-years asking them to talk with their students about the brochure and discuss how the idea of consent would align with their family values.

Denneen says feedback to the brochure was positive. It even made headlines: a comic illustration about the brochure by Oberlin parent Beth Wolfensberger Singer in the Boston Globe was a point of pride for everyone who worked on the campaign.

“One of the things we’ve come to appreciate about the campaign is that we’ve been able to show how this kind of communication and consent practice isn’t just related to sexual interactions. It’s relevant to all of our interactions with one another,” Mosely says. “I think it also makes the content accessible to students who aren’t engaging in sexual interactions with one another.”

PRSM trainer and senior Kira Findling says students’ reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.

“Student reactions are confirming my belief that a consent awareness campaign promotes healthy relationships on campus and keeps people safe,” says Findling, a comparative American studies and cinema studies major from Sebastopol, California.

“What I love about this campaign is that rather than focusing on what we shouldn’t do, it talks about what we can do to be kind and caring to one another on campus and beyond,” Findling says.

PRSM continues to create and present workshops about different aspects of consent, including Consent Month in April, observed nationally as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“I feel really proud to be a PRSM trainer and to be involved in this work,” Findling says. “The posters are all around campus, so people are constantly seeing them and thinking about how to bring consent into their everyday lives. I think the next step is not letting these conversations end.”

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