Review: Consent on Campus

consent on campus

Consent on Campus: A Manifesto, Donna Freitas. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An argument that current approaches to consent education as an approach to combating sexual assault on campus are inadequate both in the time devoted to deal with the complexities of sexuality, and the absence of campus leadership, faculty, presidents, and other university leaders, from the discussions.

Much has been made in recent years of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, with statistics indicating between 20 and 25 percent of women will be subject to assault, and smaller numbers of men, during their collegiate years. Colleges and universities, under pressure from the federal government and Title IX enforcement, have stepped up their efforts at “Consent Education” with programs like “Sex Signals” and “Partying with Consent.” These programs, often part of an hour long session in new student orientation, allow campuses to check the box that they have exercised due diligence in consent education. The other side is Title IX enforcement when a student or other member of the university community files a sexual assault complaint, with mandatory reporting requirements when university officials learn of a sexual assault, opaque investigative processes, neglect of due process for the accused, and pressures on the accuser, depending on who the perpetrator might be.

Donna Freitas, who has been studying student sexuality and the hookup culture on campus for the past ten years since publication of Sex and the Soul, believes these institutional responses to be utterly inadequate. She begins with a preface directed to all university presidents, and it is her hope that they all read this book. Their personal engagement, and not simply written statements, is vital in communicating that campus leadership prioritize thoughtful, honest discussion of sexuality on campus.

She surveys the landscape of campus efforts to deal with sexual assault. She offers a helpful explanation of how Title IX works, the “Dear Colleagues…” letter in 2011 that has triggered the growth of Title IX offices, reporting, and enforcement, and the failure of a campus-wide approach to address the sexual culture on campus that is implicit in Title IX proceedings. She also describes the thin efforts at consent education that fails to deal with the complexities of what “yes” means. Particularly, this is problematic with the party culture of campus and the complications alcohol bring to consent for both male and female students.

It goes deeper though and perhaps one of the most important part of Freitas’ book is the exploration of the inherited “scripts” that shape student behavior, often pressuring them to act in ways that are far from sexually free. Women have to project an air of indifference toward men, that sex doesn’t really matter that much, to avoid any sense of appearing “needy” or “clinging.” Men face pressures to perform sexually, even when they don’t want to. Their masculinity is at stake. Hookups are defined as over when the man “comes” (no real consideration of the woman’s experience). Women also face pressures around body image and various forms of “slut shaming.” All of this, in combination with the presence of alcohol, undermines any real giving and receiving of consent, as well as destroying any sense of sex as something deeply intimate, powerful and empowering for both partners. These inherited scripts are problematic, and often supported by a prevailing assumption on campus that “everyone is doing it” that doesn’t support those who wish to abstain, or wait for a different kind of relationship.

Freitas advocates for a concerted, widely owned effort to re-write these scripts, shared between students, student life personnel and faculty and university leadership. She observes that students often have high ideals of social justice and human dignity, but have never been able to connect those ideals to their sexual and partying behavior with each other. Freitas argues that any sexual encounter is an ethical act. She suggests using campus mission statements, which often are intended but rarely applied as expressing the ideals to which the community aspires. She contends that both existing scripts need to be codified, and critically examined, and that alternative, “interruptive” scripts need to be enacted. She sites the example of Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, an assault survivor who raised campus awareness by carrying her mattress with her wherever she went, which became a senior thesis, “Carry That Weight.” Most of all, she pleads that discussions of sexuality not be confined to large, one hour orientation sessions led by over-burdened student life personnel, but be integrated into classroom discussions. She challenges the value of intellectual detachment, proposing that where course content is relevant, that discussion on how this bears on students personal lives and behavior is appropriate and needed and that faculty and university leaders actively engage what happens after the classroom hours as well as during them.

I found much to be commended in this “manifesto” that “named the elephant” lurking on every campus. I appreciated her contention that what is needed are not trigger warnings but honest, even painful discussion (while never forcing students to share personal experiences they are not ready for). I appreciated her descriptions of Title IX and existing consent education efforts and their inadequacy. This needs to be honestly faced, and she helps us do that. I was glad for her contention that student beliefs and choices not to engage in the campus hookup culture need to be affirmed for whatever reasons, including religious belief, that they embrace these choices.

At the same time, she writes dismissively of  “values voters” and conservative “one size fits all” ethics in a way that seems to suggest that this is the only alternative currently on offer to hookup culture or her own “script rewriting efforts.” The truth is many campus religious communities are having thoughtful discussions of the kind she writes about that go beyond “what not to do and who not to do it with” to explore the meaning of sexuality, the significance of our gender and identity, how we deal with desire and respect and honor others. She leaves this group out as potential allies, despite their influence with a significant percentage of students on many campuses.

Finally, in urging greater faculty involvement, I wonder whether she reckons with the institutional support necessary for such conversations, from training of what is and is not legal and appropriate in classroom discussions, access to counseling when discussions raise unresolved issues for faculty who also have sexual lives and histories, and good linkages between faculty and student services personnel who might follow up with students in need of further counsel.

This “wake up call” comes as another cohort of students is preparing to arrive on campus. The matters she raises are urgent. Will this next cohort face the same depersonalizing sexual scripts that have prevailed and receive the same thin gruel of consent training? Will both men and women feel strong pressure to conform to the gender stereotypes that prevail in campus sexual culture? And will 20 to 25 percent of these women conclude their college experience not only with a degree but a sexual assault? Much of the answer depends, in Freitas’ view, on whether university leaders, faculty, student life personnel and students come together to disrupt that culture. Her book is probably one of the best playbooks I’ve seen for doing just that.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Freitas’ earlier book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy was reviewed at Bob on Books on November 24, 2013.

3 thoughts on “Review: Consent on Campus

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2018 | Bob on Books

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