By Mary Dwyer (ChE ’18) and Kavya Udupa (BSE ’19)
On Tuesday, January 26, the entire freshman class filed into the Great Hall, scanning their IDs at the entrance to ensure mandatory attendance, to spend their first club hours of the semester talking about sex. But not just sex: talking about the social and personal significance of sex, stressing the importance of communication and consent. As we entered the hall, our surroundings set the tone for what we would have to overcome. Not only was it a battle to emotionally transcend the barriers that make it difficult for us to naturally discuss sex, but also most of us sat in the back rows behind the giant, obstructing pillars of the Great Hall—making it physically impossible for us to participate in the conversation. We were encouraged to move forward, and a few students did—the school’s three majors painstakingly apparent as we chose our seats.
Dean of Students, Chris Chamberlin, and Title IX Coordinator, Mitchell Lipton, introduced us to the event, and briefly described Cooper’s Title IX policy, the school’s policy against “discrimination, harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual exploitation, and stalking.” The policy can be easily accessed and read in full on Cooper Union’s website.
After their introduction, a person from the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA), a collective of educators devoted to strengthening movements for social justice, took hold of the mic and shared the list of promises we made once entering the room, all of them having the common thread of respect. The presenter introduced themself as a person, and encouraged us not to make presumptions about gender as we began our discussion. As the workshop progressed, we learned that any presumption we made going forward was wrong—morally wrong—and we owe it to others to listen and learn about them, their comforts, and their consent.
This is notably the first consent workshop that Cooper Union mandated an entire class attend. In the future there will be an annual workshop that will take place during freshman orientation. When asked why the school did not require the workshop for all classes, Dean Chamberlin commented, “This was the first mandatory workshop we put on and we wanted to be sure that it was of a scale that was manageable.” He continued to credit the decision to “current laws [that] have requirements for training and workshops specifically geared towards new students.” In addition to educating the student body, Dean Lipton maintains, “We are offering four daytime faculty Title IX training sessions throughout February and March and plan to add a fifth evening training session to educate as many faculty members and key staff as possible on laws and responsibilities that relate to Title IX, ‘The Violence Against Women Act’ and ‘Enough is Enough’ laws.” He plans to record at least one of the sessions as a reference and educational tool to better train and educate the Cooper community.
The entire workshop revolved around education: spreading knowledge of the laws and practices of our school and humanity. If we seek to be better educated on those with whom we share personal, social, sexual relationships, we can be more certain that our actions are wanted and the actions of our partners are consensual.
The facilitator of the workshop tried to establish the idea of how uncomfortable giving/not giving consent is for both parties through a series of activities, the first of which was asking for permission to shake an individual’s hand. The activity was supposed to simulate the act of asking for and rejecting consent during sex. Some students were able to see the correlation
between the two as they felt uncomfortable both when asking for permission to shake their partner’s hand and when they were rejecting their partner. Others felt that asking permission to shake an individual’s hand is not a sufficient comparison to asking permission for consent. Some other
activities included simulating situations at parties or with friends in which someone would have to give consent and then
explain why they gave a certain answer.
Throughout the two-hour discussion, students expressed that the idea of asking for and giving consent is “common sense,” and that this workshop was unnecessary for that reason. That notion sparked the obvious retort that rape exists. Sexual assault is a societal omnipresence, especially on college campuses. The facilitator reminded us that “by the age of eighteen, one in four women are sexually assaulted.” The National Sexual Violence Resource Center also reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
-The National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Students also brought up the idea that consent to do certain activities should be given before actually having sex with one’s partner as asking for consent “ruins the mood.” Such an idea is incorrect because this assumes that the person’s opinions towards having sex haven’t changed since the beginning of the relationship. It also introduces another important concept discussed in the workshop: how the phrasing of the question and the environment in which permission is asked can influence a person’s response. As seen in the shaking hands activity, it is a lot harder for someone to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’ and not asking permission multiple times throughout the relationship can result in someone feeling coerced into having sex.
Sexual assault continues to be a growing problem in today’s society. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that for eight in ten cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator personally. This is why asking for consent is so important—a person should be able to freely say whether they are comfortable or not with the idea of having sex and should be able to say so at any stage in the relationship. They should not feel forced into anything and, ultimately, should not feel guilty for saying no.
The end of the workshop was decided by half of the audience standing up and walking out promptly at 1:50, while one of our peers was mid-sentence, sharing his stories and opinions. Some students chose not to accept an education that day, which permeated through their actions and discussion. Some students listened, and learned how to better their existing relationships. Some student taught, shared their experiences and stories. The effectiveness of the workshop depends on both the facilitator and the students; the facilitator needs to lead us, but we have to be willing to accept where they are going.
Below are two opinions about the mandatory workshop and the topic of consent in general, shared by staff writers of The Pioneer.
The object of the workshop would have been better achieved through poignancy. Some of the commentary during the workshop evinced that students were frustrated by the mandate, thereby entering the Great Hall with a closed mind. It is difficult to present to an audience that does not want to be there, and the format of the presentation did not serve a skeptical audience. I have a lot of respect for the purpose of the workshop, and I am proud of our school for taking steps to create a more comfortable environment for our students. However, because the information was presented in a disjointed discussion, the skeptics were able to leave the auditorium unaffected. Had a presenter shared a compelling narrative, forced us to move closer to the stage, put us in a situation in which we had to listen to what was said, more students would have heard the message.
When I was in seventh grade, the 500 plus students at my school were squeezed into the gym for a mandatory assembly on bullying. A man stood in the center of the dark, congested, atrium and told us his son’s story. His son was Ryan, a fourteen-year-old boy who committed suicide after relentless bullying. A few students were saved by Ryan’s Story, a majority of us were moved to tears, and every single one of us left reflecting on our lives, asking ourselves how we can improve our treatment of others.
- Mary Dwyer
The workshop was unable to leave a lasting impact on the entire student body. Though it had a very strong platform, the workshop could not engage all of the students as the audience was simply too large for a presentation that was meant to be an intimate discussion. The activities did stimulate conversation, but only in small areas of the auditorium and a significant portion of the student body did not take the activities seriously as there was no direct connection between them and the presenter. And more importantly, the presenter was not able to convey just how serious and prevalent such a workshop is to our lives.
Though it was established that the auditorium was a judgment-free zone, many students did not speak up and the discussion was led by only a small group of people. The conversation (or lack of conversation) proved that this workshop should be mandatory for all years, every year. Various students did not understand the gravity of the idea of giving consent and it was quite difficult to facilitate a steady discussion amongst the entire student body. But, for those students who were able to fully participate in the discussion, the workshop cemented the idea of how important getting consent is and showed that the simple action of getting permission to continue can make the entire process more enjoyable for both parties because after all, “consent is sexy.”
- Kavya Udupa