Olivia, 21, was sitting in her living room chatting with her younger brother, a college athlete. The conversation had turned toward their childhood when he mentioned a family friend had recently been "#MeToo'd." In an interview, Olivia recalls the conversation, telling me she found his words confusing. "He assaulted someone?" She asked, in shock. "No, some girl accused him of assaulting her when he didn't do it." While Olivia's brother dove into the details, she wondered how #MeToo — a term created to empower survivors — had been manipulated by alleged perpetrators. They may have looked like two college students discussing consent to an outsider; but while her brother focused on the friend who was allegedly falsely accused, Olivia worried about the alleged sexual assault survivor. The two were coming to the conversation with fundamentally different priorities.
Tarana Burke first called for sexual assault survivors to share their stories to raise awareness about the commonality of sexual misconduct in 2007. In doing so, she started a campaign that, following the groundbreaking Harvey Weinstein exposé, became popularized as 2017's #MeToo movement. Burke's words brought forth an outcry for accountability from the perpetrators of sexual misconduct, creating a ripple effect throughout Washington and Hollywood. Ten years later, consent had found its way onto televisions and into conversations, but has the #MeToo movement made its way onto college campuses?
The short answer is yes — college women are one of the largest at-risk groups in regards to sexual assault and misconduct, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which reports "women ages 18-24 are at an elevated risk of sexual violence, with 23.1% of female [students] [experiencing] rape or sexual assault." It's not shocking that young women are engaging with an issue that directly affects their well-being, and though there's a cultural narrative suggesting both men and women are confused about what consent looks like, and that giving consent often falls in a so-called "gray area" — it's not young women who are confused. According to a survey of 142 Bustle Digital Group readers ages 18-22, conducted between July 9 and July 29, women and femmes attending college in a post-#MeToo movement world know exactly what consent looks like.
It's college men, they say, who may not understand what consent should look like, and although they know to ask for it, women feel they're asking for all the wrong reasons.
RAINN defines consent as "an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity," however, 60% of survey respondents believe consent is defined as being verbally asked, "Do you want to do this?" and replying yes, throughout every stage of a hookup (including, but not limited to manual, oral, and penetrative sex). Other multiple choice answers included being verbally asked, "Do you want to do this?" and replying yes at the very beginning of a hookup, saying anything but "sure" to "OK" but never giving a clear "yes," giving somebody cues with your body, and signing a written consent form — all scenarios college students had described to me in conversation. This dialogue demonstrates a dramatic shift in ideology since the #MeToo movement's popularization. Just four years ago, a 2015 poll of 1,053 adults ages 17-26, conducted by The Washington Post, revealed 18% of college students thought someone consented to sexual activity as long as they didn’t say “no.” This is a drastically different understanding of consensual sex.
"Consent is a constant dialogue between partners that fosters comfort and care during sex," Jennifer Wiggins, M.A., assistant director of sexual assault response and prevention at Georgetown University, staff clinician and sexual assault specialist, and rape crisis counselor, tells Elite Daily. "Consent is given at the free will of each participant and can be revoked at any point in time."
“Our generation has actually been lucky, thanks to the courageous women who have spoken openly about their experiences with consent," Ava, 20, tells Elite Daily. She's referring to women such as Burke, Alyssa Milano, and Ashley Judd. "The conversation and attitudes on college campuses have completely shifted. Thanks to the #MeToo movement and other public organizations advocating for consent [such as #TimesUp], [the concept of] consent is now ingrained into most college campuses." College administrations are also participating in bettering education for students, some by mandating sexual assault prevention trainings by pairing with organizations like EVERFI Inc., and others by hiring rape crisis counselors and sexual assault specialists. The 2013 Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (Campus SaVE) Act, which amends the Clery Act, requires institutions to provide sexual violence prevention education and awareness programs to enrolled students. However, the Campus SaVE Act doesn't mandate these programs. In fact, RAINN reports 72% of campus law enforcement agencies "have a staff member responsible for survivor response."
Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, echoes Ava's sentiment. "Sexual consent is the philosophical topic of the moment," she tells Elite Daily. "How do you get consent, when do you get it, and what is it, exactly? Female college students are talking about it with each other all the time, in the way that older women are talking about it off-campus." Survey results also indicate college students today are discussing consent with friends of all gender identities, partners, hookups, professors, and family members. In fact, only 7% of survey participants claimed to have never partaken in a conversation about consent on a college campus.
"#MeToo'd" suggests the movement hasn't actually succeeded in teaching men to take rape culture seriously, or that non-consensual sex is a violation.
The conversations happening in classrooms are also taking place in bedrooms. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed say their previous sexual partners have asked them for active, verbal consent while having sex since 2017. But the majority of women and femmes also believe men are actively seeking consent for the wrong reasons. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed feel men are asking for consent because they're afraid of being publicly accused of sexual assault. Seventeen percent think it's because men are afraid of "accidentally" sexually assaulting a woman, while 5% believe men fear being publicly shamed. These feelings represent a growing divide — one where people are seeking active consent, not out of respect for their sexual partner's boundaries, but for their own self-preservation.
"Between Title IX and #MeToo, men on college campuses have been kind of shocked into being more aware — because some of the consequences for failing to think about consent in lots of different contexts have been all over the news and making news on certain campuses," Donna Freitas, author of Consent On Campus: A Manifesto, tells Elite Daily. "While some men care deeply about respecting women and women's claims about sexual violence and harassment, I wish that the current worries and consciousness about men in relation to consent didn't arise out of a cascade of national scandals that involved the takedown of powerful public men. I wish the consciousness came from caring about this issue, period."
Faith, 20, says she believes college men are acting out of concern for themselves, and not out of concern for the emotional and physical well-being of women they're sleeping with — and that they're entirely missing the point. "I think because of the #MeToo movement, men are 1,000% more nervous about consent as it pertains to them and their reputation, rather than how the actual act affects the woman," she tells Elite Daily. "I know from conversations with my guy friends that if I even mention that a girl they hooked up with was really drunk, they jump in fear of being '#MeToo’d' rather than jumping in fear of having hurt the feelings of the girl they were with."
"#MeToo'd" is a phrase that keeps coming up in my conversations with college women and femmes. They claim to have heard college men use it in excess and in a defensive manner when describing the "threat of being accused of sexual assault." ("You wouldn't want to get #MeToo'd, make sure you don't get #MeToo'd.") It even has its own Urban Dictionary entry, which defines the slang term as "when a woman ruins your life by accusing you of sexual assault or sexual harassment, without any evidence or [past] the time that any evidence could be collected." This phrase is hugely problematic, as it steers the conversation away from women and their bodies and onto men and their feelings. Its usage implies the real consequence of sexual assault is that a man's reputation could be publicly harmed, diminished, or ruined, as if that is more debilitating than the physical and psychological safety of survivors. Above all, being "#MeToo'd" suggests the movement hasn't actually succeeded in teaching men to take rape culture seriously, or that non-consensual sex is a violation. And if men being "#MeToo'd" is just a passing fad, how can college women possibly feel less afraid at the prospect of being sexually assaulted or harassed on campus?
According to Elite Daily's survey results, they can't — college women and femmes are as afraid of being sexually assaulted as they were before the movement began. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed say they worry about the potential risk of sexual assault when they’ve been using drugs or drinking at a party; 55% say they worry about it when they’re alone at a party; and 43% say they worry about it regardless, even when they attend a party with friends. "It's definitely still scary being a young woman in college," Olivia says. "You're constantly worried about being separated from your friends for too long or having something slipped into your drink."
When drinking at a party leads to sex, consent is no longer on the table. Sixty percent of survey participants agree that the ability to give consent is entirely contingent on sobriety — in other words, if you're not sober, you can't consent. Wiggins agrees. "In my opinion, consent cannot be given while someone is drunk," she says.
If college women and femmes are afraid men are only asking for active consent because they're powered by fear, pride, and ego, then they'll presumably continue to live in fear of being sexually assaulted on campus.
Nylah Burton, writer and consent educator, tells Elite Daily, "I don’t know that #MeToo has made them more aware of something women have been facing for thousands of years, but I do think that seeing all of these stories about women being assaulted does increase anxiety, especially considering social media and constant access to the news cycle — college women are saturated with it." Sara Collina, professor of Gender, Sexuality & The Law at Georgetown University, agrees with Burton. "Based on my experience teaching Gender Studies for many years now, I don't think #MeToo has significantly influenced women's sense of safety on campus," she tells Elite Daily. "In 2018, I asked one of my classes to brainstorm ideas for making the campus safer, especially for first-year students. They suggested making a flyer telling the first-year students which parties to avoid, since certain places have the reputation for being 'rape parties.' They did not suggest breaking windows or a sit-in, they did not even recommend reporting anything to any authorities. Just warnings to women."
As a society, we're still a long way from gender equity on campus, but college women and femmes are now arming themselves with the knowledge of what to do if they're sexually assaulted. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed report knowing their school's policy when it comes to reporting sexual assault. Thirty-two percent say when reporting an assault, they'd reach out to their campus's Title IX officer first, followed by campus security and 911. Title IX officers exist on college campuses to prevent sex discrimination and harassment, as well as field reports of sexual violence. According to Harvard University, if you ever have a question or concern, your school's respective Title IX officer should always be your first call.
But the survey results indicate female and femme students' knowledge of what to do in the case of a sexual assault doesn't directly translate to a safer campus environment. Seventy-one percent of participants say they know someone who has been allegedly sexually assaulted on a college campus. However, 63% don't know anyone who has been accused of committing sexual assault on a college campus — a discrepancy that just doesn't add up. Perhaps it's that many women aren't coming forward with the name of their attacker, or maybe schools are still underreporting sexual assault and harassment, effectively protecting the reputations of the young men involved.
"[In 2018], Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took on the cause of due process on college campuses, following the president's lead, because she believes that the current atmosphere creates a 'scary time for young men in America,'" Dr. Barbara Berg, author of Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future, tells Elite Daily. "She believes that 90% of the time, accusations of sexual misconduct are really cases of regretted sex. She wants to change the definition of sexual assault so that it is severe and pervasive enough to deprive a student of education. This will only make it harder for victims of assault [to come forward]."
The current culture does not encourage communication. I'd like to see us teach consent as more of an attitude toward one's partner.
According to ABC News, Cynthia P. Garrett, co-president of a group called Families Advocating for Campus Equality, says she's been pushing for Devos' proposal because it will give students accused of misconduct "better opportunities to defend themselves." Additionally, Garett claims that the majority of campus sexual misconduct cases she's seen "involve the lack of affirmative consent, regretted sex, not life-threatening, criminal conduct." In a September 2017 statement, Secretary Devos said, “The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students. Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.” USA Today reports that her proposal would divide the definition of sexual harassment into three categories: "unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity," "quid pro quo harassment, and sexual assault." Under President Obama's guidelines, sexual harassment was more loosely defined as "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature."
According to The New York Times, Secretary Devos' proposal would also no longer legally require college administrations to investigate alleged assaults committed by students if they were to occur off-campus. Additionally, if the alleged student assault were to happen on campus, but the survivor reported to the wrong administrative official, the university is no longer legally accountable nor required to look into it. If the survivor did report to the correct official, then decided not to move forward with the investigation, the school's Title IX coordinator can choose whether to honor that request. If the survivor reported to the correct official and decided to move forward with the investigation, depending on the school, an investigator may be hired to gather evidence of the allegation or they may be required to attend a hearing, where the accused would be able to request to directly question the accuser, as part of the disciplinary proceeding. If the accused is found guilty, they would have the ability to appeal the decision. If the accused is unhappy with said decision, they can sue the university.
If college women and femmes are afraid men are only asking for active consent because they're powered by fear, pride, and ego, then they'll presumably continue to live in fear of being sexually assaulted on campus. Impending government legislation, headed up by Devos, if passed, won't help matters. Freitas suggests the only way to create a real cultural shift with a long-lasting impact is for students to fundamentally alter the way they value interpersonal relationships. "Consent is literally an act of concern for one's partner's well-being," she says. "The [current culture] does not encourage communication. I'd like to see us teach consent as more of an attitude toward one's partner — an overall attitude of respect, concern, and care for their desires, their participation in whatever intimacy is occurring, and for their overall well-being." DeVos' Title IX regulations on sexual harassment and assault were proposed in November 2018, and according to The New Yorker, are currently undergoing a "legal process to make them binding law," which could take years. If approved, the regulations will be difficult to undo.
Ava, Olivia, and Faith, however, aren't banking on the kind of picture Freitas paints. Olivia points out this responsibility to reeducate men about sexual boundaries would still fall on the shoulders of young women. Ava worries the masculinity of her male peers is still too fragile. Faith sees this as an unlikely shift she won't witness during her remaining two years in college. "Maybe I'm a pessimist, but we live in a world that's spent centuries thinking in terms of men and their perspective," she sighs, acknowledging the gravity of her words. "I hate to say it, but our generation may be naïve to believe we can change that."