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Who Cares About Consent?

Sophie Sonnenfeld '21 Op-Ed Editor
Who cares about consent training regarding intimate contact?
We all should. Similarly, we all should care about good dental hygiene, and driver education. However, flossing after meals does not prevent food poisoning and signaling before a turn does not prevent a crazed driver’s road rage. Well- intended consent education does not protect a potential victim from a predator’s assault.

On April 15, the Hopkins club ERRO (Equal Rights, Respect, and Opportunities) led a ‘Consent Assembly.’ ERRO should be saluted for their helpful educational initiative, but we risk falling victim to thinking this effort should be celebrated as mission complete. For Hopkins to responsibly provide sexual assault education, the school must: 1) include the key audience and 2) include the key topics.

First, the limited key audience refers to 140 students who many would argue are in the height of forming an understanding of sexual consent and also often predators’ most vulnerable targets. Yes, according to RAINN, (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the victims most often at risk are 12- and 13-year-olds. But the Junior School was missing! Where were our seventh and eighth grade students? Where were the most impressionable of our hopeful youths?

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, of which 30% were between the ages of 11 and 17 at the time of their first completed rape. On top of this, only 12% of child sexual abuse is ever reported. It may be courteous and comfortable for us to sidestep the topic of assault and rape, but I can assure you that rapists won't conform to the same common courtesy. The exclusion would have been understandable if the Assembly delved into challenging topics, such as rape or domestic violence.

However, while ERRO provided straightforward definitions of consent using videos such as the viral ‘Tea Video,’ as well as hypothetical instances of microaggressions and personal stories, there was no mention of domestic violence or rape. As helpful as this first stage was, the next stage must address the key topics oddly missing - the undiscussed elephant in the room. By not exposing members of our community to the horrific realities of rape, we risk leaving them underprepared to identify and respond appropriately when faced with dangerous situations. Of course, people don’t get to choose if they’re raped.

On May 22, the Myth of Miscommunication Workshops at Yale generously visited campus for an optional follow-up seminar planned for twenty five students. Their mission is “to create a space for exchanging thoughts, experiences, and techniques on the subjects of sexual pressure and bystander intervention.” While such education on sexual etiquette is useful for respectful partners and bystanders, only 33% of rapes are committed by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or intimate partner. Additionally, not everyone is only a bystander in such situations. Surely the sophisticated, prominent TV anchor Matt Lauer and his victims did not need a lesson in etiquette when the doors to his office locked in the victims from a button hidden under his desk.

We often mislabel phenomena by the tools we use to appraise it. In science, the observer effect, the theory that the measurement observation of a phenomenon alters the outcome, is parallel to implementing problematic consent education. In understanding something, we often get caught up in the measurements instead of the phenomenon itself. Consent education is often lost in concerns about packaging, and loses sight of the product. As campus reports of sexual assault are growing, consent education is becoming the most popular method for schools around the nation to skirt the actual problem of assault to discuss sanitized, obvious recipes for respectful conduct. In health classes, we are taught how to take birth control and how to apply a condom and also how to say “no,” but suppose the aggressor doesn’t care about those lessons?

Sure there are sometimes grey areas over consent. An anonymous woman, “Grace” reported an incident on the website babe.com where actor Aziz Ansari attempted to pressure her into non-consensual sex. While “Grace” claimed to have expressed verbal and nonverbal cues to indicate she was distressed, Ansari responded saying the two engaged in sexual activity, “which by all indications was completely consensual.” Many media defenders of his at The New York Times and The Atlantic supported Ansari, labeling the alleged victim an insensitive woman destroying a man’s career while some even around Hopkins wrote it off as a ‘bad date.’

We have a problem with the way we understand and educate about sexual assault. It’s the word consent. Relating consent to assault encourages us to reduce violence to a mere miscommunication. And when we equate assault with a miscommunication, we accept that both the predator and the victim are responsible - even equally responsible. Our minimalist consent education teaches us, as a situation escalates to say, ‘No thank you.’

Yes, it is helpful for our classmates to understand how to avoid mixed signals from confused consent communications. However, the concept that assault could be prevented through a greater understanding of consent is just as naive as believing we would protect ourselves from murderers by saying ‘Oh no, not now thank you.’ Though ERRO’s program was a great start, our school is egregiously neglecting the duty to provide our students with basic survival education. Our students are only equipped with a basic education on consent when most people will have to face harassment, assault, and rape at some point in their life. The palliative of consent is branded as a cure-all elixir that functions only as smoke and mirrors to distract us from true progress.
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