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College Conversations About Consent

“As a society, we are conditioned to accept that some degree of sexual harassment is acceptable,” noted Courtney Joslin, a professor of law at the UC Davis School of Law. College campuses are no strangers to this attitude. 25% of students experience sexual assault in college, and anywhere from 60-80% of female students experience sexual harassment while in college. Low-grade sex-based harassment underpins departmental cultures that drive women from STEM fields and academia more generally. As a society, our shaky understandings of consent and willingness to sympathize with those who enact sex-based discrimination cause severe harm.

At a DHI-sponsored Campus Conversation panel on January 22, UC Davis professors, students, and campus resource officers gathered to discuss “#MeToo, Consent, and Campus Culture,” and undo some of the harmful ideas about sex-based harassment and consent that affect university life. The panel included humanities, STEM, law, and activism perspectives on consent and sexual harassment.

Rana M. Jaleel, assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and co-director of HATCH: Feminist Arts & Science Shop, began by calling for a more expansive understanding of consent, one that acknowledges that class, race, disability, and other identities affect how people experience sexualized violence. Women are not uniformly disenfranchised, Jaleel pointed out, and sexualized violence may be compounded or defined differently depending on the intersections of one’s identity.

Jaleel suggests defining consent in terms of “welcomeness” rather than as a transaction or a checkbox. Instead of defining consent as the absence of a no or the presence of a yes, which doesn’t account for the range of feelings a person might have in an encounter, we should instead ask “What type of behavior does a person welcome?” Consent is then not an if-then agreement, but a framework that makes space for an individual’s own background and experience.

Continuing the discussion of legal aspects of consent, Courtney G. Joslin gave an overview of employment and educational law to highlight the legal barriers to reporting and prosecuting sex-based harassment.

Although “in theory, the law recognizes the seriousness” of sex-based harassment and requires employers and schools to do something about it, enforcement is spotty and thresholds for actionable behavior are high. Businesses often use arbitration clauses to keep sex-based harassment reports silenced, colleges set time limits on reporting periods, and the federal government is weakening Title IX protections, the major legislation prohibiting sex-based discrimination on campuses.

Even in an ideal climate where mandatory arbitration clauses are banned (like California) and colleges take sex-based harassment seriously, current thresholds for legally actionable harassment requires the behavior to be severe and/or pervasive. But even one instance of sexual harassment is too much sexual harassment. Legal definitions of harassment don’t keep up with social definitions, and so in many cases, “Behavior that is unacceptable may not be actionable,” says Joslin.

The #MeToo movement has taught us that “there is power in numbers,” says Joslin. We need people to report harassment when it happens, but more importantly, we need “leadership from the top,” from employers and campuses, in preventing sex-based harassment.

What might those efforts look like in the academy? Dawn Y. Sumner, professor of earth and planetary sciences, shared her department’s efforts to “prevent the things that need to be reported.” A 2018 report on Sexual Harassment of Women by the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found that the vast majority of women in academia have experienced gender harassment in their careers.

STEM fields in general are beginning to address widespread sex-based harassment, but Sumner pointed out that the damage may already have been done. “The harassment that drives women from STEM fields and careers is not illegal, but it drives people from fields long before it becomes pervasive enough to become actionable,” she said, echoing Joslin’s earlier statement. This behavior is often verbal and delivered privately or quietly, from offensive remarks about women’s bodies to insults of working mothers to direct sabotage of women’s equipment.

Sumner and her department are trying to enact a form of Jaleel’s “welcomeness.” They’re not just hiring diversely, but also asking themselves, “What can we do to make educational environments welcoming to people regardless of who they are?” For Sumner, normalizing discussions about sex-based discrimination in the workplace allows a department to deal with unacceptable behavior long before it becomes a problem. Sumner echoed her co-panelists Joslin and Jaleel, reminding the audience that “conversation helps us make people feel comfortable.”

This event was sponsored by the UC Davis Humanities Institute, with support from the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor.

–Samantha Snively, Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English

This page was last updated: January 28, 2019



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