Content warning: The following text deals with sexual assault and violence, and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
Compiling narratives of sexual assault and exploring consent isn’t an easy task. We here at 34th Street Magazine published the “End the Silence” special issue on sexual assault last winter to amplify the voices of students who had been assaulted. It was hard, emotional, and created an ongoing conversation. A few months later, the New York Times’ Gender Initiative partnered up with Modern Love to create a new series: “45 Stories of Sex and Consent on Campus.”
The Times story is interactive: users explore a list of 45 stories, many of which echo the same “powerful themes” of unease and unclear consent. Lines like “but I felt like I owed him” and “over time, I normalized it and buried it” are common.
Dan Jones, Modern Love editor at the New York Times, cites this echoing as “the major reason we decided to publish so many…the different situations where women consented again and again without wanting to, and how they rationalized or normalized those experiences.”
Other narratives highlighted in the project are separated into three sections: “Anticipation”, “Negotiation”, and “Aftermath.” Users see excerpts on the landing page and can click to delve into individual stories. Reading the series in its entirety packs an emotional punch, much for the reason Dan cited: repetition. Stories of harassment, coercion, and confusion underline the ubiquity of assault and harassment on campus.
All of these stories highlight the idea of a “gray zone” in which affirmative consent is often lacking. Dan explains that the call for submissions was worded to solicit narratives in which there isn’t a clean–cut case of assault or rape, but instead lingering questions and unease.
James Meadows (C’19), a crime beat for the Daily Pennsylvanian who has also written a feature for 34th Street Magazine, once looked up to now-disgraced famous men like Kevin Spacey. But in the wake of #MeToo and a new cultural reckoning with harassment and assault, he felt unmoored, like he and other university men had to “reexamine [them]selves” in order to become better allies.
James submitted a story of his own to the Times’ series—once he saw the call for submissions, he hoped his willingness to lend a male perspective to the issue would encourage other men to practice better allyship and to “talk more openly” about the difficulties of navigating sex and consent in college while better supporting women on campus.
Dan agrees about the importance of including men’s voices, saying that the team “worried we would get too many stories from women and too few from men…so we had to be careful in how we phrased our prompt, and luckily - at least for the purposes of the project - we received a wide range of voices and perspectives, with most students exploring encounters they had a lot of questions and unease about but also didn't quite know how to characterize.”
While James’ story recounts a sexual experience in which both parties were drunk, it really hinges on a conversation two years later. They hooked up, but he didn’t remember everything, “most importantly, asking for her consent.” So, two years later, the two grabbed lunch, and he asked her if he crossed a line.
His is a story about men navigating an increasingly scrutinized sexual environment, one that provides an interesting corollary to the women’s stories which are front–and–center in the Time’s piece.
As James notes, when speaking to his female friends and asking if they’ve experienced sexual assault or violence, “they said yes more often than no.” The piece underlines the fact that it’s not just Penn—this problem is all over the world, and though it’s particularly pervasive at residential colleges, it’s by no means limited to any one campus.
When asked about the reaction at Penn, James thinks it’s “hard to say if the article had any impact on campus as a whole,” but that in the midst of this increased cultural focus on consent, he’s had “very interesting conversations with friends and strangers alike about topics like consent, Penn’s “hookup culture” and how the university handles sexual assault.”
Towards the end of the conversation, he tacks on something he’s been thinking about for a while: “the fact that only 5 out of Penn’s 27 fraternities completed the IFC’s mandatory courses on sexual assault prevention and sexual health is a testament to the fact that we have a long way to go as a community to truly tackle sexual violence.”
And as for the Times, Dan cites the specific reason for creating the project: “we felt it was important to allow young people to tell their own stories in the hope that others could learn from them—and we didn't even realize how much we would learn from them too.”
The piece closes with something surprisingly sweet, an addendum titled: “What I Wish I Could Tell My Fifteen–Year–Old Self”. In this final section, Mariel from Massachusetts writes, “Consent isn’t sexy. It’s crucial. It’s not a healthy sexual encounter without full consent.
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