By Robyn Manning-Samuels ’14
In 2011, the Obama administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to schools, colleges, and universities that receive federal funding, with directives for how to interpret Title IX and adjudicate sexual misconduct cases. Among the new regulations were descriptions of how prevention and awareness programs should look, including initiatives “intended to end dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.” The programs had to be culturally relevant, inclusive of diverse communities and identities, and sustainable, among other admirable criteria.
One of the major criticisms of the Dear Colleague letter was the capacity of college campuses to meet these new regulations. Many schools have found it hard to divert resources away from adjudicating sexual misconduct cases and supporting survivors to create a more comprehensive prevention and awareness program. Meanwhile, campus prevention efforts are quickly becoming culturally irrelevant as the focus of research moves away from consent as just “yes and no” to a larger conversation that focuses on sexual pleasure, healthy relationships, and healthy communication.
The work I’m doing at Marlboro College is focused on what is quickly becoming the norm among rape prevention specialists and experts: consent as positive sexuality. The philosophy behind positive sexuality is, “All forms of sexuality are healthy and encouraged as long as the expression of that sexuality is consensual.” Reframing consent through the lens of positive sexuality not only meets new federal regulations, but is a missing link in the conversation around sexual assault prevention. Through a positive sexuality lens, we can focus our efforts on helping students navigate the nuances of consent in a meaningful way.
Positive sexuality programs at Marlboro are intentionally designed to educate students on healthy consent and relationships and to create increasingly nuanced conversations around consent. In order to keep the workshops inclusive and open, I hire expert sex educators who are well versed in the myriad ways that intersecting identities affect conversations around consent. The fall semester begins with “Healthy Me,” focusing on the healthy individual, because much of the work around relationships and consent begins with an understanding of personal needs and boundaries. In the spring the conversation shifts to “Healthy Us” and conversations about navigating relationships, partners, and how to be a good bystander in instances of intimate partner violence.
A common criticism of positive sexuality programs is the relative absence of conversations around the violence of sexual assault—a shift away from the history of prevention programs focused on the horror of rape and abuse. An effective positive sexuality program series needs to include “solidarity” events focused on creating space for survivors to voice their experiences, challenge rape culture, and name violent behaviors. This is something Marlboro continues to work on as part of a larger shift away from framing campus events like Take Back the Night as “prevention.” With both prevention and solidarity programs happening simultaneously, college campuses will look very different than they ever have before.
The last crucial piece involves trained peer educators and advocates. At Marlboro, I created a program called the Consent Cavalry, which provides students (and staff and faculty, if they wish) with 25 to 35 hours of education and training to prepare them to be educators, advocates, and resources to their peers. In many ways, the real work is happening in peer-to-peer conversation about sexuality, relationships, and drugs and alcohol. Members of the Consent Cavalry know how to report instances of alleged policy violations, who the resources are on and off campus and how to get in touch with them, and how to be an empathetic responder and active bystander.
Community members like those in the Consent Cavalry are where the real culture shift happens, and it is already starting at Marlboro. Students are being more thoughtful about their habits, seeking out resources when they need them, and having real conversations about consent in their day-to-day lives. With culturally relevant and inclusive programming, in compliance with federal regulations, positive sexuality could become the new norm in the conversation around consent and relationships; students could be taught to swim instead of being told not to drown. This is how you change culture, and this is how you truly prevent sexual assault.
Robyn Manning-Samuels is senior coordinator of sexual respect and wellness, and survivor advocate, at Marlboro College.