Courtesy of Julia Monteith '18

May 16, 2016

The ‘Gray Area’ of Consent: Cornellians Share Stories

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“One ‘no’ should have been enough,” she said.

“It started in Olin library where the guy started kissing me out of nowhere,” Mary Burgett ’16 said. “I didn’t think I was giving any signs other than simply being nice and showing him around.”

When he wanted to go further, she said she told him ‘no,’ and she thought everything was fine until he followed her to her room.

“He pushed me in my room, locked the door and despite me putting my clothes back on three times and continuously telling him I needed to meet friends, I had a paper to write, I needed to leave — he refused to take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said.

Burgett, who is also a blogger for The Sun, said she has dealt with the traumatic effects of that day for the last four years. It is a daily battle against anxiety, depression, flashbacks and panic attacks. She is not the only one.

George Tsourounakis ’18 arrived at the party with a friend. He said he was dancing and having fun when a guy started grinding on him.

“I was thinking ‘oh god please stop,’ but I was too drunk to even say ‘stop,’” Tsourounakis recounted. “He then started to kiss me … pushed me against the wall and stuck his hand into my pants. I immediately pulled his hand out and said, ‘I need to go to the bathroom.’ He asked if he could come and I said ‘no.’ My mere appearance, state and wardrobe at this party made this guy think he could do whatever he wanted with my body.”

Burgett’s and Tsourounakis’ experiences are just two of many sexual assault cases on college campuses across the nation. One in four women and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted before they graduate from college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

What is Consent?
“At its very core, consent is simply a ‘yes,’” said Jenna Zitomer ’18, vice president of Cornell Consent Ed. “It is an active and enthusiastic, verbal ‘yes’ that is received the first time a person is asked. Consent is never the absence of a ‘no.’”

However, she said many students feel uncomfortable asking for consent, so they refrain from asking to steer clear of any awkward conversations.

“A lot of people avoid [asking for consent] because they think asking ‘Is this okay?’ sounds lame, but it’s not,” said Annie Fernandez ’17. “I’ve never heard of anyone losing a romantic or sexual pursuit because they checked in with the other person.”

Zitomer explained that consent does not always need to be obtained with the same words or phrase.

“Possible alternatives to asking directly for sex include asking if you or your partner should get a condom or even asking what your partner wants to do next,” she said. “And yes, dirty talk is an acceptable way to ask for consent as long as the question is posed and answered somewhere within the dialogue.”

However, several students expressed varying understandings of what consent means to them in their physical relationships.

For Leslie Park ’18, consent can be both verbal and physical. In contrast, Graham Merrifield ’18 said in his relationship, he relies more on body language to communicate consent.

“If I am with my partner … verbal consent is often secondary to a reliance on my past experience and familiarity with my partner’s non-verbal cues,” Merrifield said.

Tsourounakis, on the other hand, described a past relationship where he and his partner would blatantly ask for consent.

“If either of us were not comfortable in the situation or were just not in the mood, one of us would ask ‘do you consent?’ and if the answer was ‘no,’ then it was a ‘no,’” he explained. “Many people think sexual assault stops in relationships, that is not and never will be true.”

Cassidy Clark ’17, co-president of Vox — Voices for Planned Parenthood at Cornell — also warned students that expressions of consent can not be transferred from one situation to another.

“If someone gave consent in one instance, that definitely does not mean that they have given consent for any future instances,” Clark said. “Consent needs to be given for every sexual encounter.”

Dylan Van Duyne ’18 described consent as expiring if one partner expresses discomfort with any given situation.

“The other partner should accept that person’s discomfort — audible, visible or via any other means — as a sign that consent is not granted,” he said. “Consent then needs to be given again.”

Alcohol, Drugs and ‘Hookup Culture’
Countless studies have shown that alcohol and drugs blur the line between consensual and nonconsensual sex, especially on college campuses. So where is the line?

Burgett stressed that someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs “cannot give a ‘yes.’”

Similarly, former Panhellenic Council President Kendall Grant ’16 said consent cannot be granted when someone is too incapacitated to demonstrate affirmation.

“Anyone can exercise reasonable judgment to determine if someone is ‘too drunk’ or not,” Grant said.

Fernandez called alcohol the “stickiest situation” when it comes to sexual consent.

“I would say that if there is any doubt on either side about consent, then nothing sexual should take place,” Fernandez said. “However, obviously there is a gray area, especially if both parties — even if under the influence of alcohol — coherently and clearly give verbal consent. I would say that it is imperative when people have been drinking to not gauge consent off of body language, like many people do in sober situations.”

A male student, who chose to remain anonymous, said people can “hate themselves for giving consent during their drunken stupors” and “realize that they might have just been assaulted the night before.”

“I’m constantly worried about my actions being seen in a negative light,” he said.

He described an incident that echoes the uncertainty associated with alcohol-induced “gray areas.”

“Earlier this semester there was a young lady who I ended up having relations with that had said ‘no’ to going further than your typical drunken make-out, but after a while she had consented physically by making physical actions to consent otherwise,” he said. “Now legally that is physical consent and is okay, but it still makes me feel icky to this day. Best bet when it comes to consent is to be sober.”

Emma Keteltas ’17, executive vice president of Cornell Panhellenic Council, blamed the “hookup culture” as one of the main contributors to the amount of campus sexual assault on campus.

“It seems like there is enormous expectation to hook up when you’re at a mixer or a date function or formal, and that might make it harder for someone to say ‘no’ if they feel like the expectation is that they should hook up at the end of the night,” Keteltas said. “I think a lot of these events put pressure on both parties, because it seems like the hookup culture has created this ‘end goal’ of hooking up at the end of the night.”

A female student pointed out that males also tend to expect consent when they meet girls through dating or hookup apps like Tinder. She described meeting a guy on Tinder who “assumed I had given him consent.”

“He was very persistent about engaging in other activities, which made me feel uncomfortable,” she said.

False Accusations and Victim Blaming
With alcohol and drugs obscuring judgement and decision-making, false accusations of sexual assault have also become a common cause for concern.

An anonymous male student called false accusations “definitely concerning,” saying that the “concept of a girl changing her mind the next day is scary.”

Tsourounakis illustrated how consent can transform over time, calling it “possible” to withdraw consent after the act.

“Many people can coax someone into sex, begging is quite popular,” he said. “If you have to literally beg someone to have sex with you is that not saying something?”

Tsourounakis added that people should realize falsely accusing someone of sexual assault brings “literally no benefit to the person making the accusation.”

“What do you think the person is going to gain?” he said. “A million dollars? A million hugs? Sexual assault is a weight someone will carry with them for the rest of their lives. It is not something to cry wolf about.”

Kendall Grant and Catherine McAnney ’16 — who organized Cornell’s second annual Sexual Assault Awareness Week in April — agreed, saying that if a male is afraid of being falsely accused, they should “understand the fear associated with potentially being a victim.”

That being said, victim blaming has also emerged as “an undeniable stigma associated with sexual assault and sharing your story as a victim,” according to Grant and McAnney. They called victim blaming “largely a function of socialized gender norms.”

“We are conditioned to question a victim’s story — particularly if she is a woman — and empathize for the alleged perpetrator — particularly if he is a man,” Grant and McAnney said.

After her sexual assault experience, Mary Burgett said she thought she must have “done something to convince him it was okay.”

“I never said ‘yes’ and while I did press charges through the University, it took me a while to stop victim blaming myself,” she said.

Zitomer explained that reporting and pressing charges often leads to at least eight months of “reliving the trauma.”

“It means dealing with their name being permanently linked to sexual assault, as well as ‘ruining the reputation’ of another person or organization,” she said. “Many students just do not want to deal with the social, legal and personal implications of reporting rape and sexual assault, and it is important not to force-feed them this option. The last thing anyone needs or wants after being a victim of sexual assault is to be told what they should do to cope with their pain.”

Greek Life
Greek organizations have long been considered hotbeds for sexual assault and consent-related issues. Merrifield, who is not a member of Greek life, supported this statement, saying that he believes sexual assault does occur more at fraternities.

“It is the most common way of bringing potential partners together with substances that cause impairment and in some cases a hook-up oriented culture,” he explained.

Zitomer noted that one of the most vulnerable times for Greek members, who make up 32 percent of Cornell’s campus, is ‘wet week’ — the week following ‘dry period’ where new members are encouraged to drink heavily, after weeks of abstaining, with their new brothers and sisters.

Cornell Interfraternity Council President Blake Brown ’17 stressed that the importance of safe and consensual sex has become “much more widespread and inclusive in all fraternities.”

“This semester, all 36 IFC fraternities underwent training with both Cayuga’s Watchers and Consent Ed,” Brown said. “Fraternity members will be trained throughout all four years of their undergraduate fraternity experience.”

Annie Fernandez, however, urged the University to take action against the fraternity system.

“That is an extremely controversial statement, but they are a cesspool for sexual pressure that disproportionately put women at risk,” she said. “Many researchers chalk this up to the ultra-masculine environment that frats perpetuate and the privileged demographic that usually makes up frats.”

Fernandez said she does not believe fraternity brothers are “inherently evil or rapists” but that the fraternity culture “enables more sexual assault than other social environments.”

“Sororities cannot even host parties in their own houses, meaning that they are always in unfamiliar settings when they go to Greek parties, which makes them more vulnerable to sexual assault,” she said.

Van Duyne, who is not in a fraternity, defended Greek life, saying that there is a significant amount of sexual assault associated with the system, but that there is also a “significant amount of sexual assault that occurs outside of Greek life.”

“It is easy to try and point at a system as being the sole perpetrator, as this would make the solution fairly easy,” he said. “However, those that argue sexual assault is a direct result of Greek life don’t realize that eliminating Greek life would not solve the problem at all.”