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Building Cultures of Consent

Opinion | April 22, 2019

Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) was formed in 2013 when the US Department of Education found Tufts University to be in violation of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the “basis of sex… under any education program or activity.” Tufts was failing to appropriately handle sexual assault cases on campus—cases were ignored and known perpetrators were not punished and allowed to graduate while survivors felt forced to leave campus for their own safety. Tufts’ institutional failures in supporting survivors led to the #JustSaySorry campaign of 2016, where survivors of sexual assault at Tufts and on campuses across the country burned college paraphernalia in a symbolic demonstration to demand apologies from the universities that had failed them. The campaign was started by former Tufts student Wagatwe Wanjuki. After reporting her assault in 2009, Wanjuki was forced out of Tufts when her grades began to suffer in the wake of her assault and Tufts’ continuous failure to respond to her report. Her story is just one of countless instances in which Tufts grossly mishandled a case of sexual assault. Still, the University did not begin allocating resources to sexual assault prevention until recently, once they were forced to by the federal government in order to meet the standards of Title IX.

Since 2016, the Tufts administration has made some positive strides to address these failures, namely creating the Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE) office—a resource center for survivors—and establishing a protocol for responding to assault reports in a timely fashion through the Office for Equal Opportunity (OEO). However, Tufts seems to have grown complacent since these changes were made. Survivors are still met with skepticism and still re-traumatized in disciplinary hearings. It is not enough for Tufts to meet the bare minimum in survivor response just to satisfy legal requirements. Due to these failures, it is essential that we as students have a say in determining how Tufts should handle sexual misconduct on our campus. This is the reason that ASAP was formed.

Since its inception, ASAP has created a powerful community through our work on campus. We work with student organizations on campus who struggle with perpetration by facilitating workshops on responding to disclosures—a term used to describe a survivor coming forward about their assault—as well as bystander intervention. These workshops are arduous processes that require significant time and personal reflection from the parties involved, but ultimately strengthen a group’s commitment to creating a safe culture within their spaces. Every group’s needs are unique, and we do our best to accommodate individual concerns. The Tufts Beelzebubs, for example, is a group we work with often, particularly after the initiation of new members. We begin our combined perpetration and bystander intervention workshop by getting a feel of members’ familiarity with consent and intervention, before launching into a discussion of the measures that can be taken when faced with perpetration among their members. We follow similar protocols for other organizations, but allow the flexibility to tailor to each specific circumstance.

ASAP ultimately does not decide how student organizations handle a perpetrator within their membership; rather, we offer a range of potential responses for the organization to discuss. Some may choose to exile a perpetrator while others may restrict them from attending parties or other events. What we stress most here is that perpetrators need support too, including check-ins or counseling options in order to ensure that they don’t assault someone again. To do nothing at all is the worst possible response. Some organizations may request a perpetration workshop in response a particular issue within their group; others, like the Bubs, request workshops each semester after the integration of new members. These workshops offer student organizations the resources necessary to decide and uphold the standards of their community.  

ASAP is divided into four groups: survivor support, workshops, events, and a newly formed men’s group: ASAP by Tufts Men (ASAPtm). Survivor support holds weekly intentional spaces for survivors of all identities and experiences to exist in a supportive community. At institutions like Tufts, survivor-only spaces are incredibly few and far between, and to that end, incredibly important for survivors who fail to receive impactful resources ro response from the University itself.

Beyond the bystander and perpetration workshops previously described, the workshop subgroup also runs programming on how to respond to survivorship in one’s community. The intended goal of all workshops is for participants to not only identify perpetration when it occurs, but to be empowered to create an individualized Code of Conduct for their fraternity, sports team, acapella group, or any other organization going forward. Codes of conduct establish a clear definition of perpetration and its repercussions within the context of each community. Central to process is the belief that the best way college students can be held accountable for assault is by their own peers and social groups, especially when lacking administrative support. Social groups have immense power to create positive cultures of consent and lasting systems of accountability in a way that no institutional system like Title IX or the OEO currently can.

While the survivor support and workshop subgroups target specific communities, the events subgroup hosts campus-wide workshops, screenings, and discussions with the goal of educating the Tufts community about the prevalence of sexual violence on our campus and beyond. Recent events include a panel discussing the intersection of sexual violence and the law, documentary screenings of The Hunting Ground and Surviving R. Kelly, and Tufts Dining Workers Speakout II: Survivors Speak, where dining workers shared stories of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace to fight for better protections against these occurrences in the midst of contract negotiations with the administration. The branch also organized special events for Sex Health Week where survivors and their partners could engage in an intentional discussion on how to have healthy sex after a sexual assault.

Finally, the ASAPtm group consists of male-identifying individuals who meet weekly to discuss how we are taught to be men, what those lessons encourage, and the toxic masculinity that these lessons could result in if left unchecked. ASAPtm also runs its own workshops, events, and curriculum with support from the ASAP executive board, specifically dedicated to exploring topics of masculinity. ASAPtm recognizes that men, as a privileged social group, are not traditionally called upon to analyze their own behavior. In response, we actively create spaces in which men can explore together what it means to be a “man,” and re-examine the forms in which masculinity takes shape. We hope that by critically discussing toxic masculinity and naming healthier alternatives, we can uncover and disrupt harmful actions and become better supporters for the non-cis men in our lives.

In addition to our regular semester programing, ASAP’s largest and perhaps most well-known annual event is It Happens Here (IHH). IHH offers a platform for survivors to share their narratives with the wider Tufts community. Survivors can choose to submit narratives anonymously and have their piece read by a volunteer. These volunteers are selected intentionally with respect to factors like race, gender, and sexual identity, which the submitter has the option to indicate before the event. Alternatively, survivors can choose to read their narrative themselves.

IHH started at Middlebury College in 2011 and came to Tufts in April of 2014. We hope that this event can continue to uplift and empower the voices of those who have been robbed of their agency. However, it is important to note that many survivors are unable to submit for a variety of reasons, which we acknowledge in our opening and closing statements. Survivorship does not look the same for everyone, and while IHH can provide healing for some individuals, it may not be the right avenue for others. The narratives told at the event are often brutal and honest vignettes of the lasting impact of sexual violence and trauma, and a crucial and powerful reminder that sexual assault still occurs on our campus.

Additionally, the event allows allies to feel the real, lasting effects of trauma. Listening to narratives creates a deeper understanding the impact of assault and reaffirms ally’s commitment to ending sexual violence at Tufts and beyond. It is ASAP’s hope that IHH can create a circle of affirmation within our community that we hope allows for personal growth for each participant and attendee, as well as campus-wide growth as the culture slowly shifts towards more believing, more loving, and more care.

Over the past five years, ASAP has evolved, growing into an organization that hosts bi-weekly survivor spaces and runs more than 10 workshops and events throughout the year. ASAP is a crucial institution at Tufts because of the significant contributions we’ve made to the community by creating more dialogue on campus around personal responsibility, accountability, and consent. We’ve identified champions within sports, greek life, and club communities that can partner with ASAP and bring important conversations and codes of conduct to the forefront of their own organizations. And through this work, we’ve engaged more people in the conversation around assault and consent.

To non-survivors, we ask: what are you doing in your communities and in your life to address rape culture and embrace the dialogue around believing and supporting survivors? And to survivors, we say: we see you and we believe you. To both, know this: above all, we are here to help.