Delays in Third-Year Consent Training Send Mixed Messages

One of the barriers to consent taught in the mandatory Consent 301 is the existence of power dynamics between upperclassmen and underclassmen. An underclassmen’s ability to truly consent is complicated, and therefore problematized by the power differential between them and their older counterparts. 

This is a problem which the College considers important for upperclassmen to be aware of, apparently so much so that it bears re-teaching. Consent 301, which had previously been piloted as optional, is now mandatory for third-years. The updated consent training workshops beginning this month are being held by the Title IX Office and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and purport to help third-year students in their new positions as upperclassmen. 

I think this is an issue that would benefit from deeper exploration in a series of more specialized or more comprehensive workshops. College consent education has rightly been criticized for operating on a false assumption that the all-too-prevalent violation of consent on campus is predominantly a matter of ignorance. It holds that most potential offenders have no intention of violating consent and will be prevented from doing so if given a more exact understanding of what consent entails, while ignoring the phenomenon of sexual assault as an act that is knowingly and willingly perpetrated. 

This latter category should certainly be addressed more. Regarding the former, I think that a useful line of exploration would be into those situations in which consent is freely and actively given, yet, for reasons of which a participant might not be aware, is somehow dubious. While some might purposefully exploit these situations, I think that it is also plausible that a well-intentioned upperclassman might be both aware and respectful of the necessity of consent and that it must be uncoerced, yet ignorant of the ways in which certain other factors might influence potential partners to say yes when they wanted to say no.

The dynamic between upperclassmen and underclassmen could — and I would argue should — be taught thoroughly at the start of Oberlin students’ consent education. By making Consent 301 mandatory, the Title IX office and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion are suggesting that it is insufficiently addressed in Consent 101. Despite this apparent shortcoming in the introductory course, this problem will not be immediately remedied when students begin their third year, either. 

Rather, only half of incoming third years will receive their training in the fall, while the rest will receive it in the spring semester. The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion even permits some students to defer their training to the first semester of their fourth year in case they are going abroad during the semester in which they are scheduled to attend.

This means that students whose training comes later will have already been upperclassmen for an entire semester or even a year before they receive sufficient training on how to deal with their newfound status. In creating this delay in the rollout of its training sessions, the College sends a conflicting message about their necessity. If Consent 301 is important enough to be mandatory, why allow students to go without it for so long? If it is not important enough to be a priority, why should students be expected to attend? 

In the Consent 101 workshop I was required to attend in my first year, I remember a strong sense among students of being inconvenienced by having to take time out of their schedules. However, I never got the feeling that this had devolved — in myself or in my peers — into apathy. Consistent with Oberlin’s reputation as a school that values social justice and which has a student body that cares, we understood the importance of education regarding consent and the barriers that might inhibit it. 

If the Title IX office and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion want third-, fourth- and fifth-years to utilize their education on their unique relation to younger students, then it should be taught earlier: either it should be covered in better detail in Consent 101 or at the beginning of their third year. If Oberlin College wants students to be receptive to the workshops’ material and to take the time to attend the workshops at all, it should be unequivocal in communicating their importance. The school’s current policy detracts from that message.