By Jonathan Kalin
In 2012, I had an idea to end sexual assault on college campuses. What if students would “party with consent?” I was 20, thought I knew everything, thought I could control how others behaved, and thought sexual assault would be gone in the blink of an eye if people would just implement my brilliant idea.
During my sophomore spring at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, I was named captain of the basketball team and president of a group called Male Athletes Against Violence. At the time, sexual assault was a hotly discussed topic on campus. However, community forums were leaving everyone with more questions than answers and peer-to-peer conversations were leaving people frustrated. It seemed to me we needed another option.
At the time, a campaign called “Party with Sluts” had become very popular among a lot of college students. My idea was to appropriate the neon lettering design on Party with Sluts tank tops to promote a positive message, rather than a derogatory one. With that, Party with Consent was born.
As I came back down to earth and realized how complex a problem ending sexual assault on college campuses really is, I began to understand three distinct ideas in preventing sexual assault and promoting healthy masculinities: the miscommunication fallacy; the true communication error; and the athletics contradiction.
The Miscommunication Fallacy
From the get-go, I knew that talking about sexual assault on college campuses typically makes people nervous. Through that jittery lens, it’s easy to suggest sexual assault happens on campus because of a frothy mix of miscommunication and too much alcohol. Although many in the general public share this notion, research conducted by clinical psychologist Dr. David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts–Boston and broadcast on NPR disproves that assumption.
The miscommunication fallacy is based on the idea that nobody in college wakes up wanting to be a rapist. As painful as thinking about rape may be, such a rationale about why rape happens can be comforting. “The guy in my bio class is such a good guy, he couldn’t be a rapist…there must have been some real communication confusion the night…”
It’s a more concerning thought—and a more urgent one—to have to acknowledge that there are rapists on campus. In fact, there are rapists who are repeat offenders. The culture we have created (on campuses and in society as a whole) allows these rapists to describe their crimes as a “communication failure.” Sadly, most people nod in agreement.
If we’re going to make real progress in preventing sexual assaults, we must debunk the popular belief that rape is not a crime but a form of miscommunication.
Actually, there are rapists on campuses, and more than 90 percent are men. They could be someone you know. It could even be someone who speaks out against rape.
The Real Communication Error
The real communication error is a result of how my generation has been taught sexual consent. I’m a bit puzzled when people call my work “consent education.” My response is usually, “Actually, students have already been educated on consent,” I begin. “They’ve learned it from movies, music videos, and pornography. I’m working on uneducating them about their false ideas of consent.”
As millennials, we grew up hearing Jonah Hill tell us in Superbad, “You know when girls say…I shouldn’t have fucked that guy…we could be that mistake!” And then we go to college and college administrators are telling us we can’t consent if we’re drunk?! “What!? That’s how Jonah Hill told me I’d get laid!”
Unraveling false ideas of consent has to begin with media literacy. Many male students typically say, “The line of consent is usually blurry.” It isn’t, actually, but when you have Jonah Hill in one ear telling you having sex with overly intoxicated women is cool, and your dean telling you that it’s not, who do you think we are going to listen to? “We need to make the idea of getting people drunk in order to have sex with them culturally unacceptable, the same way we made it culturally unacceptable to drive while intoxicated,” Dr. Lisak was quoted as saying in The New York Times. Beyond that, we need to make clear to heterosexual men in particular that coercion, manipulation, deceit, and threats in order to have sex with women is not just uncool. It’s a gateway to becoming a rapist.
The Contradiction in Athletics
It’s been my experience that trying to define masculine strength is often ambiguous and, surprisingly, athletics is a field where it’s particularly confusing to explain. For example, consider these two common sports maxims: “What happens on the field stays on the field,” and “You can learn some of the most valuable lessons from athletics.” If we heard either adage alone we might nod our head in agreement. Yet, when they’re juxtaposed we can clearly see a contradiction.
At my college, the athletic director’s boss was the dean of faculty and my basketball coach had the same boss as my philosophy professor. The message? That athletics are an educational experience and college athletes take lessons they’ve learned on the field and apply them to their lives after athletics. When I reflect on lessons in leadership, teamwork, and self-discipline, I could not agree more. But isn’t this a contradiction to “what happens on the field stays on the field”?
It’s easy in sports to turn opponents into objects. On one of my basketball teams growing up, we would “bring it in” with all of our hands in a pile and yell “1, 2, 3…DOMINATE.” My teammates and I were often confused about whether the lesson of dominating others was a lesson we were also supposed to take off the court. In high school, I was talking to a young woman whom I asked to have breakfast with me. She said no. I told one of my basketball teammates what had happened and he coached me, “Ask her again! Nine no’s and one yes is still a yes. You know how Coach says, ‘Take what the defense gives you’? You gotta do that with girls, too.” This contradiction has taught men to think lessons of domination and treating other people as objects are not only perfectly fine, but superior strategies that those who play sports can particularly understand.
As these ideas evolved in my mind, so did the idea of Party with Consent. A simple tank top quickly became a symbol for something much more—to enjoy yourself, yes, but not at the expense of anyone else. As one of friends told me, “I thought Party with Consent was just a way to prevent sexual assault, but then I realized it’s much more than that. It’s a lifestyle.”
Jonathan Kalin is founder of Party With Consent, a grassroots movement working to end sexual assault on college campuses. He travels the country speaking on the philosophies behind PWC including, but not limited to: sexual assault prevention, sustainable community building, and healthy masculinities. He loves his dogs Bubbles and Eva. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.