Let's Start Talking: ConsentFest and the Peer Advocates

On April 8, the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect (PAs) will be hosting the third annual ConsentFest. In light of a recent article published in The Student, the Peer Advocates want to take the opportunity to reaffirm the mission of ConsentFest as well as our objectives and aims as a student group. When creating the event in 2013, the PAs were seeking a far-reaching, campus-wide initiative that would engage and educate the community about topics of consent and communication in relationships, modeled after similar events at schools like Bentley University. ConsentFest is situated in a larger context of trainings, workshops and dialogues meant to address the range of behaviors that constitute both sexual violence and sexual respect. It is our largest event not because we believe it solves every problem but because we intend to meet students where they are and introduce them to the rest of our programming.

The PAs are often confused with our allies, the Student Health Educators. Another one of the initial aims of ConsentFest was to promote awareness of the Peer Advocates’ existence in general, as well as to educate students about the importance of consent and the availability of resources at their disposal in instances of sexual misconduct. This year, as in years past, there will be a PA resource table as well as tables hosted by the Counseling Center, the Title IX Team, Safe Passage and the Center for Women and Community. Our hope, supported by research about other public health concerns, is that familiarity with resources will increase the likelihood that someone will utilize those resources should they ever need them.

In addition to resources, the activity tables at ConsentFest contribute to the event’s theme of being engaging and educational. From close analysis of song lyrics to communication-based Twister, the activities find different ways to make students think about consent, relationships, communication and the vital role all play in their lives. Furthermore, the tables are staffed by different student groups, teams and clubs. In having members from all sides of campus help out at the event, more students are likely to come participate. We aim to reach out to as many student groups, teams and resource centers as possible to show that this conversation isn’t limited to a narrow group of people — these issues affect all of us, and it will take a group effort to create impactful change.

We approach ConsentFest with the understanding that one event cannot and should not possibly address all aspects of sexual respect, but we use evidence-based research in planning ConsentFest to ensure that it is as effective as possible in trying to push for a cultural shift. We live in a culture that sexualizes everything but makes it taboo to talk about sex, which includes talking about what we do and don’t want. Learning to articulate what we are and are not comfortable with is a huge task that ConsentFest seeks to undertake. It is true that succeeding in that task will not stop rape from occurring. There are certain predators that no preventative education will reach, but learning to articulate boundaries can only help us as a community. When we as individuals and as a community can strongly articulate our own wants, values and boundaries, bystander interventions are more likely to happen, and we move towards a culture in which all sex is consensual. But such a momentous shift is only possible if all individuals are engaged to the fullest extent possible, and ConsentFest seeks to reach our community with that understanding.

The PAs put on an array of programming with varying degrees of intensity. This year alone the PAs and Sexual Respect Education have presented over 60 programs and events related to sexual respect. We say this because it is important to view ConsentFest as part of a larger strategic plan. When planning programs we look at theory, best practices, and evidence-based programs to inform our work. As part of our plan for the year we have programs that challenge rape culture and educate about particular issues around sexual violence, such as the street harassment campaign, which included signs, posters, a dialogue and video. Programs like the Clothesline Project, dialogues and our weekly peer-led survivor support group all work towards combatting rape culture and supporting survivors in our community. The week after ConsentFest, we are partnering to host a 24-hour healing fire for survivors of sexual violence in conjunction with a display of the Sing Our Rivers Red Earring Project and a Rise Up! Spoken word event.

One of the concerns expressed about ConsentFest is the slogan “consent is sexy.” The PAs do not and have not used that message at any of our events; rather, in response to the whiteboard prompt “what does consent mean to you?” some students wrote consent is sexy, which is fully their right to believe. Other answers were consent is necessary, mutual, important, and essential. The theme of ConsentFest is “Let’s Start Talking,” because a culture of consent is one in which open, honest communication exists in sexual relationships, where consent is not assumed, where touch and language that is intimate or sexual in nature are only practiced with the consent of the other person. As we like to say, consent is a conversation, not just a question.

As our programs continue to expand and grow, there will be more adjustments that we need to make. Every year, the Peer Advocates want to improve on our programming, and we are constantly seeking and encouraging feedback on how to improve our goals and our actions towards those goals, ConsentFest included. We aim to make our campus a safer, more respectful place, one that never condones sexual violence. We hope survivors on our campus feel supported and understood by our actions, and we look forward to ConsentFest this Friday as one of many instances where our campus may come together, not only to enjoy a range of consent-themed activities, but also to show support for the fight towards a culture combats rape, and is compatible with respect and dignity for all.

– Samantha O’Brien ’18, Bonnie Drake ’17, Noel Grisanti ’17, Rose Miller ’16 and Catherine Lindsay ’19