The Consent Debate: College Students, Experts, Activists Discuss Sexual Consent on Campus Amid Backdrop of Alcohol and Hook-Up Culture
"Nightline" hosted an open forum with college students, experts and activists.
— -- Tove Danovich says her nightmare began after a late night out, when she decided to crash at a friend’s apartment and shared a futon with a guy she used to date.
“We had all met up. We decided to go out for the evening. I believe we probably had some drinks,” Danovich said. “At some point later in the evening, I woke up and felt him having sex with me.”
The then-19-year-old college student says she was frozen in shock, and stayed silent through the entire ordeal while her friend slept just a few feet away.
“You're just paralyzed by not knowing how to react to what's going on,” she said. “I didn't know what to do about it. I didn't really want to make a scene… Rather than do that, I just pretended to be asleep.”
In the following days and months, Danovich says her own reaction took her by surprise.
“It was hard for me to know if it was something that was my fault for not speaking out,” she said. “It definitely made me question if I really was as strong as I had always thought."
Danovich's experience and her reaction in the moment points to the often complicated and misunderstood emotions that arise when a sexual assault or rape occurs.
“In my head, if anyone had ever asked me, ‘if someone has sex with you and you don't want them to have sex with you, will you stop them from doing that?’ The answer would have 110 percent been, ‘Yes,’” she said. “And then, when the situation actually arose, that was not my response to it.”
But Danovich’s response is not uncommon for victims of the most typical type of college sexual assault -- rape by acquaintance -- according to Dr. Cheryl Arutt, a clinical psychologist who’s been helping victims work through trauma for over 20 years.
"People talk about fight or flight all the time without realizing that the third option is freeze,” said Arutt. “It kicks in when we’re in a situation where we believe we cannot escape.”
According to a sweeping survey conducted at 27 universities by The American Association of Universities, more than one in five female undergrads were victims of sexual assault or misconduct.
In the majority of cases, the victim knows her attacker, whether as acquaintance, classmate, friend, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend, according to a White House report on college sexual assault.
While she says she knew the incident was non-consenual, Danovich says it took her years to process and define what happened to her because the experience involved a friend.
“Saying the words, ‘I was raped’ out loud... really conjured up feelings of I think the most shock and relief tied together that you can possibly imagine,” said Danovich.
Danovich shared her story as part of an open forum “Nightline” hosted at Penn State University with college students and a panel of experts and activists to examine college sexual assault and consent on campus, a highly contentious and deeply complicated issue, often at the explosive intersection of alcohol and hook-up culture at schools all over the country.
The event included an improvisation skit from a consent education group called Catharsis Productions, part of a larger national effort to combat sexual assault by teaching college students that explicit consent must be obtained before and during sexual interaction.
One scenario that’s been performed over 2,000 times across the country features a male student recounting a night of drinking and sex that resulted in a rape allegation.
Students are then encouraged to ask questions about whether a sexual assault took place.
A version was played before "Nightline’s" panel and Penn State students, and through the performance, the audience learned how to read positive body language and to ask for ongoing consent without killing the romantic mood.
“We say things like, ‘Are you ready for me? Do you like that? Wanna keep going? Ready for Round Two?’” said Sakinah Smith, one of the actor-educators.
She went on to explain that consent is active, and an ongoing moment by moment agreement. It was also stressed that consent cannot be given or obtained if someone is intoxicated, incapacitated or unconscious, and that silence doesn't necessarily mean "yes."