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.

February 27, 2016, 11:14 AM

— -- 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.”

Consent on Campus: Can Consent Education Help Prevent Sex Assault Among College Students?: Part 1
Woman who says she was a victim of sexual assault shares how she reacted, and a father whose son was accused of sexual assault gives his take.

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.

Consent on Campus, Part 1: Can Consent Education Help Prevent Sex Assault Among College Students?

Consent on Campus, Part 2: What Does Giving Sexual Consent Mean?

Consent on Campus: What Does Giving Sexual Consent Mean?: Part 2
Experts, activists and students participate in a "Nightline"-hosted discussion about sexual assault and consent education on college campuses.

C.D. Mock, a former head wrestling coach at the University of North Carolina, also shared his story and said he was there to represent the accused.

“Where does consent start and where does it end? I don’t know,” said Mock. “Let’s remember we are dealing with young people, many of whom are very inexperienced, there’s alcohol around without supervision.”

Mock has become a loud and vocal critic of the effectiveness of what some call the “Consent Movement” after his son was accused of sexual assault in his junior year of college. He explained that ever since the government cracked down on schools that did not comply with a federal mandate to more seriously address sexual assault complaints, that he believed over-correcting had been done in favor of accusers.

“We need to make sure that the solutions that we come up with are fair solutions to everyone. If we’re swinging the pendulum too far in one direction," Mock cautioned, “We’re in dangerous territory.”

At the core of dozens of college sexual assault cases is the issue of consent.

Molly Morris was a student at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, when she says she was drinking at a party with Mock’s son Corey, a fellow classmate. After a few drinks, she says she suddenly felt sick.

“I was throwing up and feeling really dizzy. I couldn’t feel my arms or legs,” Morris said. “I wasn’t aware of what was going on.”

Next thing she knew, Morris says she blacked out.

“The next morning I woke up and I was completely naked in the sheets at the base of the bed, he was at the top of the bed. And I basically sat up and had like just completely disorientation,” Morris said. “And so all that was going through my brain was I need to get out of here.”

Unlike Danovich, Morris said she immediately defined it as raped. She filed a report with the university saying Mock, a wrestler on the school’s team, forced himself on her when she was in no condition to consent.

“The person that I was two years ago today is not even close to being the person that I am now,” she said. “Being constantly nervous about what is behind my shoulder.”

Corey Mock declined an interview with "Nightline," but his father said that his son told him that the sex was consensual and that he was completely blindsided by the accusation.

“He was just blown away. He didn’t know how to react because he just didn’t - that wasn’t what he expected,” C.D. Mock said.

The university initially dismissed the charges against Corey, but weeks later reversed that ruling and found him responsible. A year after that a local court said the school improperly shifted the burden of proof. Corey was cleared, but by then his father says the damage was done.

“It's on his record. His life is ruined,” Mock said. “You’re labeled a rapist… You can’t go to parties. You can’t be with anyone of the opposite sex.”

Mock said his family is financially and emotionally drained from the fallout of what is the almost impossible task of proving consent.

“Due process has gone out the window for young men, we need to be careful here,” he said. “You are guilty until you prove yourself innocent, which is the way it is today.”

Despite the ruling in Corey’s favor, Molly Morris maintains she could not have consented and that it was rape. She says she has suffered personal and emotional damage as well.

“I was an Honors student. I had top notch GPA,” She said. “Since the assault I haven’t had a single successful after the assault is not even close to being what it could have been. Nothing is the same. At all.”

Universities all over the country are tackling the issues head on by looking to prevent the devastating consequences for all involved. Several schools are trying new approaches, like consent education -- the idea that consent must be explicitly obtained before and during sex. In fact, California and New York are two states that have made affirmative consent the law at their public universities. A third state, Connecticut, may soon follow suit.

It’s all helped to make “consent” the buzzword on campuses, helping to drive awareness campaigns and student demonstrations. There are now even mobile apps to record your partner consenting to sex.

But consent education remains highly controversial -- and complicated.

That’s why "Nightline" decided to explore this hot-button topic in depth by assembling a group with unique takes on this subject.

In addition to C.D. Mock and Tove Danovich, the panel assembled before a group of over 200 Penn State students, and also included Dr. Cheryl Arutt, a clinical and forensic psychologist who specializes in recovery from trauma, Kim Lau, an attorney who specializes in college disciplinary cases, and Ian Tolino, a peer-educator at the University of Maryland, who goes by the nickname, “Consent Bro.”

A member of the Chi-Phi fraternity, Tolino works with frats and sororities to spread consent awareness on campus, in an effort to prevent sexual assault.

“The biggest misconception is that we’re here to get drunk, get laid and coast through school,” Tolino said, “But that’s not how I see it.”

He says peer educators like him are doing their part to correct the bad reputation of Greek life by teaching students how to practice consent and to be more responsible when it comes to sex and alcohol.

While peer educators like Tolino are spreading the message of consent from inside the campus, some schools are depending on outside education groups. One such organization is Catharsis Productions. Their sexual-assault prevention program, "Sex Signals," uses improvisational and scripted scenarios to teach students the basics of consent.

Members of the improv group Catharsis Productions participated in the "Consent on Campus" discussion ABC News "Nightline" hosted at Penn State University.
Members of the improv group Catharsis Productions participated in the "Consent on Campus" discussion ABC News "Nightline" hosted at Penn State University.
ABC/Jeffrey Neira

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."

“We all wanna make sure that the person we’re having sex with wants to have sex with us back,” she continued. The number one point of their performance was that sex must be participatory at all times.

Launching off the skit, the panel discussion touched on topics ranging from hook-up culture to the role of alcohol on campus.

“I’m the father of a daughter also," Mock said. “When it comes to alcohol, I think there’s a corresponding responsibility of accountability that goes with the female as much as the male… So don’t go into a frat at 2:00 in the morning. Don’t go into a place alone where there’s a bunch of guys drinking and play drinking games. Be smart about the world that you’re in.”

“To me, as a dad, those are common sense things that I think get lost in this discussion because we’re afraid that we’re being sexist. And I don’t see that as sexist,” he continued.

In response, Tolino said that Mock’s point of view unfairly shifted the responsibility onto victims of sexual assault.

“Do you think that’s victim blaming?” asked Mock.

“Yes,” said Tolino.

Mock said he called it “being a responsible parent.”

Dr. Gail Stern, who leads the improv group Catharsis Productions, said she also disagreed with Mock. She said that cautioning young women on where they can go, sends a problematic message that young women have to see every man as a potential threat.

“In terms of responsibility, I’m responsible for what I do when I’m drinking,” she added. “I am not responsible what other people choose to do to me when I’m drinking.”

Ian Tolino agreed, and stressed that students must also be responsible for each other.

“You have to watch out for your fraternity brother. Your sorority sister. You want to watch out for each other,” he said. “You need to be a bystander. You need to help your friends, because we’re all in this together.”

His point highlights what the White House has identified as a key element in preventing sexual assaults -- the intervention of a bystander.

Dr. Arutt said the importance of a proactive friend or classmate cannot be underestimated. “If you see something, say something,” she said. “You could be really saving someone an enormous amount of pain.”

While there may not be a clear solution to ending sexual assault on campus, experts and educators alike say bystander intervention and consent education are all steps in the right direction.

Dr. Gail Stern added that “comprehensive, sex-positive health education” starting in middle school was also a potential solution that could have tremendous impact in terms of prevention.

“The only things that really gonna fix this is for this country to get back to its moral culture,” said C.D. Mock. “Hook-ups weren’t always there.”

A Penn State student agreed, and said, “We need to make sober sex cool again.”

As the "Nightline" event at Penn State concluded, Stern said the idea of consent all boiled down to mutual respect for one another.

“If you learn the value that people are human beings and deserving of respect, we can beat this," she said.

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