By Maria Nevada
with sourcing by
Content warning: sexual violence
Consent is no laughing matter. As a sexual assault survivor, I know this. But all the same, I couldn’t help laughing at the new digital seminar UNO has recommended to its students.
It was a Friday afternoon in late April when I opened my inbox. “Online Experience Highlights Campus Resources” read one email header sent from Cathy Pettid, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. I love hearing from Cathy, who has always, like many faculty and staff on campus, had an eye out for my well-being.
Cathy’s email, however, was a mass email to students at UNO. It discussed the recent incidents in Elmwood Park and Pettid’s own presence at the Take Back the Night events that soon followed. UNO was recommending students to take a digital seminar on “sexual wellness, misconduct, and resources on campus” called “Think About It.” I’ve always taken Cathy’s advice and general directives from UNO, so I clicked “Start Training.”
Thinking about “Think About It”
The training module is a product offered by CampusClarity which itself is a service from LawRoom, now known as EverFi Corporate Compliance, which develops online trainings like the one discussed in this article.
EverFi’s senior director of prevention education, Holly Rider-Milkovich, spoke to the Gateway and said that EverFi serves about 1,500 colleges and universities and has been working in sexual violence prevention education online since 2011. While she did not disclose the cost of the training, the Gateway obtained a receipt from the university, showing the record of purchase through Campus Clarity in 2016.
The receipt shows a three-year license at an annual cost of $30,000 with an additional $6,000 invoice; totaling in over $90,000 paid by UNO.
Apparently, there is money to be made in easy-to-use digital services for universities hoping to educate students on the issue of sexual assault and Title IX compliance in the #MeToo age.
Although Rider-Milkovich said that the “Think About It” training is informed by countless sexual violence prevention experts (like Alan Berkowitz, a bystander intervention expert), student focus groups and in-depth research, the module doesn’t teach like a thoughtful, nuanced, and realistic approach to sexual assault prevention and awareness.
Instead, it feels like a two-hour mishmash of outdated slut-shaming and substance use “games,” (you can earn a Drug Lord badge). Although there are some good sections about rape myths and consent, the good lessons are immediately drowned in “how to stay safe” advice that perpetuates victim-shaming, even while explicitly saying that “even if the survivor exercised bad judgment, no one deserves to be raped.”
It feels like a compliance company took everything ever said about the issue and put it into a blender. And it feels like UNO is saying “drink up.”
A blurry detail is that there are different forms of the “Think About It” training; the one I received, which is less than satisfactory, and another, which Pettid says is aimed toward more mature students.
“Two modules were sent out, one designed for traditional and the other non-traditional students,” Pettid said. “I believe we used the age of 25 and younger for the traditional module and 26 and older for non-traditional. We are committed to providing ongoing education, safety, and support resources to all students, including new and returning students.”
This begs the question about what is inherently different between the two modules and why students must be separated into age groups to learn about such important issues.
From the point of view of a survivor
Nevertheless, I completed the “traditional” training. When I started, I thought it was going to immediately jump into sexual assault, harassment and aggression. But it didn’t. It took a winding, condescending trip through a thinly veiled anti-“hookup” abstinence module. A fictional character engages in a one-night stand and is left waiting the next day for a text back. The module shames the characters for not communicating intentions clearly beforehand but never really models what that kind of good interaction would look like.
It denounces the “double standards” of hookup culture when talking about how men and women who have multiple sex partners are treated differently. Yet, it claims that these hookups are the cause of those double standards, instead of recognizing the sexism that permeates our society as the true root of the issue.
This kind of attack on sexual activity creates more shame for people who want to engage in consensual sexual encounters. How can students have nuanced, accessible, and healthy discussions around sexual agency and autonomy when we stigmatize sex itself?
“We want to be talking about a wide variety of different things, but yes, healthy relationships, sexuality and consent,” Rider-Milkovich said. “Those things can be very positive and affirming, as well as upsetting—for any person, regardless of experiences in the past.”
The training seminar takes a similar approach to drugs and alcohol. It’s interesting that an anti-assault seminar focuses so heavily on substance use. While I found the information about blood alcohol content and what to do in case a friend suffers alcohol poisoning useful, the context of the training left a bile taste in my mouth.
I had been drinking the night I was assaulted. I was stumbling in my sexy red high heels. But the person who assaulted me followed the “what to do when the person you want to have sex with is drunk” rulebook. He took me to an IHOP and got me some pancakes and coffee to sober up. We took a walk outside under the stars and street lamps and then he drove me back to my place and bid me goodnight.
But I was locked out.
Somehow, the lock was malfunctioning on my door. He offered me his couch to crash on, insisting that we wouldn’t have sex if I didn’t want to. I was sober when I sat down on his couch.
Then came the repeated asks for sex, again and again and again and again.
There was no violence in my assault. There was no drunken fumbling. There was only exhaustion in the face of pressure, a realization that I had no other place to go that night, guilt in the face of kindness, and a morbid “what if I say no and he gets upset” worry burned into me by years of men and stories of men who were kind until they weren’t.
This module assumes an uncomplicated idea of sexual assault and the situations that lead up to it. It creates narratives of sexual violence and points out what went wrong but never models good and healthy sexual encounters.
I know the man that I lost my agency to didn’t intend to rape or assault me. He was fumbling and didn’t have a script for what was happening. Neither did I. He probably never received training that asked him to be mindful about the dynamics of a situation that might make someone feel pressure to have sex with him. He never received training on how to ask for sex in a respectful, sexy way and how to recognize that the only kind of consent is enthusiastic and continued.
Because that’s not the kind of training compliance companies make. It’s not the kind of training that’s easy for universities to buy licenses for and distribute through mass emails to students.
Students frustrated by lack of resources
I’m not the only one who feels this way.
In 2013, the student newspaper of Mills College in Oakland, California, reported on student disdain for the mandatory program and mentioned a lack of representative sexual experiences.
In 2014, MTV reported on a number of campuses using the program and spoke with Jeremy Beckman, one of EverFi’s instructional designers, where he stated that beginning in 2015, students would be able to opt out of answering some questions in the survey.
In 2016, Campus Reform wrote that “USC students were required to detail sexual history before registering for class.”
In 2017, students at John-Hopkins University wrote about the program, as well, claiming they were frustrated by its definition of rape. Sources from the university said that students upset by the course should feel free to engage in EverFi’s student focus groups.
Jessi Hitchins, director of UNO’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, seemed to feel comfortable about the “Think About It” training.
She said: “This is the platinum standard in online educational programs, particularly for sexual violence. The GSRC was notified and was part of the process to support the dissemination of this module resource.The program really allows the users to understand the nuances of sexual violence. I think this is an exercise in active bystander intervention, as well as knowing how to engage in a healthy sexual relationship.”
This was not the experience I had throughout the program. It asked me about my sexual history and showed me how other students at UNO had answered to some questions. Seeing that the program was sent directly to my inbox, attached to my name and student ID number, not only was I in for a sense of shame, I now had a fear of privacy invasion.
Rider-Milkovich promised that student data would not be attached to any one name or identity.
“It’s important that we are able to provide anonymity to students so they answer them [the questions] authentically and honestly and to get the best data possible,” she said. “And it’s also simultaneously very important that campuses have data about student experiences to create the kind of specific and ongoing education and programing that is right for that institution.”
I agree that data on student experience is important, and our universities owe us a safe and educational environment, but asking personal questions on behalf of an institution, regardless of the feelings of its inhabitants, is manipulative and wrong.
We deserve real clarity.
To the powers that be who are listening: there is a need for education in this area. And there is a need for it to be much better.
There is a need for training that talks about how to be a better bystander, how to recognize unhealthy relationships and how to be a supportive friend when someone you love tells you stories that make your heart hurt. And all college students should have access to the same narratives.
There is also a need for training that recognizes desire and how to talk about it in the heat of the moment. There is a need to provide scripts and models of what real and healthy consensual sexual encounters should look like. There is a need for education that realizes and confronts the sexism and patriarchy that teaches men that they are owed sex and that they are hunters of it. There is a need for education that asks us to reckon with the dark impulses of predators and the institutions that allow for them.
There is a need for more discourse about the relaxing of Title IX, the barely-there punishments of the few rapists who are ever reported and convicted, the culturally pervasive slut-shaming and avoidance of real talk about good sex, the implicit victim-shaming of “training” seminars that tell you not to drink too much, the bureaucratic nightmare of reporting, the heavy onus on victims to “prove it,” and the kind of thinking in institutions that taking a mini webquest on how not to get raped is what will fix anything.
For the amount of money we pay into our educational institutions, and for the amount of trust we put forth in our administrators who promise we will learn and grow safely, we deserve quite a bit more clarity.