Consent in the sssas community

Lindsay Lian '22, Catherine Onorato '22, Lucy Palma '23, and Morgan Tracy '22

         Even though sexual assault is mostly showcased on TV, making us feel somewhat removed from the topic, it happens everywhere, even in our own SSSAS community. Some of our fellow peers and faculty have bravely made the choice to come forward anonymously, in hopes of shining more light on the topic. 

         To find out more about student and faculty perspectives and first-hand accounts of consent, sexual assault (SA) and sexual harrassment, we sent a survey to SSSAS Upper School students and faculty. The survey recieved a total of 59 responses, comprised of 41 people that identify as female, 14 people that identify as male, and 4 people that identify as nonbinary. 

         Out of the responses, seventeen people checked the box agreeing that they believe they are a victim of SA. When asked if they know someone who has experienced SA, there was a confident 79% from the 59 responses that checked  “yes.” When asked if they, themselves have experienced SA, 28.8%  responded “yes,” consisting of 13 that identify as female, 4 identifying as male, as well as 9 people who responded “maybe,” of which 2 were male and 7 were female. This means that almost 30% of responders indicated they had been sexually assaulted. The results of the survey showed a SA rate of almost 190x the national average;  The national average reports 463,634 sexual assault and rape victims above age 12 each year, which comes out to about 0.16% of the population each year, SSSAS is well over that average out of the respondents in the survey.

         In the survey, the SSSAS students and faculty define sexual assault as “nonconsenual intimate contact,”  “Having a sexual attitude towards someone without their consent,” “ANY non-consensual sexual act, doesn't matter if it was originally a yes and now a no, or if they're drunk or anything like that,” and “Beratting a person in a sexual manner, i.e. catcalling, asking someone for nude pictures, or making overtly sexual comments that are unwanted” among other variations of personal definitions. Despite there being many different definitions, the definition of what is considered sexual assault mostly holds consistent. 

         The United States Department of Justice defines SA as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.” Furthermore, State and Federal laws have clear guidelines and consequences regarding sexual relations with age gaps, and while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Despite having a general consensus across our school, and in the law about what constitutes as SA and harrassment remains a nuanced, complicated issue. 

        To gain a more legal perspective on the aftermath of sexual assault, we met with Mr. Robinson, who has prosecuted SA cases in two states. He described some of the long- term effects of sexual assault and why victims may not report it. “A person who's been sexually assaulted… that goes to who you are. There's something especially humiliating about that. Because normally, if a person is engaging in normal sexual activity, they're going to agree to it. Whereas when someone takes that from you, either by violence or by coercion, there's a way in which that's humiliating…So if a person has been humiliated, they're much less likely to come forward and say, listen, that person did that to me, because they're embarrassed, they're ashamed.” Whether it be due to humiliation, lack of knowing how to report, or some other reason, of the 26 participants in the survey who responded “yes” or “maybe” to having been sexually assaulted, only one participant said that they reported their assault. Compared to the national average of sexual assault cases that are reported, 1 out of every 3 cases of sexual assault, the SSSAS community falls significantly behind in reported cases, according to the 59 people who took the survey.

          After information from our survey was gathered, we were able to start conducting interviews within our school community. To protect the students and faculty interviewed, all of the following interviews are being reported anonymously. We interviewed members of our community varying in age and gender, however, the answers had some common themes. First off, we asked our interviewees about their general understanding of sexual assault and how it related to our society/community. Specifically, we asked about how sex education is taught in our school and if they believed our community was doing enough to prevent sexual assault. 

          When asked if an anonymous student felt the school’s sexual education prepared them to deal with sexual and emotional relationships throughout high school, a student responded “I think the school did a great job on talking about consent… But I mean, there’s only so much they can do. I feel like they should probably add more on what the aftermath is because a lot of girls don't know what to do. And we live in a time where saying something could make detrimental things happen to your life when you're the victim of the situation.” This feeling of not knowing what to do is not uncommon for victims, however, whether in the SSSAS community or out, it is important to identify trusted resources to learn from and to turn to in the event of an emergency. 

           Affectionately known as the “Consent Guy” at SSSAS, Mike Domirtz visited the Upper School on April 1st to present his well-known informational assembly on consent. We reached out to him via email to gain some background on the importance of consent, and his role in sexual education, especially in a high school environment. When Mr. Domirtz was asked what his mission in the field of sexual education is, he responded, “to help build a culture of respect for every person in all relationships and to do so by teaching positive "how-to" skills and perspectives.”

           When we asked about his perspectives on gray areas and legal versus social aspects of consent, Mr. Domirtz explained his perspective clearly. In terms of consent in relations with age gaps across underaged and of age students, he stated, “In schools, consent can be a major concern if teens are disregarding the legal age and having sexual activity with someone whom is not of age.” In simple terms, “A ‘yes’ from someone who is not the age of consent, is not consent.” A student who had been in a relationship with an age gap in previous years elaborated on the relation of consent and these kinds of age gaps. With a power dynamic, even though minors can legally not consent, “If they say ‘jump’, you're going to be like, ‘Okay, how high?’” This shows that in some relationships with an age difference, the power dynamic can lead the younger partner to disregard their personal autonomy to please their older partner, valuing their partner’s needs before their own. 

           When it comes to consent and alcohol, Mr. Domirtz states, “With alcohol, a person who is incapacitated or not of sound mind due to any drugs (alcohol is a drug) cannot consent. Many high school students share that often sexual activity is happening when at least one person is not of sound mind due to alcohol and/or other drugs. In those cases, we are talking about sexual assault.” Contrary to this professional opinion, many young adults find that the presence of alcohol is common in sexual interactions. 

           We sat down with an anonymous teacher to ask about their experience with sexual assault and alcohol as a college student. They shared a story where alcohol put them at risk for being taken advantage of: “So when I was underage drinking in college, I know, this is kind of embarrassing, but it shows that I'm human. I was so drunk that I got sent to the hospital. And my parents came because I went to college about an hour and a half away from my parents house. So they rushed to the hospital. I thought it was sweet, but also in a weird way. They were more concerned about me being so drunk that I could have been sexually assaulted, rather than, like worried about the hospital bills or me being so intoxicated… they weren't worried about that. They were like, ‘yeah, you can't do that, because you don't know who's out there and what they could do.’” It's interesting to note that the fear of their childs safety was not necessarily about the drinking, but rather the possibility of assault that came with it.  

          Afterwards, we sat down with an anonymous student who reflected on how the presence of alcohol can create another power dynamic, “it definitely crosses a line, especially if you're mixing being under the influence with an age gap relationship in a sexual setting, because that just increases a power dynamic. And someone's always going to be, you know, more drunk or more high than the other person. You never know how the other person is really feeling. For two reasons at that point, age and and [being]  under the influence, it makes it worse.” Not only in these situations are sexual relations worse, but consent cannot be given for two reasons.  

          Another student, recounting a personal experience, commented  on the social approach of sexual assault and how their peers comment on sexual relations under the influence. They stated, “There was one time at a party where there's a situation with me and my [partner]. And then the next day [their] friends were like, ‘haha, [they were] f*****g a dead body’.” A jarring comment like this in casual conversation shows how off-handedly sexual assault is discussed in a social setting among teenagers. Age can play a part in discussing these heavy topics as SA can be casually referenced in uncomfortable situations, making light of a serious situation. 

         In addition to age, age differences between two people in a relationship can be eye catching; the larger the gap, the more noticeable. From maturity differences in communication to managing comfort levels in sexual environments , age differences play a role in the dynamics of relationships. A few SSSAS students volunteered to speak about age gaps within their current or past relationships. Some reflected on their past relationships of varying seriousness, from flings to years-long relationships, acknowledging now whether the age difference made an impact on their relationship. 

            One student spoke on their past experience with an older student. “It started out as a playful senior crush. But it escalated to the point of things that I looked back on, I was really uncomfortable with them happening… I regret the things that happened between us… mostly because it was very manipulative, both emotionally and physically. And  I did things that… I wouldn't have otherwise done.” When further asked about the role that age played in a power dynamic in this relationship, the student mentioned that, “It's not that I didn't consent to the things that we did. But it was a moment of, I don't really have a choice with this senior boy, or it's going to be embarrassing.” 

           Even if consent is given ostensibly , social pressure, and feeling like “I don’t really have a choice” can play a role in physical and emotional relationships, especially with an age gap. Consent can feel like it is implied in a relationship, so the choice feels taken away from you. The student further shared that, “There's definitely a pressure, even if there's not a pressure, if that makes sense.” It’s worth acknowledging that pressure in a relationship may not be explicitly or verbally expressed, but it can exist nonetheless.

           As a closing remark in the interview, the student offered some advice to their younger self, as well as students who may be in a similar position. “To the freshmen girls, if there's a boy that is older than you and is interested in freshman girls, think about why that is and think about why he's not interested in girls in his own grade. And just try to imagine yourself three years from now as a senior and how relationships with age gaps can work, if they're a loving, healthy relationship. If not, there's always going to be trouble in my opinion.” 

           

        If you or someone you know is struggling, do not hesitate to reach out to these resources.

 

Mrs. Harrison, school counselor: Counselor’s office next to academic center in art wing

Father Cavanaugh, Upper school chaplain: Chaplain’s office next to Mrs. Harrison’s

Ms. Mazur, Upper school health teacher: room 108

National Sexual Assault Telephone Line: 800.656.HOPE (4673)

Or visit https://www.rainn.org/national-resources-sexual-assault-survivors-and-their-loved-ones for a list of resources and references