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Talking race, rape and sexual assault at the Black Student-Athlete Summit

‘When you ask people to define consent, it gets really hard to talk about what it actually means’

All Jessica Luther wanted to do was expose the truth.

In August 2015, Luther, a journalist and author who has written extensively about rape culture and sexual violence through the lens of sports, learned of trouble on the campus of the world’s largest Baptist university in Waco, Texas. The news of the Baylor rape scandal was published in Texas Monthly a few weeks after her and journalist Dan Solomon’s unsettling findings, which rocked the campus.

Nearly two years later, Baylor remains at the center of discussions about sexual assault on college campuses. The scandal, in which 17 women reported 19 sexual or physical assaults involving football players since 2011 — four of which were gang rapes — resulted in the firing of Baylor’s head coach Art Briles, and the resignations of university president and chancellor Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw.

On Wednesday, Luther joined three other panelists at the Black Student-Athlete Summit, hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, to share her thoughts about Baylor and the wider problem of sexual violence and rape culture on college campuses.

“Part of what’s going on with Baylor is that it’s just a quintessential case,” Luther said before the discussion. “You can talk about so many aspects of what happened there and what happens in so many other programs as well, and it sort of speaks to the culture both within college sports, college football, but within universities at large right now.”

In a special report released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2014, research revealed that from 1995 to 2013, 51 percent of student rape and sexual assault victimizations occurred while the victim was pursuing leisure activities away from home, and 80 percent of rape and sexual assault victimizations of students were more likely to go unreported to police.

Of rape survivors who remained on campus, 30.7 percent suffered academically, 21.7 percent considered leaving school and 44 percent found it difficult to maintain relationships with friends and peers, according to a BJS study released last January.

‘We want to respect a no’

“In the context of rape culture and toxic masculinity, we need to start talking about a space for consent,” said Robert Bennett, an education abroad coordinator at Ohio State University. “We teach our kids what consent looks like. I ask my [19-month-old] son for a kiss all the time. He usually tells me no. As my wife is teaching me, don’t pester the issue. I have to respect his no.”

Bennett recalled how he felt while reading a report about the sexual assault allegations involving 10 University of Minnesota football players. Although the players were suspended indefinitely in early December 2016, no charges were filed.

“When I read about Minnesota, I couldn’t go past the first 12 pages. And this woman with those guys, she said she didn’t feel her no was valid. I said, ‘Damn.’ How did we get to a space where somebody feels their no is not valid?”

It’s a problem that panelist Amissa Miller said may have to do with many not knowing exactly what consent is. Miller works as an interactive theater specialist with Voices Against Violence at UT Austin. Miller’s group provides resources for victims of sexual assault and violence, and also creates interactive productions to educate students.

“What we found is that when you ask people to define consent, it gets really hard to talk about what it actually means,” Miller said. “We’re trying to move away from this rhetoric of just stopping the conversation at no means no. We want to respect a no, but we also want to make it clear that the absence of a no is not consent. That consent is mutual, that it also has to be explicit and verbal. That it has to be enthusiastic and also that it has to be a continuous conversation. If you consent to one sexual act, that doesn’t mean you’re consenting to any sexual act. If you consent to having sex with someone one time, that doesn’t mean you’re consenting to sex any time in the future. If you’re consenting to sex with one person, that doesn’t mean you’re consenting to sex with other people.”

Valyncia Raphael, director of diversity, compliance and Title IX coordinator at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California, believes no matter how uncomfortable or taboo rape and sexual violence may be, discussions shouldn’t start when students reach their college campuses.

“One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is, by the time someone gets to college, it’s too late. It’s too late to talk about consent, and I’m noticing this is some of the first times someone is talking about their sexuality, what they like or dislike … It’s a lot of things like boundaries and personal desire and values and principles that need to be discussed at younger ages.”

One overlooked topic is men who have been affected by sexual assaults. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, about one in 45 men have been forced into sexual interactions. One in 16 men is sexually assaulted in college.

Miller believes one way to crack down on this is to get more men to recognize how harmful toxic masculinity can be to men and women.

“One way we get men engaged in this is for men to understand that toxic masculinity is also detrimental to them,” Miller said. “One of the ways toxic masculinity is detrimental to young men is it makes them believe that they are always supposed to want sex, and that if you don’t want sex, something is wrong with you. That’s harmful because what it leads to is men being coerced to having sex that they don’t want to have, and that is also sexual assault. And men are not taught to conceive it that way. Men can get involved in this conversation because men are the majority of perpetrators, and also because men are harmed by toxic masculinity.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.