Gendered orientation workshops spark controversy among first-year males

Laura Niman

Two sexual misconduct workshops were held because Mike Domitrz, the traditional Opening Week “Can I Kiss You?” speaker, was not scheduled to present until Sept. 13. This meant first-year orientation did not incorporate any sexual misconduct event.

“There was no way we could not have an Opening Week discussion about this topic,” said Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell.

The goal of the women’s event, led by Maxwell, was to promote awareness of the issue and identify risk-reduction strategies. The men’s workshop, led by Sean Gehrke, assistant director of Residence Life and Housing, and George Theo, former director of student activities, focused on awareness and prevention strategies.

Conflicts arose when some participants in the men’s session questioned aspects of the policy.

“They were trying to get around the policy, just to prove a point that they could,” said first-year Matt Coleman.

Although Coleman did not believe that these men were actually interested in taking advantage of policy loopholes, he said, “It was a big waste of time in the end, because they’re going to follow the policy: they have to.”

“I think there were comments and questions looking at more semantic things and language things and trying to get down to the nitty-gritty of what the policy did and did not cover,” said Gehrke. He did not feel that conflict ever escalated to a point of concern.

Maxwell said that this kind of conflict was anticipated. “There’s always one point where it sticks when you’re talking about this, especially with young men, and it always has to do with the combination of alcohol and responsibility,” said Maxwell. She felt that many of the male students didn’t realize how few reports are made a year and that it’s not a matter of one sip of beer.

“What they want is this really clear line,” said Maxwell. “The problem is, when you deal with alcohol, there’s no such line, because that line moves every single time you’re in a situation. And that’s what makes it really challenging.”

She described one incident in which the female student was vomiting, the male student was holding her hair back from her face, and then they had sex.

“He thought that was okay,” said Maxwell. “Well, she didn’t even remember what the heck happened the next day.”

Maxwell feels that this kind of alcohol impairment is characteristic of sexual misconduct hearings and that these kinds of specific examples should be used in future years to make the program more effective.
Gehrke saw positive outcomes from the debate.

“I think it provided a good opportunity for people to voice their opinion and have their peers confront them,” Maxwell said. “I think it did a good job of making them feel comfortable talking about [sexual misconduct].”
First-years Patrick Miller and Adrian Tuohy both agreed that the workshop was effective.

“It’s important that everybody gets introduced to [the sexual misconduct] policy right when they get here,” said Miller. “This was a great medium, I thought, of doing that.”

Gehrke felt that the workshops also provided a good context for Domitrz’s presentation. Maxwell agreed, emphasizing the idea of “dosage.” She viewed “Can I Kiss You?” as a good follow-up for the Opening Week workshops. She wants this kind of programming to have a more consistent and visible presence on campus.

One thing she thinks will help with that is bringing the comedy group “Sex Signals” to campus in the spring.
Gehrke also hoped to create more programming on campus. Something he believed has been attempted at Whitman in the past is the creation of a “men against rape” or “men against sexual assault” group like those established on many other college campuses. He hopes another attempt will be made to create such a group on campus this year or in the near future.

“[Sexual misconduct], while it’s not reported very often, is actually occurring very frequently. It’s kind of like the iceberg, and oftentimes we can see the tip of it sticking out of the water, but we don’t see all the stuff happening below the surface,” said Maxwell. She hopes to make the bottom 99.9 percent of the iceberg more visible on campus.