OP-ED: Bringing consent into the classroom: The future of sexual violence prevention at Whitman

Hannah Rudman, Senior

All interviews in this piece are from anonymous Whitman students.

Content Warning: This piece discusses sexual assault.

Sexual violence and its prevention are a frequent topic of discussion among Whitman students, even more so following Sex Week, last week’s student event series which focused on sex positivity and sexual assault awareness and prevention. According to RAINN (2022), 13 percent of college students experience sexual assault during their time in college. At this rate, over 150 students at Whitman have presumably experienced sexual assault while attending this institution. 

Given its high prevalence on college campuses, sexual assault prevention programming implemented by universities should effectively decrease sexual assaults perpetrated by students. Yet studies measuring the efficacy of such programs are rare, and rates of sexual assault on college campuses continue to rise. 

The challenge of studying such programming lies in the inability to accurately determine the rate of sexual assault each year; many instances of sexual assault go unreported to the college or law enforcement and even fewer end up disclosed in the Clery Act. In addition, a change in campus culture and student behavior can take years to become evident. 

However, student perceptions of the impact of such programs can serve as a metric to evaluate the quality of sexual assault prevention efforts. Student critiques must be recognized in order to create programming that successfully increases the safety that we feel and experience as students of Whitman College.

The structure and scope of sexual assault prevention at Whitman has undergone many changes over the past few years. The dissolution of our partnership with Green Dot (a bystander intervention training program), changes to Title IX, and upheaval due to COVID-19 has left sexual assault prevention in a very different place than when I came to campus as a first-year in 2018. 

The rapid changes to sexual assault prevention has left the college without a coherent structure or narrative for what sexual assault prevention means at Whitman. It is my hope that the disintegration of a consistent prevention strategy can be taken up by the administration as an opportunity to create a new framework that meets the desires and needs of its recipients: the students.

In an effort to determine what students believe sexual assault prevention should look like, I interviewed my peers across campus, asking about their views on the current prevention programming, as well as ideas they had for future programs. 

A key focus of these interviews was on consent training. In these conversations, several trends began to emerge. First, all students interviewed expressed a feeling that not enough prevention programming occurred on campus, particularly in terms of consent training. Moreover, they felt that existing training was not actually preventative in the sense that it did not increase students’ understanding of consent, nor did it decrease the level of sexual assault on campus. 

Upperclassmen who attended Green Dot consent training as part of first-year orientation were critical of the use of humor in broaching the topic of consent. According to one student, “trying to make it [consent training] a more fun time can reinforce sex positivity but it can also turn consent into a joke in some circles which could undermine the goals of consent education in the first place,” while another explained, “Green Dot and the funny skits about consent… I just don’t think it’s funny. Some people think it makes it easier to talk about a hard topic. But it isn’t a funny topic, so why do we need to make it funny?” 

Students who experienced other consent training also expressed discontent about both quality and quantity. One sophomore resident assistant said, “the oversimplification of these consent workshops makes people think they understand it and doesn’t encourage thoughtfulness about the issue.” He went on to explain, “the consent training has to be digestible for the entire student body and fit within one hour. How extensive can you make a consent workshop like this?” 

Another student expressed a similar desire for consent training that went beyond trite, surface-level discussions squeezed into a singular hour. Referring to the consent training during her first-year orientation, she explained, “I didn’t have much to compare it to so it seemed good at the time but now I would have appreciated something more about how to communicate with people who have been assaulted or how to change things at your college, or how to talk to administrators. Anything on a more complicated level.”

The problem with one-and-done consent training as a way for the college to check the “sexual assault prevention box” is that it circumvents an opportunity for genuine conversation and learning about consent and thus fails to play a role in impacting campus culture and decreasing sexual assault. Consent is nuanced and complicated, it goes well beyond the context of sex, pervading our every interaction with one another. 

Repeated tropes of “yes means yes” and “no means no” do not actually impact the way we understand consent in practice, and they certainly do not encourage students to think deeply about the subject. One sophomore explained, “Consent is a topic that has become oversaturated. I feel numb to it.” Whitman students are smart and engaged learners, and our conversations about consent should be happening at a level that respects our thoughtfulness. 

I was struck by my conversation with one senior student, who suggested that “[we] introduce conversations about consent into Gens or the actual classroom space in general. We should be having more academic conversations about what consent means.” Talking about consent in an academic context might in fact serve to generate more thoughtful conversation about the issue. 

As one student explained, “Consent needs to be taught and it needs to be taught well. Students need to learn about it with more nuance. They need to learn about how coercion and power imbalances play a role.” What if we taught consent with all the seriousness and respect that we teach and consider other concepts and values? Not only is an understanding of consent essential in any college’s sexual assault prevention strategy, but it is also a rich topic for discussion and one worthy of being explored in the classroom. 

One sophomore I spoke to discussed the way in which truly understanding consent goes well beyond the context of parties and hookups. He questioned, “How do we structure consent training that asks people to be thoughtful? We need to bring humanness back to it. It is literally about how you relate to and treat people on a fundamental level.” I suggest that bringing consent education into our academic world can achieve just this. 

While I want to recognize and commend the hard work of the student sexual violence prevention team in executing sex week, Whitman College needs to offer more as an institution in terms of continuous consent education as a primary sexual assault prevention strategy. Bringing discussions about consent into the classroom is one such way to meaningfully incorporate it into the community as a core value. And if you think consent isn’t a topic rich with opportunities for academic discourse, I suggest you check out this article: Women in Philosophy: The Limits of Consent in Sexual Ethics.

Sexual assault is an ongoing problem on our campus and it will continue to be unless we change our prevention strategies. We need to encourage each other to be thoughtful and curious. We need to recognize that our knowledge does not sufficiently encapsulate the complexity of these issues; we can always learn more. As one senior student explained, “I don’t think there will ever be a college that has sufficient programming on sexual assault prevention. I think, even on a personal level, you can always do better.”

Hannah is the sexual assault victims advocate intern for the YWCA.


RAINN, 800-656-4673 

Malia Lewis, Whitman’s Sexual Assault Victims Advocate (not a mandatory reporter), 509-876-7075, [email protected]

Cassandre Beccai, Title IX Coordinator, 509-522-4314, [email protected]