An Open Letter on Sexual Assault Training

CW: sexual assault and harassment

The NCAA requires that its teams undergo sexual violence prevention and anti-hazing training sessions each year. As a freshman member of the swim team, it was my first time attending this training session, and I took serious issue with the way it was conducted. Disclaimer: I left the discussion early to go to work, but I stayed for the duration of the  discussion on sexual assault and harassment, and my grievances are only with this portion. The session, facilitated by two people brought in by Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Hillary Grumbine included the men's and women's swim team and the men's and women's track and field team. This meant about 80 students were sitting in Upper Tarble with two instructors (a ratio that almost no Swarthmore classes even approach). We were seated at several round tables, with around five or six students to a table. The session began with two facilitators going over the Planned Parenthood definition of consent –– freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, specific. We were then given cutouts of pizza slices and told to work in groups to decide what toppings to put on the pizza. We had to put on at least three toppings, and everyone had to agree on the final product. This was supposed to be an exercise that showed us how consent works, and how it shouldn’t be hard to come to an “agreement.”

Except that’s just not it.

You simply can’t compare consent in sex and romance to sitting around a table asking everyone if they like pepperoni on their pizza. For starters, this example wildly trivializes the serious nature of sexual assault. Secondly, I think it’s foolish and patronizing to explain consent to college-age students as simple and uncomplicated. It isn't and shouldn't be treated as such. There is the clear and obvious binary, yes and no, and then in between them, there's the terrifying gray area. Ignoring this ambiguity doesn't help anyone - in fact most assaults occur in that space, in which, for example, someone claims to have "misinterpreted" another's actions. Our sexual violence prevention training sessions should reflect that this issue is not as easy as picking pizza toppings.

Further, consent is not the only topic that is essential to these sessions. Instead of dedicating an entire portion of the meeting to a highly simplified definition of consent, we should speak frankly about the issues student-athletes most commonly encounter in regards to sexual violence, as victims, perpetrators, or anywhere in between. We need to talk about rape culture, slut-shaming and “locker room talk,” all of which are prevalent, ingrained particularly in male athletic culture, and hurtful to non-cis male identifying athletes who deserve the same respect as their male peers. This is not an activity that should feature cutesy exercises with paper cutouts.

We moved on to the next activity, during which we were told, “give us an example of harassment and how you could deal with it.” After a few moments of pause, I mentioned an incident to my group which I consider minor, an incident I’m certain that many women athletes have experienced and brushed aside. I talked about my discomfort with an instructor in my lifeguard certification class, who was clearly ogling at me and repeatedly asked me to practice my lifeguarding saves on him. I mentioned this in hopes that it would bring several issues up for discussion: firstly, that harassment like this is hard to prove and quantify, but still exists and is still despicable. Secondly, that my male teammates, who are often in an environment in which almost no one is wearing clothes, should take small instances like this as serious moments for reflection.

Still, the very fact that we were being asked, demanded actually, to bring up examples of sexual harassment puts the onus on female athletes to share traumas and experiences just so the collective group can agree that sexual harassment is bad. It's already assumed to be our responsibility, as women athletes on a co-ed team, to educate our male colleagues and teammates on how harmful sexual assault is. One in three women experiences some sort of sexual harassment in her lifetime. This means, statistically, at least a third of the women in the room during this training have experienced an incident not unlike this one, if not something much worse. We were asked to talk about these examples without regard for the fact that reliving sexual assault is incredibly traumatic. To add insult to injury, we were pressed to come up with even more examples of how to stop harassment already taking place.

As someone who has been told for the greater part of my life all of the different ways in which I can prevent an assault, I’m seriously over it. I shouldn’t have to sit through another mandatory “training session” in which I will be told, again, the things I need to do in order to not be harassed: Maybe talk to someone you feel comfortable with? Confront the person who’s harassing you, ask someone for help, know self-defense in case of physical assault. The message that is being sent here is clear; attempts at sexual harassment are inevitable, and therefore, the only thing left to do is figure out how to prevent it happening to you or someone you know. To those facing harassment and assault, this also says: “there is nothing you can do except memorize the hundreds of ways we’ve devised to defend you. Your righteous indignation and fury with the fact that sexual assault is so prevalent is not constructive.” This is unacceptable. The efforts of these discussions should be placed first and foremost on making sure everyone understands that rape culture, slut-shaming jokes, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are incredibly wrong. End of story. We should talk about how unacceptable it is to disparage one's own teammates, opponents, and anyone else by using sexual references and insults.

At the end of the experience, I still feel like the real elephant in the room was not discussed. The crisis that we face as a society is that many men feel entitled to others’ bodies. They do not feel like “locker room talk” is criminal behavior, or even morally wrong, because it’s a joke to them or because they “don’t mean it in that way”.  They often brush aside these allegations by saying that their friends are good people and that their lives shouldn’t be ruined for some ill-advised jokes or even for regrettable actions. The conversation on sexual assault should focus on holding perpetrators, some of whom were in the room during that very discussion, responsible for their actions. We should also discuss the fact that sometimes, people being harassed or objectified aren't present while this harassment takes place. Text conversations and group chats that make jokes at the expense of female teammates’ are a large part of the problem.

I would like to think that my male teammates, with whom I share lots of training time and hard practice experiences, respect my fellow female teammates and me at the very basic human level. Yet, I am still offended by the easy way with which some of them brush away rape culture as lesser to their teammates’ successes in the pool. We are not hysterical girls who can’t take a joke making a scene. We are justified in feeling not only uncomfortable, but furious at the way that sexual assault and harassment  conversations are handled by the athletic department. These are issues that should be prioritized by the department. I want to be clear in saying that I’m not accusing all men of this. I know many, many men on the swim team and outside of it who do not abide by by these behaviors, who are good friends of mine, and who I genuinely believe respect me. I know men who have also been sexually assaulted, and the problems that they face are equally important.

However, the overwhelming male culture, the shining example that many young boys are expected to follow, still has failed to account for the way it glorifies violent masculinity.  Athletic success is not enough – men are often pushed to express their dominance and masculinity in every possible way. The thought that sexual assault is just a woman’s issue is inherently problematic. Clearly, the negative stereotypes that arise from this culture do not only affect women. And until our discussions at Swarthmore reflect this reality and treat sexual assault like the immoral and despicable thing it is, we will not move forward. A mandatory discussion about sexual violence prevention that reinforces these issues and refuses to acknowledge the severity of problems that female athletes face is not helpful; in fact, it is offensive and harmful.

At orientation, the freshman class had a discussion about sexual assault, sexual harassment, and consent. In my opinion, it was well-executed and illuminating. I know that Swarthmore has the capability to facilitate the conversation that needs to be had; it’s just not happening. I think it is deeply troubling that I have to write this in order to expect a constructive and helpful discussion on sexual harassment within Swarthmore athletics. I am not alone in the opinion that the discussions at this mandated NCAA training were inappropriate, insufficient, and harmful. I have spoken with many of my teammates, male and female, who are also disappointed in the handling of these issues at the training and within the athletics department as a whole. With the discovery of a seriously problematic culture that has permeated of fraternities coming to light, I believe it is time that our community recognizes that this norm is not exclusive to the frats, and that a botched training like this only serves to encourage this norm. This culture is also prominent and goes unaddressed (or improperly addressed) in sports teams, as well as many other spaces on campus. Swarthmore has a responsibility to its students to send a message to those people who feel they can and should get away with sexual harassment in the name of humor or tradition, and who uphold this concerning and degrading culture; not just those in fraternities, but also those whose various other campus activities or organizations condone and uphold this very same, harmful culture.

I hope that the athletic department and the school can act quickly on the concerns of its students. When we have a talk about sexual violence prevention and sexual assault, it should not be simplified. It should be uncomfortable, because these are serious issues. The athletic department should be able to facilitate a conversation that helps both its female and male athletes navigate this topic. The student-athlete body deserves better than this last meeting we were required to attend.