By Jackie Brant
TW: Victimization and Sexual Misconduct
It has become common practice for colleges and universities across the U.S. to mandate sexual misconduct workshops for incoming students. At Oberlin, all new students are required to attend the first round of Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct workshops, and all athletes are required to attend the second, which is also open to the entire community. The mandatory first workshop is called The Essentials, and the second workshop is called Bystander Intervention. Together, these two workshops are meant to inform students about the importance and language of consent.
Overall, the PRSM workshops are crucial to the social atmosphere at Oberlin. I have heard stories and personally experienced instances in which people employed specific strategies learned from the workshops or asked for consent using phrases suggested by PRSM. The small group style of the workshops is much more successful in encouraging all students to participate and engage with the material than the big lectures that are used at many other colleges and universities.
However, the PRSM curriculum has an unfortunate practice of ranking various situations dealing with oppression and sexual misconduct as “better” or “worse” than others. Though these activities highlight important examples of sexual misconduct issues that must be recognized and addressed, they also contribute to a hierarchy of victimization.
During one activity in the Bystander Intervention workshop, categories of unacceptable behavior such as “catcalling,” “nonconsensual groping,” “rape” and others were provided, and groups of students were asked to rank these categories in order of “social acceptableness.” Such an activity unnecessarily imposes a hierarchical system into the discussion of sexual misconduct. It is a useless practice that inevitably contributes to the notion that some victims of crimes such as sexual assault are more deserving of sympathy than others, depending on what they experienced.
The ranking of different types of sexual misconduct contributes to the idea that some individuals or groups are less violated than others and can discourage individuals who have experienced “lesser” offenses from speaking up about their experiences. Further, as Meagen Hildebrand and Cynthia Najdowski wrote in Albany Law Review, a hierarchy can delegitimize an individual’s trauma or emotions, affecting “the extent to which victims come forward to report their experiences and, subsequently, how their cases are handled in the criminal justice system.” Ultimately, victims can feel silenced and fear that their experiences are not severe enough to warrant attention. This then validates the hierarchy of victimization and contributes to other issues such as victim blaming and the delegation of lesser sentences.
At an institution such as Oberlin, we should be at the forefront of fighting all forms of sexual assault and supporting survivors. While PRSM is necessary and beneficial in many ways, workshop leaders should revise its agenda in a way that addresses the problem of the hierarchy of victimization rather than contributes to it. It is also overly optimistic to think that two workshops are enough to permanently change the ways students look at sexual misconduct and consent. If Oberlin truly cares about these issues, ongoing workshops should be required throughout students’ four years, and should be restructured so as not to belittle any forms of sexual misconduct.