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Unless there's consent

AlcoholEdu has been part of Princeton’s smorgasbord of freshman orientation activities for several years, but this year the Class of 2017 had an additional online course to take before they set foot on campus. “Unless There’s Consent,” a program designed by SHARE to educate incoming freshmen on sexual harassment and abuse, is well-intentioned. Last year, when the results of a 2008 survey revealed that around 15 percent of female undergraduate students at Princeton had experienced “non-consensual vaginal penetration” during their four years here, there was anger, there was misanthropy and there was plenty of debate over what the administration could do to bring that number closer to zero. As of now, only the freshmen have taken “Unless There’s Consent” and there have only been five weekends for them to apply its lessons, so it isn’t really possible to gauge its effectiveness with hard data yet. However, it isn’t difficult to see how the program could have been created as a knee-jerk reaction to the uproar surrounding the survey’s results, instead of a long-term solution to a perennial problem.

For a good comparison, all we have to do is take a look at the effectiveness of AlcoholEdu. It might have some effect on how students choose to drink, and it’s hard to know what Princeton’s party scene would be like without AlcoholEdu. However, what we do know is that the kind of drinking that AlcoholEdu warns against occurs almost every Thursday and Saturday night, in rooms all over campus. AlcoholEdu might not be useless — it might be cutting the number of McCosh’d and PMC’d students in half for all we know — but it certainly isn’t effective enough to prevent the high-risk behavior it tries to discourage. The unfortunate reality is that there probably isn’t actually a way to completely suppress any student body’s tendency towards overdrinking, and the same is possibly true of sexual harassment.


Like AlcoholEdu, “Unless There’s Consent” is a step in the right direction, as it represents at least a superficial investment in reducing the amount of sexual harassment and abuse that happens on campus. However, if the Princeton administration wants to be serious about preventing “non-consensual vaginal penetration” and similar behaviors, it needs to be willing to change the culture surrounding the Street, hookups, drinking and other smaller factors that contribute to the 15 percent figure, which many of us have already pushed to the back of our minds. However, the issues that AlcoholEdu and “Unless There’s Consent” intend to tackle are problems at almost all colleges in the United Staes, so it is unlikely that Princeton’s administration can prevent its students from essentially behaving like typical college students.

The root cause of the problem lies in the inability of an administration to change decades of accumulated “college culture” that revolves around drinking and sex, among other things. The same phenomenon happens with programs such as D.A.R.E. in middle schools and high schools, which does little to discourage students who are already using drugs from doing what they want. Many students have already been told what’s cool and what’s not cool by other students and popular culture, and no amount of AlcoholEdu-like initiatives is going to affect those perceptions once they’ve been made. The few colleges in the United States that have dry campuses don’t achieve that through any kind of administrative influence on the students; it is the students who actively accept a ban on alcohol and drugs.

Whether Princeton’s administration tries strict rules and harsh punishments, like the Honor Code, or passive educational initiatives like AlcoholEdu (and presumably “Unless There’s Consent”), it cannot actually alter students’ behavior significantly unless there’s consent from the students, so to speak. If even the legal ramifications of underage drinking or sexual assault can’t discourage students from engaging in those behaviors, then the administration has no hope of doing so either. For all the talk of consent and respect, a campus culture which embraces partying and drinking will inevitably result in some occurrences of “non-consensual vaginal penetration.” By going to the Street or a pregame, a student implicitly supports and accepts the same “college culture” that also spawned the idea of date rape. If we really want to prevent these situations from occurring, then we would need to reform the entire campus culture —the eating clubs wouldn’t hold any more parties, dorms would have to be substance-free and single-sex, and so on, with PSafe (or even the Princeton police!) strictly enforcing those rules. These might be extreme measures, but that’s what it would take for Princeton to truly prevent sexual harassment, non-consensual situations, high-risk drinking or anything else that is exacerbated by a party culture.

Spencer Shen is a sophomore from Austin, Texas. He can be reached at