On May 15, as reading period came to a close, the eating clubs of Prospect Avenue opened their doors to students looking to celebrate the completion of their written work — under one condition. Party-goers were asked to read a “consent pledge” before entering each club.
“Consent is asking for and receiving affirmation from someone of sound mind before and while engaging in their personal space or belongings, and can be revoked at any time,” Elizabeth Wahlstedt ’20 recited before Charter Club bouncers allowed her to enter.
“I think it’s a good effort,” she said before heading inside her fourth club that night, adding, “I highly doubt that they’re effective. People go in completely sober and come out completely not sober.”
This student-led initiative garnered the attention of psychology researchers, who began partnering with the eating clubs last year to measure the effectiveness of the pledges.
Along with a small team, Jordan Starck, a graduate student in the psychology department, interviewed students heading back from the street last night.
“We just want to get a sense of how people are reacting to the pledge and how they think other students are reacting,” Starck said.
Some partygoers questioned the efficacy of the consent pledges, but most expressed thankfulness and optimism.
Nathan Levit ’20, who entered every club that night to complete the "Prospect 11” — where a person visits every club on the Street — said he believed the consent pledge was a laudable mechanism to help solve the issue of sexual assault on campus.
“Frankly, I think the consent pledge is actually the best thing to happen to the Street,” he said. “It makes people think about [consent] at least a few times, every single time out. It’s a real problem on college campuses.”
Although they were being put to extra work by asking students to read the pledge, bouncers expressed gratitude for the initiative.
One bouncer at a sign-in club, who has been working in the industry for almost a decade, said that he had been a victim of sexual assault himself.
“If you say, ‘no,’ the guy needs to stop and respect your space,” he said, holding up the consent pledge. “That’s what this is all about. Just bringing awareness.”
A bouncer at a bicker club said he thinks the pledge is a good idea because it allows him to see the party-goers long enough to determine if they are too intoxicated to enter.
Students’ abilities to read the consent pledges varied widely. Some slurred through each syllable, holding onto a friend for support. Others, especially early in the night, read the statement with great enthusiasm and awareness.
Tiger Inn president Maggie McCallister ’19, who spearheaded last night’s club-wide program, said she heard overwhelmingly positive feedback.
Concerned by the high of sexual assault on campus, Charter was the first club to a pledge, starting in September of 2016 after a club member heard about a similar initiative at Stanford University.
“This has the dual function of reminding people in an active way of what consent entails,” said Charter Club president Conor O’Brien, “and of demonstrating the values that we hold as a club and the expectations that ensue from them.”
Last year, after seeing media of the pledge, Ana Gantman, a postdoctoral research associate in the Wilson School and psychology department, brought it up to Betsy Levy Paluck, a professor in the same fields whose lab was researching gender-based violence. Gantman, who is interested in using the tools of social psychology to understand sexual assault on campus, suggested they contact Charter and measure effects of the pledge initiative.
“We kicked off a really pleasant and rewarding collaboration,” Paluck said. “They invited us to do some surveys of people on a night where they agreed to try out two different pledges.”
That night, students entered Charter in one of two lines and were asked to read a pledge with different wordings, emphasizing the moral or normative aspects of consent.
Researchers surveyed students on their memory of the pledges, whether they believed there was widespread support, and how clear the concept of consent was.
Sam Keller ’18, the TI social chair at the time, spoke to researchers on site and decided to get TI involved, McCallister said.
McCallister created a pledge for her own club and worked with the psychologists in measuring its impact.
“People at both clubs took it seriously and made inferences about widespread support for the pledge,” said Paluck, “but they preferred different wordings.”
The findings led the researchers to the general idea that institutional practices signal what is normative in a community. These practices include the decision to make a pledge mandatory at a club’s front door, and to allow influential people in the community, such as eating club presidents, to bolster the message. According to Paluck, the eating clubs could be an effective vehicle to get the message out about consent.
Among the eating club presidents, safety is a top priority. Each club designed its own pledge.
“TI’s safety patrol and on-duty officers are actively on the lookout on nights out. Our membership contract details a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault,” McCallister said. “The entirety of our membership also goes through annual [Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education] training. These are just a few of the efforts we make to ensure that TI members are comfortable in the active bystander role and understand best practices in dealing with these things.”
O’Brien cited the duty that Charter has to ensure students can have fun without feeling unsafe.
“Even if it only helps a little, it’s something that’s worth pursuing,” he said.
Rachel Macaulay ’19, Tower Club president and Interclub Council co-chair, reflected on the success and positive feedback from last night and said she is excited to consider continuing the practice.
Drawing an analogy between consent and the Honor Code, Gantman emphasized the importance of students communicating that they actively value consent, as opposed to only thinking that sexual assault is bad.
Gantman noted that their research takes a different approach in studying sexual assault, focusing on aspects of the immediate situation, mental states, and how individuals construe a certain situation.
“Two people might construe the same situation very differently,” she added. “This approach is very different from the way people have previously tackled this problem.”
One view holds that campus sexual assaults are committed by “serial rapists,” who are intentional and very different from “normal” undergraduates. Another view embraces a rape culture narrative, which posits that misogyny and rape myths — such as the belief that women can deserve assault — contribute to its prevalence.
“We have some data on why people like the serial rapist model — why it’s so popular — even though it probably doesn’t do a very good job explaining campus sexual assault,” Gantman said. “We think it’s because it jives with people wanting to feel like they live in a good and just society, and it’s just a few bad apples, who, if we got rid of them, it would be fixed.”
When asked about the role of alcohol consumption, Gantman pointed out that correlation does not imply causation, but mentioned alcohol’s myopic effect, which can distort users’ perceptions of situations.
One bouncer lamented the fact that students drink alcohol and smoke marijuana, which affects their judgement, but appreciated that the consent pledge would remind students to make better decisions.
He noted that he often has to intervene when students leave the club in compromised and potentially dangerous states. If it appears to be a potential assault case, he steps in.
“You check with the young lady, make sure she’s okay,” he said. “In general, you get a friend to go with her.”
He added that it is difficult to ensure total safety because the bouncers are limited to the grounds of the eating clubs. Outside of that, it is the responsibility of the police.
“A lot of people think we’re just idiot bouncers,” he said. “We have a heart, and we have families. We do care.”
According to his interviews last night, Starck found that many students cared, too. He noted that many party-goers approached him and were eager to talk.
“[The pledge was] so radically different than anything I can recall from my college experience,” he said, adding that the program was very impressive.
Last night, Hannah Fein ’20 recalled how repeatedly reading the pledge at Charter last year reinforced her memory of it.
“We still remembered it from that, so it was clearly effective,” she said.
Amy Cass ’20 remembers participating in a survey last year at TI.
“I don’t think the results are going to be accurate,” she said, “because I really just checked off random boxes to get pizza.” Researchers were offering free pizza in return for filling out the survey.
In total, students approved of the pledges.
“I don’t think they hurt,” said Kyle Berlin ’18, “but there’s more to do.”