How one Catholic university is trying to create a culture of consent
About six years ago, students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles came to the school’s Division of Student Affairs with a serious concern. “We understand we’re a Catholic institution,” they explained, according to staff member Briana Maturi. “But we need to find ways to talk about things like consent and relationships within our Catholic ideology because we and our peers are dealing with that.”
Over the last year consent has become a top-of-mind topic, something discussed everywhere from the nightly news to a “Saturday Night Live” music video. But the need for a space in which to talk about such issues was clear in 2013 too. Ms. Maturi notes how in sexual misconduct hearings at the university “you’re looking at two parties who are both members of our college community, who [each] have people” supporting them.
“What happened in that moment” when sexual intimacy became a possibility, she asks, “that they weren’t able to confirm they had consent?” At times it seemed like students had not known how to broach the topic or, worse, felt that it was somehow wrong to do so: “Part of why they haven’t been able to engage in that conversation is they feel this shame, that they’re not supposed to talk about these things.”
But how do you create an open, nonjudgmental opportunity for conversation about sexual activity in the context of the Catholic faith, where issues related to intimacy and sexuality have often been presented as top-down pronouncements and reinforced by a sense of shame?
How do you create an open, nonjudgmental opportunity for conversation about sexual activity in the context of the Catholic faith?
Ms. Maturi was tasked with creating the L.M.U. Cares, for Campus Awareness Resource Education Services, the program that has emerged out of that initial student request. She likes to begin discussions about intimacy and consent with a quick poll of incoming students.
On the first full day of fall orientation, she asks them to anonymously answer two questions: How many times do you think your new peers “hooked up” in high school (i.e., “had some form of intimate physical contact with someone [they were] not in a committed relationship with”)? And how many times did you hook up yourself?
“Again and again,” Ms. Maturi reveals, “the perception is four, five, six times, and the reality for most students is zero to one times.” The same proves true for students after they have been at L.M.U. for a semester; the expectations students might have of how sexually active their peers are do not reflect the reality of L.M.U. student life.
The point Ms. Maturi makes is this: “You can follow your values,” and at L.M.U. you have indeed come to a community of people just like you. “Your peers are not only living the same values as you, but are ready to support you in that,” she says.
“It’s because we’re a Catholic institution that we can talk about that,” says Ms. Maturi. “We want the students to be learning to live their values.”
With that initial sense of empowerment in hand, over the course of the fall semester L.M.U. Cares hosts a series of 90-minute small group seminars required of all new students. In these sessions, students are given real-life situations related to intimacy, alcohol use, implicit bias and other typical challenges of young adulthood and invited to share their responses to the question following each scenario: Do you think both parties have consent?
Inviting open conversation about consent enables students to feel more comfortable expressing what they actually think.
Part of the approach is strategic. Inviting open conversation about consent enables students to feel more comfortable expressing what they actually think, and, says Ms. Maturi, therein lies the possibility for growth. “As a facilitator I always believe that someone in the room is reading the scenario and thinking, ‘I don’t understand how that is not consent.’
“If we’re going to change culture, we have to create spaces in which it’s safe to say that.”
The open conversation framework is intended to build students’ capacity for self-reflection and honest conversation in their own lives. “Developmentally we want to meet students at a higher level,” says Ms. Maturi, “to provide them with concepts and a brave space to muddle through these topics, so that when they’re not with us they feel more empowered, emboldened to do that.” Stressing that open, honest conversation is the key to both personal safety and healthy experiences, the seminars provide a safe space to practice those skills.
And as students talk, the program weaves in material to inform their reflections. For a choice to be consensual, L.M.U. Cares teaches, it must be C.C.O.W.—clear, or unambiguous by both parties; coherent, understood by both; ongoing, open to alteration at any point; and willing, free of external pressure.
The acronym C.C.O.W. hardly rolls off the tongue, but unexpectedly the term has taken off among students. “Initially it was just this funny phrase,” says junior Mary Laurance. Her peers tell stories of using the term as a joke in their ordinary lives. “If a friend takes my food, someone might say, ‘I didn’t C.C.O.W. that,’” freshman Gregory Jasper explains while classmates grin and nod in agreement.
“But I think us learning C.C.O.W. made us more understanding of the gravity [of the issue],” Ms. Laurance says. “If you say, ‘No,’ you mean, ‘No.’”
Trying to navigate these kinds of conversations in a Catholic institution can still be “scary for us as educators...I am certainly not a priest or a nun. But we are helping students to follow their values.”
Other students are pleased that every student on campus is familiar with the term. Some might not be able to remember what each of the four letters stands for, but “everyone knows the general idea,” says junior Amanda Scandalios. Even as they kid about it, to hear C.C.O.W. used in a serious setting would definitely cause an L.M.U. student to reevaluate their actions, she says.
“We’ve given everyone on campus a shared language to define consent,” says Ms. Maturi.
Posters talking about consent can also be found in high-traffic places like the athletic center, and the program’s facilitators are consciously drawn from different parts of student life. The belief is that students might run into them in other contexts and be reminded they are a part of a community that supports them and to whom they can turn.
The emphasis on community extends as well to consideration of students’ responsibilities to one another as bystanders. “Our heritage is about being men and women for others,” says Ms. Maturi. “Part of that is bystander intervention,” or stepping in to help when you see that others around you are in need or impaired.
Mr. Jasper notes how helpful that has been. “Sometimes you think someone else is going to take care of a situation, but then no one else does. If I was in that position in high school, I’d be a little more hesitant to step in. Now I’m a little more confident.”
Classmate Mason Patrick notes the university makes this easier by not prosecuting bystanders for being intoxicated themselves. “It’s better to help a friend who’s in trouble first instead of [worrying about] being in trouble for being under the influence.”
Ms. Laurance agrees. At L.M.U., she says, “They did a good job of furthering the idea that L.M.U. students should be looking out for each other. People who go to L.M.U. all seem like they very much want to contribute to the community. Maybe that was in part because of what they teach in the L.M.U. Cares program.”
For Ms. Maturi the formation provided by L.M.U. Cares is not simply about enabling students to have a positive experience in college. “How far can your influence go?” she asks her students. “You’re a film student, what are you going to do about these issues in the industry? You’re a business student, what are you going to do as C.E.O.?” A graduate of L.M.U. should be someone businesses want precisely because they can help challenge the culture of their organizations, she argues. “They’ll help an organization to be a better version of itself because at L.M.U. those students learned to better version of themselves.”
Trying to navigate these kinds of conversations in a Catholic institution can still be “scary for us as educators,” Ms. Maturi admits. “I am certainly not a priest or a nun. But we are helping students to follow their values.”
“And if we’re going to be truly a social justice institution and create critical thinkers, empowered students who are ready to set the world on fire, we have to start here helping them now to have the difficult conversations. If they’re going to create those spaces in other places, we have to do that here.”