Though some became active participants, many fraternity members required to join a conversation Wednesday about consent and sexual assault prevention spent much of it, to the disappointment of some of the event’s organizers, on their phones and laptops instead.
Though the Interfraternity Council required that each of the 39 fraternity chapters at Cornell send 10 members — meaning that more than 400 people should have been at the event — only about 200 people attended the Sexual Assault Prevention Forum, according to IFC President Chris Sanders ’13.
One sign that the men were reluctant to participate in the conversation was their decision to crowd toward the back seats of the hall, said Mark Houlemarde, residence hall director of the Latino Living Center and one of the speakers at the event.
“It’s cool to be the kid in the back, being on your phone, being on Facebook, being disengaged,” Houlemarde said.
Others measured varying degrees of involvement in the forum.
“Some people were trying to stay engaged, some people were talking to each other, or were on their laptops playing around,” Matt Laks ’15 said. The forum “wasn’t extremely effective in keeping people engaged,” he said.
Similarly, Danny Ramin ’15 said that if many appeared uninterested, others engaged in meaningful conversation.
“Overall, as with all these things, people who take it as a joke don’t pay attention,” Ramin said. “A lot [of people] were paying attention, even some of the people with laptops participated and said things out loud.”
Fraternity members who did listen heard Houlemarde encourage them to consider themselves part of the solution to changing the culture around sexual assault.
“Think about what our role is as men. What can I do in thinking about preventing sexual assault?” Houlemarde asked. “I pose it to you individually as men, active bystanders, people who can really change the culture in your groups as well.”
Rachael Blumenthal ’13, co-president of Consent-Ed, also spoke, addressing the dissonance between the legal definition of giving consent in New York State — which entails being older than 17, giving verbal consent and being sober — and the reality that people do have sex while drunk.
“I’m not expecting you to be extreme and never go near a woman or man when intoxicated,” Blumenthal said. “But learning to recognize signs and communicate effectively is crucial … You’re always responsible for your actions at the end of the day. You have to greet the situation and be comfortable with what you chose to do.”
Blumenthal noted that the Greek community does not have the best reputation.
“You being here is important in changing that,” she told audience members. “You guys are here. You care. So show Cornell you care. Be part of moving forward and combating the issue.”
Some attendees said that while they felt the audience’s response could have been better, they believed the forum played a role in starting the discussion on campus.
Laks said he found some parts of the presentation helpful.
He said he found memorable “the idea of being a bystander: sensing if something’s wrong, making sure a girl isn’t too drunk, making sure one of the guys isn’t doing anything bad. It helps us be aware of the issue at hand.”
Laks said that some of his fellow attendees took the event lightly, which he said could be explained by a lack of discussion of the subject matter. Laks said that while the idea of a “gray area” — whether proper consent can be given if someone is under the influence of alcohol — was mentioned at the event, he and others felt that it was not thoroughly addressed.
Ramin agreed that the idea of a “gray area” was not sufficiently explained.
“I think it’s a big issue for everyone — everyone needs to hear specific details and instructions,” Ramin said. “They talked about consent a lot but could have been more clear on that. It would have been helpful for a lot of people.”
Ramin had a more optimistic take on the level of attention paid by attendees, saying that there were fewer jokes from the crowd than he expected.
“I’ve sort of heard all of this stuff before, but it’s always good to hear from someone other than an adult,” Ramin said. “There were students there, close to my age, and they weren’t just talking down at you.”
Laks said that although the event could have been more effective, it was likely successful at getting fraternity members to think about consent and sexual assault issues.
“By putting everyone in a fraternity in an auditorium — even if the presentation didn’t get all of the issues across — it’s putting in our heads that we have to think about this,” he said.
Sanders said he would have liked to see better attendance but that he was “happy that people did come out.”
“This shows there’s a lot more we need to do in this community,” Sanders said. “This is the very beginning of the work that needs to be done. It’s up to students and student leaders to facilitate these conversations and understand the severity of the issue of sexual assaults.”