It’s 11:00 a.m. on Monday, and I’ve been sitting in the Sierra College cafeteria with my friend Lindsey since 9:30 a.m. When we first entered the cafeteria, it was dimly lit and the smell of bacon permeated the air. To our right there were students lined up to pay for breakfast as we scanned the area for an open table to sit at. It was mostly vacant, and we began walking by the grey square tables looking for the one that had the least amount of food on it. It was fairly quiet, except for a loud group that had pushed two tables together and must have discovered the key to being fully awake on a Monday morning. As time goes by more people come in and the noise begins to increase, as singular voices turn into a woven tapestry of words and constant noise.
This is my typical Monday routine, and around 11:00 a.m. Lindsey and I get some food before she has to rush to class and the large swarm of students enter the cafeteria at 12:30. I stop off in the restroom before going to buy food and as I sit in the stall I am once again forced to look at a large glossy poster. Today’s poster reads “SILENCE HIDES THE VIOLENCE/SPEAK OUT AGAINST SEXUAL ASSAULT.” Six different mouths are shown with the words “RAPE”, “SEX”, and “NO!” lightly written over them.
I am a history major in the middle of my third semester at Sierra College. I have always been interested in history and seeing how movements and ideas have developed and changed over time. Things that were once freely spoken about or praised have become taboo and/or something most want to forget. One role that has changed and developed throughout history is the role of women, which is often tied to their control of their bodies.
When living in our present world, I often make connections between past events and how they have affected our current views and actions. This is true when I see the consent posters in the Sierra College restrooms. Whenever I see posters about consent and sexual violence I often feel targeted as a woman, that the pressure is on me to protect myself. This semester’s consent posters caught my attention because they are bigger and more colorful than previous semesters. In past semesters, they seemed to blend into the restroom walls, but these new posters command attention. When looking at the posters I am both proud and hesitant. I love seeing the continuation and spread of the dialogue around consent and sexual violence; however, when I only see them in the restrooms I start to feel the need to leave the dialogue in the restroom. The more I see these posters, the more I want to understand both the motive behind them and the effect they actually have. If sexual violence affects all people, why not put posters about it in a public space?
An Uncomfortable Subject
I decided that the best way to understand the posters is to first understand how students feel about the conversation around sexual violence. As I walk towards the building I can feel the stress bubbling inside of me of me as I step into the shadow cast down by the Sierra College cafeteria. My hand starts to shake as the smudged glass doors slide open slowly. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves as a wall of noise hits me the moment I step inside.
It’s ten in the morning on a sunny Wednesday in November, and students have just woken up from the fog of their first class. I quickly walk over to the rock covered wall and lean up against it. I feel each rock poke against my back as I look into the coffee shop and smell eggs being cooked in the kitchen. Students continue to walk in behind me, one group plows in, loudly laughing together as they walk towards the tables. I set my backpack on the ground next to me and pull out my worn blue notebook. I wrestle it open fighting the bent metal rings along the binding and look over my questions one last time before starting the recording on my phone. I look across the hallway and wait for someone to come by. I keep telling myself to relax, why is it so nerve racking to start a conversation about sexual violence? After all, it affects us all.
Why is sexual violence such an uncomfortable subject for people to talk about? It is a widespread problem that most are aware of, yet it is hardly discussed. Most of us tense up at the mere mention of sexual assault, including myself. While this is an uncomfortable topic to face, beginning a proper dialogue is the only way we can move forward. Especially on college campuses there needs to be an open conversation about sexual violence because of its high levels. According to the New York Times, a survey taken by the Association of American Universities in 2019, spanning over 33 colleges, found that one out of four undergraduate women had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. With the high rate of sexual violence on college campuses, a dialogue is imperative.
When asking students about their general thoughts on college sexual violence, I had a wide range of answers that came to a similar conclusion; sexual violence is an issue that needs to be prevented because it’s not ok. However, different ideas and examples were expressed with some students saying sexual violence needs to be prevented, others saying that it’s uncomfortable to talk about, and most saying they wish it wasn’t as big of a problem as it is.
I stood in the cafeteria entryway outside of the restrooms and asked students coming out about their feelings on the dialogue around sexual violence. One student, Evelyn paused took a deep breath then said, “Honestly I don’t know, cause you think it will never happen but you don’t know, but it hasn’t happened to me so I can’t say.” The idea of underlying fear and uncertainty when it comes to sexual violence is apparent. I decided to further question students about why they think it is uncomfortable to talk about sexual violence. Evelyn replied that, “The idea of it is grim and some say rape is worse than murder, I don’t know if that is true but it shows it’s hard to talk about.”
Another student, Nicole, answered my question about the silence around sexual violence saying, “People don’t even want to talk about sex, so they don’t want to bring up the bad,” addressing the fact that the broad topic of sex is often seen as taboo in our society. A constant silence hides the discussions on sexual violence, but one thing is clear, students want sexual violence to end and for there to be a dialogue about it, yet no one seems to want to get it started.
The dialogue about sexual violence has changed over time. The topic at one time was silent and never addressed. Sexual violence is a complex topic filled with a wide range of emotions. Over the years, victims have often been shamed and held responsible for their assault, while the assailants are often victimized. This stigma has continued to be attached to sexual violence but the development of Title IX and protesting from survivors with movements, such as the Me Too movement, has helped a dialogue slowly come to light; however, many students are reluctant to participate.
In an interview conducted by the Chicago Tribune with Donna Freitas, who has studied sexual assault at colleges, she states, “Sexual assault is happening all the time, and students don’t even realize it’s assault.” When reading this I was shocked, is it possible that our society has such a lack of awareness of sexual assault that most don’t even know what it is? RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), “the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization,” defines sexual assault as a broad topic covering any, “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.” Freitas goes on in the interview to say that the conversation needs to involve both faculty and students in order to foster engaged discussions. A dialogue is desperately needed across college campuses to even begin to remedy the injustice of sexual violence.
What is Title IX?
When looking into the dialogue around sexual violence at Sierra College and how the posters are helping or hindering it, I not only wanted to understand how students felt, but the role of the Title IX office behind the posters. Considering the behind the scenes process that affects different campaigns, such as the consent posters, it is imperative to have a full grasp of their intent. I decided to start on the Sierra College Title IX web page to understand their public message.
The page is an introduction to what Title IX legally provides students. Title IX was passed in 1972 as a federal civil rights law that, “prohibits sex discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs, including athletic programs, or activities that receive federal funding.” The bottom of the page provides links giving a detailed list of student rights and how to report a problem. Different actions that fall under Title IX include: gender based harassment, sexual assault, and rape. The page lists LaToya Jackson as the Sierra College Director of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), Diversity, and Title IX. Title IX is larger than just consent, it enforces equality for all people and protects the rights of all students.
I begin everyday checking my Canvas page, scrolling through all my classes scanning for any minute change in my grades. I noticed an email from Professor Vernon, who I had been discussing this project with and she presented me with a last-minute opportunity to attend a faculty and staff workshop about Title IX at 12:30 p.m. It was 11:00 a.m. when I read the email, I had an hour and thirty minutes to quickly grab some food and find room L193.
I crossed the cement path from the cafeteria to the L Building, passing a man at a small grey folding table asking students about rent spikes. As I stepped inside the building, I walked down the long curving hall, passing the Financial Aid windows and the overfilled waiting room for counseling appointments. I found the room just passed the counseling office and cautiously opened the door. I was immediately greeted by sociology professor, Megan Seely who invited me in and told me to grab a chair. I sat down at the closest chair near the door next to another staff member. I began examining the room as more people continued to trickle in. The tables were set up in a rectangular shape allowing for everyone sitting to face each other, and there was a PowerPoint set up at the front of the room.
The presentation began a couple minutes after 12:30 p.m. and Seely introduced the two speakers, Cinda Alfred who is Interim Deputy Title IX Coordinator and Natalie Sherrell who is Lead Counselor for the Title IX Campus Advocates and a Counselor. The purpose of the meeting was to inform faculty and staff about Title IX and their roles and responsibilities, such as what to do if a student confides in them. Alfred began the presentation and explained what the role of faculty and staff is and what needs to be reported. Alfred explained that all faculty and staff are Responsible Employees required under Title IX, meaning that if any student confides in them, they are responsible for reporting that information to the Title IX office. This is becoming a common practice around the country. According to the Austin American Statesman by Chuck Lindell, in March, 2019 the Texas Senate passed a stricter reporting law that states, “Employees who do not report an incident, or who file a false report, would be fired,” in an attempt to stop sexual violence.
Throughout the meeting I was surprised to learn about the extent that students are protected under Title IX. The act of sexual violence could have taken place on or off campus or have even taken place before the student attended Sierra College, and they are still provided the same rights, and teachers have the same level of responsibility. The reason for this is because while the act may have occurred in the past, the trauma is still present and it can affect the life and success of a student. Alfred then passed around a paper listing all actions covered under Title IX with a description for staff to better understand.
Sherrell spoke for the second half of the presentation covering how faculty and staff can react to a student confiding in them and what the Title IX process looks like. She passed out another paper that listed helpful responses such as “Would you like me to go with you to talk with someone?” It also listed not helpful responses such as asking a survivor, “why?” Sherrell went on to say that it is the job of the Title IX office to conduct the investigation not staff. She stressed the importance of how to react because, “the first person a student reports to often sets the course to the future,” making the role of a Responsible Employee extremely important, and they should be honest, supportive, and meet students where they are.
The Title IX office training for faculty and staff was extremely enlightening. It directly spelled out the rights of all students and I was surprised about how extensive the process is for survivors. Once a student confides in a Responsible Employee, they must report it to the Title IX office, reporting all details the student provided. From there the Title IX office will contact the student affected to offer support resources, including the possibility of conducting an investigation. The student will then be referred to meet with the counseling department. From this point forward, unless there is a threat towards the student or others, it will be up to the survivor on how the process goes forward. As a student, I wish I had been taught about all options and resources available to me, I had no idea how extensive the Title IX office is and the resources they provide.
A Student’s Perspective
One morning as I was sitting in the cafeteria with Lindsey, I started rambling to her about trying to understand the consent posters and how I was doing a story about them. She pulled out her AirPod and closed her laptop and began to tell me about how she had noticed a difference in the posters between this semester and previous ones. As she continued to talk about the posters I decided to ask if she would do an interview with me about her feelings on the posters.
Lindsey is in her fifth semester at Sierra College, and I wanted to get a deeper understanding from a student on the posters in the restrooms and why this semester seems different. I met with her in a small study room on the third floor of the library, in room 316. Lindsey had the key to open the room, and after wiggling it in the hole for a minute we got the door to open into a small windowless tan square room. It was completely empty except for a large blank whiteboard and a round table with three roller mesh chairs. It took us a moment to get used to speaking in the room because it echoed everything we said. Once we got comfortable, I turned on the recorder on my phone and began the interview.
After a minute of getting used to the interview style conversation, Lindsey slowly eased back into her chair and began to give longer responses to my questions. I asked her if she had talked about the posters with anyone else or heard any discussions involving them. She looked at me and began to laugh then said, “Like you’re the only person I’ve talked to. Like, people have talked about it before, but it’s become more of a stigma of like…Oh have you seen the posters in the restroom, it’s looking at me while I’m peeing.” Throughout the interview she went on to say that the posters “can’t keep on being like that weird topic,” and consent is, “something that we shouldn’t like, it shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about.” I then asked if the posters ever made her feel uncomfortable, and she shared that, “sometimes…it’s just, it’s right there in front of you, like you can’t really get away from it.” Lindsey then captured her overall feelings about the posters saying, “if you want to take action on this, take it outside.”
I decided to reach out to LaToya Jackson in order to gain a better understanding of The Title IX office and the development of the posters. We agreed to meet and Natalie Sherrell was also able to join our conversation. The meeting was set for Wednesday, November 20 at 11:00 a.m. It was a windy and overcast day, finally the weather beginning to feel like fall. Her office was in the U Building in the Human Resources Office. I left the cafeteria fifteen minutes before the interview and started wandering around campus to find the building. After passing the science building, I spotted the U Building in the distance, past the dorms. As I entered the U Building there was a sign for Human Resources Office that lead to a waiting room. I checked in with the receptionist and sat in a large black plush chair.
After a minute of waiting, the frosted glass door opened and Jackson welcomed me in. We walked past several cubicles before entering into her office where Sherrell was already sitting. Jackson grabbed the chair at her desk and I sat at the adjacent chair next to Sherrell and we began our conversation. I reintroduced my project to them then began asking about the posters. Sherrell said that the creation of the new consent posters came out of an invitation to speak about consent to an Applied Art and Design class in fall 2018. The class, taught by professor Tom Fillebrown turned the conversation into a project, creating the posters. After the students created around twenty posters, they were vetted through the Title IX office before being spread around campus replacing the old consent posters. Through working with students to create the posters Sherrell said that they, “wanted to make sure it was a student led message, based on the information of what consent is,” and that the students, “absolutely nailed it.”
Sherrell recognized that the posters do present an uncomfortable topic; however, the rapid increase in support, knowledge, and outreach from students has outweighed this. Students are given a starting point with the posters and are now, “being able to ask directly for campus advocates because they’ve seen a poster.” Before the posters, most students didn’t even know the Title IX office existed. Not only are the posters providing resources, but they are helping students define consent, and allowing them to identify it in their own lives. Jackson said that when creating the posters they were focused on two messages, “what is consent, and the other component of who do you reach.”
I asked about the reason there is lack of posters outside of the restrooms. The main reason came down to practicality, posters outside are often taken down overtime; however, Sherrell was not opposed to bringing the posters into the public space saying that, “maybe our next iteration will include something like that.” The posters are on display in both the men’s and women’s restrooms, and Jackson said that there is power to the intimacy of the restroom. It gives students a place where they don’t feel others are watching them take down contact information out of fear of being a suspected victim. The privacy allows, “students to really take this…information,” according to Jackson.
These posters are taking a step into the direction of creating a healthy dialogue around consent. When asked if there was a visible change in dialogue Jackson immediately responded, “Yeah, I would say absolutely,” and with the new “posters we’re seeing an increase in disclosures.” The increase in disclosures is not necessarily an indication of increased sexual violence according to Jackson but, “more folks are open to talking about this.” The increased dialogue is welcomed by the Title IX office and both Jackson and Sherrell said that they wanted student feedback, Jackson saying that, “I think the great thing about our campus is that it’s extremely collaborative.”
When I first looked at these posters I came from a level of privilege. I have not experienced sexual violence, and when seeing these posters, I only had my perspective. Through my research on the posters and the dialogue around consent, I have developed an appreciation for them and now see them as the first of many steps into bringing the dialogue around consent and sexual violence into the open. While the posters at times may seem invasive and a hard message to come to terms with, it is one that needs to be shared. Going forward I would love for the message of the posters to leave the restrooms. Once the dialogue can openly begin around campus about consent and sexual violence, we will be able to move forward as a community.
If you feel the need to contact the Title IX office they can be reached through email, EEOT9@sierracollege.edu, or by phone, (916) 660-7006. Also, if you would like to talk with someone confidentially about reporting options and resources that are available, a confidential Campus Advocate can be contacted at (916) 660-8400, or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Anna Prinzbach | Posters by Sierra College students