Editor’s note: The fraternity featured in this piece agreed to let the Washington Post report on this session under the condition that it would not be named.
Ian Tolino stands in the fraternity basement in College Park, Md., facing 57 brothers. They sit in a half-oval around him, shoulders hunched, fiddling with phones. He recognizes this posture, the collective eye-roll: Why do I have to be here?
He felt the same way, three years ago, when some guy visited his fraternity to talk about rape. Like tonight’s presentation, it was mandatory. Only one detail that day shook Tolino awake, a statistic from the Department of Justice: One in five college women will be sexually assaulted before graduation.
Could that be true? Tolino asked around. A woman he’d known since childhood divulged a story that made him cry.
“Gentleman,” he says. “Listen up.”
The brothers keep chatting. They look at the gray-tiled floor, the Bud Light banner on the wall, the door labeled “Ritual Closet” — anywhere but at this stranger, who also wears khakis and brown leather boat shoes.
Someone helps out.
“Yo, shut the f— up!”
Everyone laughs, howling: “Oooooh!”
Tolino introduces himself. He’s a senior here at the University of Maryland, studying criminal justice. A bouncer at the Cornerstone bar (who recognizes some faces from half-price wing night). A Chi Phi brother navigating the increasingly confusing landscape of casual hook-ups.
But tonight, he’s the Consent Bro, here to answer your questions. Without judgement. In a language you can understand. His black T-shirt, the sole deviation from his unofficial fraternity uniform, reads: PEER EDUCATOR.
“So,” Tolino says, “What do you guys think is consent?”
“Yes,” a brother says.
“Sober,” another adds.
“When she starts banging you.”
“The proper terminology is engages in sexual intercourse with you,” Tolino says. “And that can be a form of nonverbal consent. If she’s enthusiastic. And sober.”
He scans the room. Half the audience has stopped texting.
“What if,” a brother says, “she’s had two drinks and has been out for three hours? She can drive home, right? But she can’t give consent?”
This is a popular question. He’s heard it before, again and again. The words change. The secret worry stays the same.
Especially this year.
Sexual assault on college campuses, which the White House recently called a “stunning” problem, has never dominated more headlines or talk shows — or, as far as Tolino can tell, campus conversations. This fall, the University of Maryland bought a bus stop advertisement four blocks from Fraternity Row, featuring a giant thumbs-up and a bubble-lettered warning: “Only ‘yes’ means ‘yes.’”
Tolino’s job is to teach men on campus what that means, to translate the posters and tweets and Daily Show skits (“You’re telling me that women spend their whole day navigating an obstacle course of sexual menace?” asked comedian Jordan Klepper, playing a stereotypical College Dude).
Everyone’s talking about consent. But college guys won’t internalize the national conversation until they understand it.
“Don’t assume someone is sober after two drinks — or any number of drinks,” Tolino responds. “If the thought even crosses your mind — like, I’m drunk; she’s drunk — wait until morning, man. You don’t want to roll the dice on a felony.”
Last month, California became the first state to define what constitutes lawful sex on its public college campuses, launching a persistent debate over “yes means yes.” Both partners must make an “unambiguous and conscious decision” — also called affirmative consent — at every stage of a hook-up, according to Senate Bill 967. An obvious “yes” for a touch. A “yes” for more.
College rape, meanwhile, stays firmly in the spotlight.
A Columbia University student recently gained worldwide attention after she pledged to carry her dorm mattress across campus until her reported attacker is expelled.
Actress Emma Watson urged men last month to fight sexual violence in a United Nations speech that went viral — and resonated with Tolino. “We want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for gender equality,” Watson said. “And we don’t just want to talk about it, but make sure it is tangible.”
The White House launched a near-simultaneous campaign to curb sexual assault, inviting students to pitch policy recommendations in the West Wing.
“Yes means yes,” slowly and controversially, is reframing how we talk about rape.
The idea first entered mainstream consciousness in the ‘90s when students at Antioch University in Ohio rallied for affirmative consent to become campus policy. Saturday Night Live responded with a mocking game show segment called “Is It Date Rape?”
Now, a broader base of supporters say “yes means yes” is an extreme measure for an extreme problem: The Department of Education is currently investigating 85 colleges countrywide for their handling of sexual abuse complaints. A new study from M.I.T., released Monday, revealed another startling window into the issue: Seventeen percent of female students said they had been sexually assaulted.
An affirmative consent policy is designed to shift the burden in disciplinary hearings from the victim — who previously had to prove rape happened — to the accused, who must now show he or she received an undeniable, continuous “yes.”
Opponents claim the law is government intrusion in the bedroom, an impetus for false accusations.
But the reality on campuses is less ground-shaking, said Alexandra Brodsky, a second-year law student at Yale University and co-founder of Know Your IX. “‘Yes means yes’ is not going to revolutionize everything,” she said. “It’s actually a really low bar: We want people to have sex they’re really excited about. That’s mostly confusing to people who want to have sex with incapacitated women.”
Some students agree with the sentiment behind “yes means yes” but question its efficacy. A Duke University columnist wrote this week: “No rapist has ever thought, I want to rape that person!’ Although, I just read that article on my Facebook newsfeed.”
The University of Maryland is among hundreds of colleges that already enforce affirmative consent. The standard will likely keep spreading, said Catherine Carroll, Maryland’s Title IX compliance director — a role created six months ago amid mounting pressure from activists across the country.
“It’s not a fear-based message,” said Carroll, a lawyer with two decades of sexual assault case experience. “‘Yes means yes’ is sex positive. We’re already seeing some degree here of raised awareness.”
Influence, she said, starts on the ground.
In the fraternity basement, Tolino fields a stream of questions.
“One at a time, guys,” he says. “There’s a lot of you.”
A half-hour into this Monday night presentation, the brothers have warmed up. They’re leaning forward, hands clasped on knees. Red Bull cans roll under chairs.
“What if she asks to see your room?” Tolino tests them. “Is that consent?”
“No,” a brother says. “Maybe she just wants to see your posters.”
“Okay,” another says. “What if you’ve been dating for a year — and you’ve both been drinking?”
“There is no blanket consent,” Tolino responds. “You’ve got to get it every time. I know it’s awkward. But a few seconds of awkwardness goes away like that when, well, you know…”
That applies to sex, too, he says. Get permission before you move from, say, an oral act to something else. “Maybe they want to get to know you better before taking it further.”
Twenty-two instances of forcible sex offenses were reported on Maryland’s campus between 2010 and 2012 — a lower count than many major public schools, according to a Washington Post analysis. It’s hard to say if that number is accurate, Tolino says, because rape is a notoriously underreported crime.
Three years ago, when Tolino was a freshman, someone in his fraternity was accused of raping a woman.The charge was written on a T-Shirt hanging on campus, part of an awareness installation.
Tolino couldn’t stand to see his Greek letters scrawled next to the phrase “raped me.” The co-captain of his rural Maryland high school football team, who was crowned “Mr. Middletown,” calls himself someone who tackles problems with action.
That spring, he joined Maryland’s CARE program, which stands for Campus Advocates Respond and Educate to Stop Violence. He earned class credit by studying rape: Who commits it (mostly men) and how it’s reported (not every time or right away). He has since given 25 consent presentations.
An estimated 90-percent of people who report sexual assault say they know their attacker, Tolino tells tonight’s basement crowd. Rapists aren’t usually criminals hiding in bushes. They’re more likely to be chugging Natural Light at a campus party.
“A woman I care about deeply disclosed to me that she had been raped in college,” he says. “That just knocked me over. It broke my heart.”
It happens all the time, Tolino continues.
“Because someone decides to rape a woman. Not because a woman ‘let herself get raped.’ No. This is something that falls on us.”
The brothers nod.
“I mean,” he says, “do you want to do something to someone that will impact them for the rest of their lives?”
The presentation ends. The brothers clap. Almost immediately, a chapter meeting begins in the basement. Everyone returns to the bustle of college life: planning parties, delegating beer runs.
The Consent Bro wonders if his message stuck.
A brother approaches, easing Tolino’s concern with a handshake. He asks: How can I get involved?