Healthful Consent: Interview with Suzanne Holsomback

Interview by Eleanor Greenhalgh, 12 February 2013.

Suzanne Holsomback is a feminist and social scientist from Texas, US. She is currently Vice President (Women) at Oxford University Students Union. She is leading a peer-education programme on sexual consent in the university, which has been shortlisted in the 2013 UK Sexual Health Awards.

Suzanne HolsombackEleanor Greenhalgh: Can you explain what your role is in the Students Union, and what workshops you have been running?

Suzanne Holsomback: Vice President Women is a one year post; I'm on a sabbatical from my Master's thesis here at Oxford. I'm democratically elected by the women of the university. When I came into my post, I inherited a sexual consent workshop. It was piloted in 2011, with a good response. With the report from that and the material that was used, I re-crafted it.

It contains a discussion of myths that surround sexual violence or sexual consent. Anything from, "consenting to one thing is consenting to all things", to "if someone goes out a lot, wears short skirts, drinks a lot, that type of person is more likely to get assaulted." So working through some of those myths, and really getting people to talk about it and bust the myths themselves. The aim of the original programme is very much the same as now. The aims have been to get people talking about consent, to get the group to feel comfortable, to normalise that in common rooms. And so with several years of this happening, it actually becomes a very normal conversation inside that community in the college. In a few years, we'll see what happens.

It's kind of like talking about condom usage 15 years ago; everyone is awkward, no one really wanted to talk about it. But now, it's a very common thing to talk about, it's OK, it's been normalised in society. And so that was something I wanted to do; I wanted people to talk about it, to realise that there are lots of grey areas, but also to be able to practice consent healthfully and in both ways: both giving and receiving. The message is normally, "don't get raped". But actually involving both partners communication.

A quieter aim was to have people own the definition of consent. Talk about it amongst themselves, talk about what is and what isn't consent. In the myth-busting, that starts to happen. What does consent look like with alcohol or drug usage? Start throwing in the conversations where things get very grey and muddled. But have the individuals that are participating own it. I really believe that if the group crafts a definition, it will come from them and they will have a sense of ownership. So it's not me, being a 30 year old woman from the United States, or me as a graduate, or me as the Vice President (Women), coming in to a group that is not my own and telling them what consent is.

My initial aim was to train people to do it within their own communities (welfare officers, LGBTQ officers, equal opportunities, women's officers). And I ask for a mix of genders and sexualities, so it's not two women talking about it, or two heterosexual individuals. So it actually starts to show that consent is for everyone, it's not just for one group but for everyone. And very much oriented to having mixed-gendered groups. So hopefully that's reflected in the leadership. I trained 51 facilitators within the university.

EG: So you initially ran workshops yourself, and then you trained other people to run them?

SH: I ran one with the Blues rugby team (varsity team), with the volunteer co-ordinator at Oxford Sexual Abuse & Rape Crisis Centre, Lisa Ward. That was literally the first one. And then with that feedback, I changed a lot of the material, re-worded it, re-structured it. This group of rugby players were very open; willing to talk about these things, and think about them deeply. I was very appreciative of their feedback and their help. After that I started training facilitators. It's had a really positive response. I think one of the most helpful things was having the structure: going through myths, defining what consent is, what consent is not, going through scenarios.

Coming out of this, there was quite a bit of interest and it has created a campaign that will be launching this year, called "It Happens Here". It is raising awareness of sexual violence inside the university. I think we need to look at why are we character-assassinating people for being victims of a crime. We don't do that with other crimes. I think it's very much hinged on the sexual part of it. People are really squeamish about that. It's very funny, because when you say "let's talk about sexual harassment, or sexual assault", everyone draws back, but you can talk about drug use or murder, people are okay. So I think that's a societal thing. We need to start talking about it and part of that is talking about consent. Most people don't have a good idea of what consent is, even adults, mature individuals, people with partners.

EG: What kind of ideas about consent have you encountered when you've been running workshops and trainings?

SH: Thoughts that, it has to be a verbal "no" and challenging that. Sometimes people cannot say "no" because of power dynamics. What would it look like to get a "yes"? What would it look like to check for yourself? Part of the defining of consent is enthusiastic participation. So someone not just laying there, but someone that is actively pursuing it as well. And asking! People have commented that is awkward or that English people do not talk about it. Someone did tell me, "you're an American, you talk about these things." I'm from Texas; no, we don't.

And there's a lot of questions about if it always have to be verbal? And that's where it comes back to the enthusiastic participation.

EG: Is enthusiastic participation part of your definition of consent, or do you think that enthusiasm is needed on top of legally valid consent?

SH: [Pause.] I include "enthusiastic" in my definition. Because in a jury or in a trial, so many times if someone didn't say anything, then they will say, "well why didn't you say anything?". Well what's your natural reaction? Is it flight, fight, freeze? Most people are going to freeze. If they get into a situation where they think, "oh my goodness, I don't want this to happen," they normally will freeze. The fighting off your attacker is what people are told to do, but would you fight off a partner you've had for 30 years? I think the legal definitions are there and they're good; they're a really good foundational point. But I would say needing that enthusiastic consent is part of consent, that someone is giving it and someone's understanding it. So it's a two-way thing. I think the enthusiastic part leaves no room for doubt there.

One of my encouragements is to ask, even if you might feel uncomfortable doing that. You can make it fun, you can make it funny, you can make it cute. It could be something that shows a deep level of respect for your partner, even if it's a one-night stand. But just showing that you respect that other person's personal boundaries and their own individuality. So the It Happens Here campaign is focussing on those areas: training, and then policy. It's going quite well, it's very exciting. I think the education part is probably the most important in my view, just because it comes back to how we see someone that has experienced that, and the blame that comes around someone disclosing that they've been raped. And so giving people basic listening skills.

EG: In terms of the education side of it, it seems that you're trying to bring about quite a culture shift, which is really exciting. Being optimistic and looking into the future for this culture shift, what would your ideal be for a culture of consent?

SH: I think it would be a culture where it's practised, and it's practised often and healthfully.

EG: What would that mean?

SH: That people are comfortable asking and giving it. People are comfortable to say yes or no. Personal insecurity might lead an individual to not want to say yes or no, they don't want someone to reject them, and that's completely fair, no one wants to be rejected. But healthfully practised consent would be one of my ideals, to have people think that's normal and expect that from each other. An ideal would also be for the idea of consent to become a much larger conversation. Not just here at Oxford, but something that spread out.

I think one of the main things about consent is that it's communication. It's communicating with another individual, about very personal things. About your personal boundaries, and your personal space. Even in sexual activity we still have boundaries as human beings - they may be squished against each other, but we still do have them. Consent is communicating those things and respecting those things. Communicating, "I do like this" or "I don't like that". "I want to do this", or "I don't want to do that". I can go off on lots of tangents about communication, and how social media has reduced that to literally 140 characters, or a status, or something very small. But encouraging people to talk about things, and to communicate. Communication is a highly transferable skill! Being able to communicate what you want on a sexual level shows that you can communicate what you want on other levels too.

EG: You mentioned that in social media, communication gets reduced to a very small thing. Could you say a little about what you meant by that?

SH: That's me being sometimes very frustrated with social media. Things like Twitter, where people communicate with very brief little snippets. I wonder if, instead of opening up communication, it's actually hindering communication in a way. And this is just a wonder, I have no proof, I just wonder. It makes me wonder if we've reduced communication down to very small snippets and soundbites, and what we might need is to actually sit down and look someone in the eye, and have a conversation. Or just sit there and listen - learn how to listen better. Know people, and deeply. Not just what they're doing. I'd much rather have a conversation, and get to know them. Have a meal, have a glass of wine. I'm wondering if we're moving so quickly (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), but if we need to look at how our lives might be a destructive hurry, or a destructive busy. Is that hurting our relationships, or is it helping them? Some technology is really helpful. I love Skype, I'm able to talk to my family six timezones away, but I sometimes am wondering if our communication would be healthier if we just turned things off and looked up.

EG: I wonder if there's a parallel here: one slogan I'm interested in is, "Yes means yes and no means no". To play devil's advocate, I think that could be quite a problematic slogan, in a similar way to that where social media mediates our communication by giving us different buttons to press. A lot of the time it is more complicated than yes or no. I wonder what your thoughts are on how we could retain the importance of that slogan, while opening it up and being able to reclaim some of those greyer areas?

SH: In working with some of the consent material, I did look at a number of different campaigns. They all do have quite short, catchy slogans. The "yes means yes" tends to have more of a positive spin, and I appreciate that. The "no means no", as I touched on earlier, it's that power differentiations will affect someone's ability to say "yes" or "no". If it's an individual that's much larger than another person. This was very clear when I was doing this with the rugby team - those guys are big. When they've over a foot taller than me, that's a power dynamic. And the "no" part also comes in with feeling guilty. Or, this is my partner for 30 years. That can become quite sticky. I'm an anthropologist, I love talking about power. And that's something that I research, so I'm very aware of it. I think that's something that makes the "no means no" quite hard to hold onto, because it's not that easy.

EG: There's a very real sense in which "yes" often doesn't mean yes.

SH: Right, or the "yes" is coerced. I think that the slogans are good jumping-off places. I don't think they can stop there. It might be that little slogan people can remember and take away. But I think it's the exploring of that, and teasing it out, which is the meat of where that lies. There's also a campaign called "Consent is Sexy". They were really gracious, and donated posters, so I don't want to slam them. But I had people feed back about that slogan in and of itself. Someone was saying that the "consent is sexy" is rather minimising the importance of consent. I think that's a good conversation starter. I don't think there's really a silver bullet in consent campaigns and discussions, I think they're always in need of discussion and transformation. But I think that one thing is, a lot of these campaigns started when no one was talking about it. I have to commend them for getting the conversation started. I think the interpersonal contact and communication really helps this, and that's why I like the group discussion.

EG: You said earlier that your aim, in group discussions, is for participants to "own" their definition of consent. That implies something quite different from these slogans; that each group that does the workshop might have a different definition. Is that right?

SH: Yes and no. I say that because in the consent material, there's actually the legal definition written. In the facilitators' training, we talk about "this is what the law says; this is how the law defines it". I think it's helpful to know those definitions. As a facilitator, you're not the authority telling them what to do, but you're most definitely guiding the conversation. Good facilitation will challenge. If there is a minority or inaccurate definition or thought, it can be challenged and maybe checked. At the end of the day, if something does happen, it's the legal definition that comes through. I don't like waving that around - and some of the people I work with would disagree with me; they want it stated clearly. I think that can underlie the discussion and keep it bounded quite well, without being the first thing you put down in front of people, letting that guide the conversation. In a way, yes, the definitions will differ - I think in word, the word choice they will differ. But in the larger setting, actually they're quite similar. The material in the facilitator's guide states: "this is what consent is, and it's not...". I think being able to find your own words to articulate is helpful, but I think it does have to have some boundaries. And so I think that would be my frustratingly yes/no kind of answer!