Commitment to Consent

photo ofIan quote
“Consent Bro” Seeks to Make Sexual Assault Everyone’s Issue
by Liam Farrell | photo by John T. Consoli

A white fraternity member stands in front of an African American sorority to talk about how to give consent for sexual encounters and the strategies women can use to help protect themselves from sexual assault.

The students seated before Ian Tolino ’15 listen respectfully, but one finally acknowledges the awkwardness and asks: Does he ever get mocked for giving these presentations?

Yet Tolino, a peer mentor for UMD’s Campus Advocates Respond and Educate (CARE) to Stop Violence, feels no embarrassment in addressing any audience—neither slightly skeptical women nor potentially surly fraternities—about such uncomfortable, intimate topics.

Dubbed “Consent Bro” last fall by The Washington Post, he has a simple reason why: If you have a mother, a sister, a girlfriend or any other woman in your life, sexual assault is your concern.

“It’s been my issue since I was alive. I just didn’t know it,” Tolino says in an interview before the sorority meeting. “We need a culture shift. And it starts with young people.”

Sexual assault, especially on college campuses, has become one of the country’s high-profile issues, with even the White House pushing a new “It’s on Us” prevention campaign. Dozens of schools are under federal investigation following allegations of mishandling complaints, and many others—including UMD—have tightened their sexual assault policies.

Hanging in the background are plenty of troubling dynamics: victim blaming, kneejerk skepticism of accusers, discomfort with open dialogue, and ignorance.

Tolino, who grew up in Middletown, Md., admits that he was oblivious to the pervasiveness of the issue when he came to college. But after attending a seminar on bystander intervention for his fraternity, Chi Phi, and hearing a victim’s story, he says, “a light switched in my head.” As a sophomore, he joined CARE, which provides support for sexual assault victims and organizes presentations about the issue.

These presentations are part sociology and part sex ed. Tolino and nearly 20 peers cover subjects like the vast differences in how men and women approach prevention of sexual assault (“nothing” vs. pepper spray, buddy system, parking lot strategies, etc.); the definition of consent; and how the media can skew perceptions of who a “typical” rapist is. Tolino often tries to brighten the mood with humor. (If your bike is stolen, no one asks, “Why was it out so late?”).

Catherine Carroll, director and Title IX officer of UMD’s Office of Civil Rights & Sexual Misconduct, says peer education on these issues is “critically important.”

“Training students on how to effectively intervene and/or interrupt what appears to be a bad situation or call someone out on using derogatory language is what will change the culture on campus regarding these issues,” she says. “Leveraging their strength is what will make those who do engage in such behavior more isolated, more noticeable and much less tolerated.”

Carroll says single- and mixed-gender discussions can both be beneficial, with opportunities to create a more comfortable atmosphere or have an audience challenge their own attitudes toward the opposite sex.

Tolino acknowledges the awkwardness of frank talk about sexual consent in a fraternity meeting. But he wants to make sure that sexual assault prevention is not painted solely as a women’s issue, especially since men are overwhelmingly the aggressors and can change their own behavior to solve the problem.

Tolino, who originally wanted to be an engineer, is about to graduate with a criminal justice major and is close to earning a certificate in women’s studies. A bouncer at the Cornerstone Grill & Loft on Route 1, he is always looking to see if someone may have had too much to drink and needs help home or is being harassed. In the future, he hopes to keep pursuing the issue through educating high schoolers or working in public policy.

“It truly changed my life,” he says. “I was going left and I took a hard right.”

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Spring 2015 Campus Life Discover New Knowledge