I never could have guessed that Mary Magdalene would inspire me to practice good consent.
Nevertheless, two years ago I sat near the front of the Pacific Film Archive staring at professor Darcy Grigsby in awe, as she displayed a projected image of Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene. On the slide, Mary Magdalene was six feet tall and carved out of wood, strikingly thin and covered in rags. Her face was sunken under her cheeks, and there was a deep cavity where the bottom of her neck met her sharp collar bone. Although Donatello’s statue was meant to depict Mary as a prostitute, her sexuality is only invoked by her penance. As Grigsby explained, the statute was created in a moment of historical crisis, after an onslaught of calamity — including the Black Death and Halley’s Comet — which made people fear that the world was going to end. The female body bore the burden of this fear as Mary was cast in shame, eternally penitent for her sexuality. This burden pervades Donatello’s representation, not only in her sunken cheeks and haggard dress but also in the way she holds her hands, poised at a still as if in prayer but weak, never actually touching.
There was something intensely powerful for me about discussing sex in a classroom — a space that is designed to address difficult questions without demanding answers. And as the campus responds to the latest public instance of sexual harassment surrounding Sujit Choudhry, the now-former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, there is something to be learned from my Mary Magdalene experience: We have learn to talk about these things. We have to learn to talk about them in a way that allows for our solutions to match the difficulty of the problem, which time after time has proven to exceed our understanding.
Sexual assault and misconduct will continue to be an issue as long as it’s primarily addressed in the context of the legislation imposed to solve it. In January, our campus implemented a UC systemwide student adjudication model, intended to refine how the university handles cases of sexual misconduct. Many of the new policies benefit students, such as the requirement that all staff involved in investigation must have trauma-informed training, and the fact that CSC hearings will now be conducted by an appeal officer rather than a panel. These policies work because they allow survivors to get the care they need without being retraumatized in the process.
But many of the university’s policies are doing the opposite. The university has instituted a mandatory minimum sanction of two years dismissal from the UC system if a student is found guilty of an unreasonably wide range of sexual misbehavior. This severe uniformity only adds to the burden of students who might be hesitant to report, and neglects the profound complexity of the incidents that are reported. Furthermore, all members of the university’s faculty — including GSIs — are considered by the university to be “responsible employees,” which means that if they are made aware of an incident of sexual violence, they must report it. This was implemented in good faith, to ensure that the university doesn’t neglect these cases. But if a report leads to an investigation, it may likely go to a hearing — a process the survivor may have never intended to engage.
Every survivor should be treated individually. The same is true for assailants. And while it is crucial for the UC to have explicit disciplinary sanctions for these cases, these sanctions must make students feel heard — a quality that is sorely lacking in a system that treats all sexual assault with the same disciplinary action. Integrative biology professor Ellen Simms said it best: “How can we fight abusive behavior if students don’t feel safe enough to report it?”
As long as I have been aware of my own sexuality, I have also known that sex, for men, carries a virtue that the rest of us are denied. But until Grigsby’s lecture, I hadn’t recognized the fact that the female body has historically been considered a vessel of sin, to be condemned and then discarded. I hadn’t understood that the discourse around female sexuality is absent — similar to the way that Mary’s body is portrayed, shrunken and frail beneath her rags. Since then, I have considered it my responsibility to participate in good consent. Asking rather than waiting to be asked is a crucial first step in changing the culture that confines women to gatekeeping — able to say “yes” or “no” but never initiate the conversation ourselves.
The same seems to be true for students on our campus, where the university has taken blind control over the prevention of sexual assault and students are only able to react to its sanctions. This requires unfair bravery, demanding that survivors report their assaults in order for anything to change, but are not granted the agency to initiate the conversation themselves. The policies we have implemented are meant to protect UC Berkeley’s student body but confine survivors, too, to gatekeeping — presented with an option they can choose to initiate if they want to but denied control of the process that seems bound to follow. And while the university has made some strides, it does nothing to prevent assault in the future until it creates a space where students are able to inform its complexities. We have to be able to talk about these issues without feeling like our consent might be violated in the process.
The strict uniformity of the university’s new sanctions will cause more harm than good as long as they remain deaf to the students they aim to protect. And as the university repeatedly prioritizes prestige over the safety of its students and staff, I am experiencing this deafness with a fear that is new to me.
The university must address this fear, that the campus is out of touch with our safety and our needs. It has the power to prevent important information from being reported, allowing surface level reforms to stand in for actual change and gravely miss the mark. If it remains out of touch, the campus will only continue to stumble, unable to fully understand the problem at hand.
Survivors must be treated with forbearance. They must be allowed the patience to articulate their experiences freely. And in turn, the university might acknowledge a much needed change, to empower this discourse to have a greater student representation on the whole — one with strong, determined hands, carved by our own design.
Alastair Boone and Libby Rainey write the Thursday column on bits and pieces of the UC Berkeley experience. Contact Alastair at [email protected].