In the dimly lit basement room, 100 students gathered around sex toys. Exotic Dreams, a local adult store in Allentown sponsored a pleasure-focused demonstration event to teach students about toy maintenance, lubricants, and sexual gratification. Of course, demos were included with sexy treats, flirty drinks to those who were over 21, and a chance to win luxurious goodie bags. There were some kinky activities that took place at the end of the event, one of which included a touch-and-feel session where students had the chance to feel vibrators, dildos, and other sexy toys. The students were surprised and uncomfortable when the employers from Exotic Dreams offered students a taste of the vanilla custard lube.
“I think people are uncomfortable because it’s a topic that’s been made taboo,” said Lydia Shanen ‘20 a member of Voices of Strength (VOS), a student organization group that helps students understand how to have healthy relationships and sponsor of the sex toy event. “And in the past (I’m assuming) people have been either judged for wanting to talk about it, or preconceived notions about these types of topics have been made/spread.”
In 2018, VOS was created to provide essential resources to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of all students. VOS is run by students of all races, genders, ethnicities, and socio-economic class. “On campus, VOS allows passionate student leaders to promote safer, healthier relationships and positive sexual interactions for all Muhlenberg students,” said Lauren Padko ‘20, founder of VOS. “This is essential to build a growing connection between students, student leaders, and faculty.”
For the first time in Muhlenberg’s history, the college funded a program called Peer Education Facilitation Team that aims to educate college students on having healthy relationships. Jules Purnell, Associate Director of Prevention Education, and Michele Paules, Student Support Services Coordinator, ran the nationally-recognized Peer Education training with the members of Voices of Strength (VOS) and other clubs. In addition to the 16 hours of training for the peer education certificate, a group of VOS club members, myself included, completed another 16-hour training to hone our skills as peer educators for the sexual wellbeing of Muhlenberg students. “VOS interacts with the community, so coming to a VOS member, you should not feel ashamed,” says Purnell. In the hopes of empowering those to learn more about how to prevent sexual assault, this certification process allows peer educators to promote health-enhancing change for college students among their peers. As a Certified Peer Educator, we educate others of all social, societal and life experience backgrounds using the values we are taught as Peer Educators.
Muhlenberg College is a small campus that has many secluded parts to it, which contributes to the reasons why the majority of the student body lives in their own bubble. Each building is within a five-minute walk. Surrounding each of the buildings, trees to the right and left arching over the academic row encapsulates why Muhlenberg provides quietness. The sense of individualism and exclusivity is formed by the independence and fear students may experience when branching out of their “Muhlenbubble.” This culture breeds an exclusive environment and contributes to the lack of informative advice shared among students who are often afraid to provide useful information for fear of being thought of as a conceited know-it-all.
At Muhlenberg, students were shocked at an educational sex toy demonstration, showing we still have a way to go in making students feel comfortable talking about sex. “We have to ensure that it is okay for people to be curious, if the people hosting the sex toy event seem comfortable, and are eagerly advertising it, it will help others come and feel comfortable,” said Shanen. VOS events like the Sex Toy Demonstration helps teach students about consent, which is a mutual agreement to have any type of sexual encounters between you and your partner.
The scope of consent and an understanding of the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship are developed at an early stage of life. “I think the basis of some of our issues with sexual assault later in life is that there was not open conversation about consent,” says Stefanie Sinno, associate professor of developmental psychology at Muhlenberg. Parents need to teach their children consent at a younger age. “Like if they say no, that’s more about you than it is about them,” adds Sinno. “So, having conversations really early with kids about people’s individual autonomy is important. I know that in a lot of like preschool settings they are talking about consent in a preschool age appropriate way. But even if you want a hug from your friend, you don’t just like to run up and give people hugs. You ask, can I hug you or do you want to hug? So even small kids are having conversations. That really improves your thought process then about what is appropriate behavior when you are talking about intimate relationships.”
Issues with consent often arise when families do not have healthy relationships and dynamics. If parents can communicate consent when their child is at their early developmental stages, those kids will hopefully find it easier to discuss consent later on in life. “I think we should be having those conversations because it impacts friendships and impacts professional relationships,” said Sinno. “That’s why college becomes so difficult because there’s some expectations to have relationships, to be sexually active, to be involved and you have no knowledge of what are the actual important components of all those things mixed together.”
“I think some of the signs are not only just communication but in basic things like who is making decisions in a relationship,” says Sinno. “Not every kind of decision is going to be equal. That relationship, not knowing who they are individually and getting wrapped into the model of a relationship usually leads to unhealthy habits. So, I think having some opinions about new things is really important to a healthy relationship. I also think inability to have conflict is an early warning sign [of unhealthy relationships]. So, if you feel fearful of saying something different or saying something that your partner might not like… but you know, they don’t like talking about that, then I think that’s an early warning sign.”
“The overarching issue in American culture is that we don’t talk about consent,” explained Sinno. “I think most of our schools are doing a lot of abstinence only conversations or abstinence, either abstinence or just use protection. And they’re only thinking about sex as a one component kind of framework. In reality, relationships are so much more all-encompassing than sex.”
In addition to consent, the role alcohol plays in sexual assault needs to be addressed. “We are really serious about sexual assault and rape when we start attacking the alcohol problem, because clearly that is a major issue,” says Timothy Silvestri, director of counseling services and a licensed psychologist. “You shut down people’s frontal lobes, bad things are going happen, and that’s not just exclusive to sexual assaults, rape, sexual violence, relationship violence of any kind. It’s head trauma. It’s all that bad stuff, right? There is no way a community can be a caring, loving, and a fruitful community, when a portion of that community is blacking out their frontal lobes on a regular basis, it is impossible…” Research has shown that 50% of student sexual assaults involve alcohol, and approximately 90% of date rapes involve alcohol.
In 2018, there were eight reported instances of sexual offenses at Muhlenberg, specifically “fondling” and “rape/sexual assault.” From my own experience and background in peer education I learned that a majority of college students rarely seek help until a situation ends in a domestic dispute/violence. Many schools offer counseling in which students have to pay, however, Muhlenberg provides free counseling for any student. But, research shows that students who has experienced sexual assault don’t report it because they are afraid their parents will find out. VOS is working to prevent sexual offenses by ending domestic disputes and arming students with the resources Muhlenberg offers. This is why the Peer Educators program exists.
Although Muhlenberg is a small secluded campus, it also offers strong community support like mental health counseling, VOS and peer counseling that make students feel like they are not alone even when things get difficult.
Ultimately, the best we can offer is the time we spend helping each other. “Time is a nonrenewable resource,” said Silvestri. “So, any time you’re giving time to something…that kind of philanthropy, that’s a huge investment. Students really are the true investors.”
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