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Meet The College Activists Behind The Playboy Hoax

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"Meet The College Activists Behind The Playboy Hoax"

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CREDIT: Richard Potts/Flickr

The college students who got everyone talking about Playboy this week don’t have any plans of stopping now.

On Tuesday, rape prevention activists played an elaborate prank on Playboy Magazine and ultimately sparked a wider conversation about consent. It seemed as though Playboy Magazine had ditched the format of its annual list of the best party schools in favor of a guide emphasizing sexual assault prevention on college campuses — but it turned out the consent-themed guide, as well as the articles promoting it, were fakes.

The prank was engineered by the feminist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which orchestrated a similar consent-related hoax targeting Victoria’s Secret last year. But FORCE wants most of the credit to go to a network of college activists who helped them carry it out.

“Students from over 25 school across the country banded together to create the historic hoax. Consent enthusiasts hosted consent-themed tailgating parties, played games of ‘Ask First’ beer pong, and excitedly pushed the prank on Facebook and Twitter, which is how it exploded all over the internet on Tuesday,” FORCE explained in a press release on Wednesday. “As these college students show, the culture of consent is already out there.”

The student activists who partnered with FORCE agree.

“The idea of consent itself isn’t really all that controversial,” Sophie Hess, a junior at Oberlin College and a staffer at her school’s Sexual Information Center, told ThinkProgress after we asked her if the country is ready for a real campaign like the one that FORCE dreamed up. “All that it proposes is that we take a moment to consider that sex is an act between more than just one person… I mean, we see it in small doses already, like when Cosmo suggests that you ‘ask your partner what they like.’ ”

Sophie Hess, Oberlin College '15

Sophie Hess, Oberlin College ’15

CREDIT: Courtesy of Sophie Hess

Far from being hostile to the concept of sexual assault prevention, Hess said her fellow students were really excited about the idea that Playboy was using its annual college guide to promote consent.

Cinneah El-Amin, a sophomore at Barnard College of Columbia University and another one of the activists who worked on the hoax, echoed that sentiment.

“Some of my fellow students at Columbia loved the campaign! I received an out-pour of responses from students around the university who wanted to get more involved,” El-Amin, who’s also a peer educator at the Barnard Columbia Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center, told ThinkProgress. “As the campaign went viral, students were amazed at the materials itself — very few believed it to be a hoax. Even students who aren’t actively involved in this type of activism otherwise were eager to re-post the link to their social networks.”

Ultimately, the students pointed out, an effort like the Playboy campaign can be successful because it engages young people in a new way. The fake Playboy guide — which featured 10 commandments to have a good time, like “ask first” and “don’t take advantage of sloshed people”– isn’t necessarily preachy, and it inserts its progressive message into the mainstream by using humor and social media.

Hess noted that although rape is one of the most serious issues out there, FORCE’s hoax successfully used its slickly designed fake websites to subvert it. “It’s making people think, rethink, and act,” she said.

“It’s campaigns like this that are changing the way feminist issues are portrayed,” Meghana Kulkarni, a senior at the University of Michigan and the coordinator of the Men’s Activism program at its Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC), explained. “We aren’t just naysayers who get upset over everything! We want everyone to have happy and healthy sexual relationships.”

Outside of FORCE, Kulkarni has helped organize other creative efforts at the University of Michigan that fall in line with that strategy. The Men’s Activism group runs a campaign called “No Shave November for Consent” that asks men to grow a beard and sign a pledge promising they will only have sex after obtaining enthusiastic consent from their partner. During the month when they’re avoiding shaving their facial hair, they wear shirts that say “ask me about my beard” to spark a conversation about the campaign, consent, and asking people for permission.

Kulkarni organized a "No Shave November for Consent" event that engaged men on campus in sexual assault prevention

Kulkarni organized a “No Shave November for Consent” event that engaged men on campus in sexual assault prevention

CREDIT: Courtesy of Meghana Kulkarni

The work that these students are doing on their campuses draws a sharp contrast to most of the headlines related to college campuses and sexual assault over the past year, which have tended to accompany negative press. The controversy over university administrations’ tendency to sweep rape under the rug, often dissuading survivors from coming forward or allowing rapists to get off with very light punishment, has recently come to a head. A wave of formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Education has subjected several elite schools to federal investigations, and school officials are gradually being pressured to improve their sexual assault policies.

The laundry list of colleges getting it wrong, the persistent incidences of consent being violated on campus, and the pervasive victim-blaming encountered by survivors of sexual violence have all spurred student activists to keep up the fight. In some ways, it’s working. More people are now starting to pay attention. Especially after last spring’s national controversy over the Steubenville rape case, the public consciousness about these issues has been somewhat raised.

Cinneah El-Amin, Barnard College of Columbia '16

Cinneah El-Amin, Barnard College of Columbia ’16

CREDIT: Courtesy of Cinneah El-Amin

“While I do believe cases involving rape are gaining more national press, I believe progress is not the correct word to use,” El-Amin said when ThinkProgress asked if she thinks efforts like FORCE’s have helped the country progress toward combating rape culture. “Victims continue to be shamed for their assaults as if they have asked for ‘it.’ ”

Obviously, there’s more work to be done. But there is a sense of momentum building, and some of the college activists do feel like their education efforts are making a real difference.

“The movement is so powerful because it feels like a secret being told — the reality of sexualized violence is right under our nose, and when people hear the facts, it’s hard not to wonder, why didn’t I hear this before?” Hess pointed out. She recounted a recent conversation she had with a friend who asked her why she felt like the issue of rape was such a big deal. “I said, ‘Do you know that one in four women in college will be sexually assaulted?’ His eyes basically popped out of his head.”

And they also think that eventually, they’ll help more people understand, as Hess put it, that consent isn’t actually so hard after all.

“At some point, writers at Playboy and other magazines will realize that when everyone enjoys sex — including women — sex is just better,” Kulkarni said.

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