By Erika W. Smith
In 2015, artist Emma Sulkowicz wore a pale blue graduation robe and cap as they carried a 50-pound mattress across the stage, helped by four of their friends. Sulkowicz had been carrying the mattress — identical to those used in dorm rooms — around the Columbia University campus for an entire school year, as a performance art piece that doubled as their senior thesis. When they began the piece, Sulkowicz said they would carry the mattress until the student they said raped them in their dorm room was either expelled or voluntarily left school. But Sulkowicz graduated before either of those things happened.
Sulkowicz’s performance brought a new spotlight to the ongoing national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses. Now, the #MeToo movement has brought a new lens through which to continue the conversation. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted while in college, and according to the advocacy organization End Rape On Campus, nearly one in four transgender and gender non-conforming undergraduate students will be sexually assaulted while in college.
And many of the people (mostly cis men) committing sexual assault don’t understand that what they’re doing is sexual assault. One study found that male undergraduates were more likely to admit to raping a partner when the assault was described in other language (for example, “Have you ever coerced somebody to intercourse by holding them down?”) rather than when the word “rape” was used.
Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call To Men, previously told Refinery29 that in his workshops for high school boys, only 19% can accurately define consent. “Boys actually think ‘no’ means try harder. They think ‘no’ means get her drunk or that they’re not approaching it right and they have to change their approach,” he said.
Campus sexual assault is so prevalent that it has often been called an “epidemic,” and yet only eight states in the U.S. require public school sex education to even mention consent. It’s vital that students understand consent before entering college — the first six weeks of college are sometimes called “the Red Zone” because this is the time of year when the majority of on campus sexual assaults occur.
As Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape editor Jaclyn Friedman previously wrote for Refinery29, “When I talk to students about sex and consent, I’m often asked — mostly by young men — how often they have to check in with a partner to make sure they’re doing consent right… But rape is not a technicality, and consent is not a one-and-done box to be ticked; it’s an ongoing process between two people, which requires treating your partner like an equal. Trying to reduce ‘consent’ to something you need to get out of the way so you can go ahead and get some means you’re more concerned with gaming the rules than with treating your partner like a human person.”
We’ll break down some of the intricacies and common misconceptions about consent here, but Friedman gets right to the main point of it: treat your partner like a human person.
What Is Consent?
At its most basic definition, consent means agreeing to do something. When talking about sexual activity, activists are pushing for laws that establish affirmative consent, or “Yes Means Yes.” This approach establishes consent as something you actively say “yes” to, rather than simply the absence of a “no.”
According to End Rape On Campus, affirmative consent laws “establish that consent is a voluntary, affirmative, conscious, agreement to engage in sexual activity, that it can be revoked at any time, that a previous relationship does not constitute consent, and that coercion or threat of force can also not be used to establish consent. Affirmative consent can be given either verbally or nonverbally.” Additionally, these laws make it clear that someone is “incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or is either not awake or fully awake, is also incapable of giving consent.” California and New York have such laws in place, as do a number of individual schools in other states, including the University of Minnesota, Texas A&M, and Yale University. Even if your state or school currently has a laxer legal view of consent, morally, this is the way to go.
How Do I Know If My Partner Is Giving Consent?
Sexuality educator Jamie J. LeClaire highlights five different factors to examine when talking about consent. They tell Refinery29 that consent must be:
1. Voluntary: “Consent must be freely given without any threat, force, intimidation, or coercion.”
2. Informed and coherent: “Someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs and not entirely coherent, or asleep or not completely awake, is unable to give consent.”
3. Enthusiastic and unambiguous: “You shouldn’t be unsure of whether or not someone is into what’s happening. There should be no confusion as to whether your partner is a willing and eager participant.”
4. Reversible: “Consent can be withdrawn at any time. That first green light can become a ‘Time to slow down’ or ‘Actually, I want to stop,’ at any moment for any reason, and that’s totally 100% valid, and their bodily autonomy must be respected.”
5. Ongoing and specific: “Sex is an active, continuous interaction — consenting to some heavy petting isn’t necessarily agreeing to be flogged.”
Remember that, as LeClaire says, “Consent must be given no matter what your relationship status is with your sexual partner.” Whether this is a long-term partner or someone you just met, if they’re not into it, stop.
Consent & Alcohol Or Drugs
Some consent guidelines say that a person cannot give consent if they are “incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.” However, other activists push for stronger standards.
“When it comes to mixing alcohol and other drugs with sex, my advice is: don’t,” Sam Wall, Assistant to the Director at sex education site Scarleteen.com, previously told Refinery29. “Any alcohol consumption makes consent anything from automatically questionable to outright impossible.” However, she added, “Realistically speaking, we know people can and do have mutually consensual, non-sober sex.” So if you and your partner do decide to have sex after drinking or doing drugs, “clear verbal consent is a MUST, not a maybe, and ANY indication someone is simply wasted, or isn’t aware or alert or all-there should be a stop sign, no argument.
Research shows that around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking alcohol, and that men who drink heavily are more likely than other men to report having committed sexual assault. If you think there’s any chance drinking may impact your ability to tell whether your partner is consenting, do not drink and have sex.
Consent & Condoms
In the past few years, there’s been a lot of media coverage of the rise of “stealthing” — the practice of removing a condom during sex without a partner’s consent. In one 2018 study, 32% of women who have sex with men and 19% of men who have sex with men reported having experienced this. Unfortunately, there are no laws in the United States that explicitly name stealthing as a form of sexual assault, however, activists and lawmakers are pushing to change that.
“If someone consented to sex using condoms or other prevention methods, that’s the conditions of sex in which they consented. Removing the barrier method without your partner’s knowledge is an absolute violation of consent and sexual assault,” LeClaire says.>
Consent & Nude Photos
Keep consent in mind when sending nude photos, too. Earlier this year, Texas introduced a bill that would make sending unsolicited nude photos a misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine. Many couples enjoy sending sexy photos to each other — but make sure that the person you’re sending the photo to actually wants to receive it.
“Unsolicited nude pics via text, SnapChat, dating apps, or whatever it may be, are a breach of consent. It’s really not that hard to ask for consent for sending naughty pics,” LeClaire says. “[Text something like], ‘I took some XXX photos of myself earlier, would love to send,’ and wait for permission. If they aren’t into it, respect that!”
If your partner sends you nude photos that you asked for, keep those photos private and do not share them with your friends or post them online. This is a violation of consent commonly called “revenge porn.”
How Do I Ask For Consent?
Some people think that asking for consent is “un-sexy,” but that’s not the case at all. As LeClaire points out, there are many different ways to ask for consent, up to and including dirty talk. Saying something like, “Do you like this?” or “I really want to [describe what you want to do]” are both ways of asking for consent. Your partner’s response “should sound nothing short of excitement, and it should NOT sound like hesitance, silence, or unease,” LeClaire says.
What Is Title IX?
In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments banned discrimination on the basis of sex in “any educational program or activity receiving federal funding,” which includes both public and private colleges. Along with protecting students from discrimination in areas such as sports, Title IX applies to sexual assault and harassment. Title IX “provides protections for students who are survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape,” LeClaire explains.
In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights introduced new guidelines for how colleges should handle sexual harassment and assault. However, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has worked to roll back these Obama-era guidelines. Still, Title IX currently applies to sexual assault on campus.
“Every college will have a Title IX coordinator. If you know someone has sexually assaulted someone, inform your school’s Title IX coordinator. If you or someone you know what sexually assaulted, tell your school’s Title IX coordinator (with consent),” LeClaire says.
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