[F]ear of sexual assault on college campuses is twofold: Many students are afraid of being victims of assault, while others are terrified of being accused of it.
If that sounds ridiculous, consider this: Apps have popped up in recent years that allow students to sign virtual consent forms before engaging in intimate encounters. The contract on SaSie, one such app, prompts consenting parties to fill in their names and e-signatures, and add pictures of their photo IDs so as to provide “a legally binding modicum of evidence for students and adjudicators.”
Clear communication in sexual encounters is paramount and the stakes are high. Nonconsensual sex is rape. But it’s ridiculous to think that consensual sex should require a legal contract.
This is not the way for students to get clarity on healthy sex. If we are going to change a culture of normalized drunken hookups and damaging acts of sexual violence, we must get to the roots of the problem: communication and education.
Most colleges and universities require that freshmen and other new students attend orientation workshops to familiarize them with guidelines for consent, a term that is often narrowly defined to avoid confusion. Sex, our administrators and peer leaders tell us, requires verbal positive affirmation at each progressing stage of physical intimacy.
This is not a bad way to define consent, but it overlooks emotional intimacy and vulnerability entirely. When gymnasiums full of relatively inexperienced undergraduates hear an administrator explain “No means no” over a microphone, no matter how intently we pay attention or how much we agree with that statement, we are not receiving guidance on language that will help us communicate with future partners. Consent workshops can be as impersonal and utilitarian as an SAT prep book: fact-based, transactional, generalized and devoid of human emotion.
As a transfer student at Middlebury College, I sat through two such orientations and several mandatory forums about sex on campus. It was uncomfortable.
But I can see the connection between these awkward seminars and the rise of swipe-for-consent apps: Both are the outcome of a culture completely out of touch with healthy communication about sex, especially when it comes to educating young adults about it.
It’s not any school administration’s fault. There are no national guidelines for sex ed, and the curriculum for it varies greatly around the country, often from state to state. Fewer than half of the states require sexual education in public schools, and only 20 of them even require that it be medically, factually or technically accurate. Think about that.
To be clear, inaccurate sex ed isn’t to blame for all cases of sexual violence, which college-age women are three to four times more at risk of experiencing than all other women, according to a 2014 Department of Justice report.
Still, as young adults, we have no real guidance for modeling intimate behavior on anything other than the glamorized, highly choreographed sexual encounters we see on TV and in movies, music and pornography. Those media generally fail to include any language of consent at all. Nowhere are Americans exposed to the idea that talking to your partner before, during and after sex — regardless of whether you met five years or 15 minutes ago — makes sex better! Why is nobody teaching us that “great sex” happens when both partners are equally engaged in respecting and communicating their expectations?
To address this intimacy gap in our language, my peers and I started the Consent Project at Middlebury. We invite speakers to address topics like pleasure, anatomy and masculinity. On weekends we host a “Morning-After Breakfast,” where students talk about sex and relationships without judgment. Every breakfast begins with an icebreaker — a game of sex and anatomy trivia to loosen up language around taboos — and then students break into smaller groups to air out personal confusions.
The idea is to identify, through group communication and brainstorming, what defines good and healthy sex. Our goal is to develop a shared idea of consent that encompasses self-advocacy, respect and mutual fulfillment — and not to treat it like a checkbox.
In Consent Project meetings, students bring up topics that don’t necessarily come up in school-sponsored consent workshops. They talk about drinking to overcome inhibitions, only to wake up the next morning feeling unfulfilled, unsure and sometimes even regretful about their choices. Both women and men admit to feeling inadequate and a pressure to “perform.” Women more often voice frustration over not having their own sexual needs met or respected, while men express anxiety about sexual rejection. There are many elements that add to students’ confusion, but the role that drinking and recreation drug use play cannot be overstated.
It may seem like a small thing, but these conversations actually do seem to make students more comfortable. There is always a healthy amount of laughter despite the seriousness of the conversations. We get a lot of feedback from students who say they feel willing — or even excited — to start talking about sex more openly.
The miscommunication that can lead to sexual violence, on campus and off, is not unavoidable. Absent reform in the K-12 system, students can help create safe environments and learn from one another. Teachers, administrators and the media tell us only part of the story. Let’s learn to talk openly and respectfully about sex, pleasure and our boundaries, in all the ways we individually define them.
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