The Narrative of Consent
by Nicole Howley | published May. 1st, 2015
Many news outlets and people over the age of 40 alike have discussed and lamented the presence of “hookup cultures” on college campuses. Although the desire to sleep with others in a casual, immediate manner isn’t necessarily something to discourage, some aspects of this culture — such as alcohol and placing a large amount of trust in an attractive stranger — can complicate a person's ability to attain and give consent.
Legal definitions of consent can be vague or even nonexistent. They vary from state to state, but sex educators, the California State Legislator and colleges across the country are advocating for definitions of consent that are affirmative, meaning that consent must be asked for and given by all participants before engaging in sexual activity.
The State of California recently passed a law requiring all state universities to define consent in an affirmative manner. Now, in the universities’ policy, consent has an extensive definition that fits this requirement. In summary, consent is “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.” It is informed, meaning that everyone understands in what activities they will be engaged; voluntary, meaning it is free from coercion; revocable, meaning it does not apply to all sexual activities or sexual encounters and can be taken away at any time; and it cannot be given while incapacitated.
Although definitions can be extensive, RIT Illustration alumna Jessica
“It's a pretty simple idea, and I don't think the overwhelming majority of people have any real problem understanding if consent is there or not in most situations.”
Darci Lane-Williams, director of the Center for Women and Gender, has found a different level of knowledge within her experience with college students.
“When we are talking about consent, we found that not only do people not understand if they have it or not — or if people can even consent at all — but we have people who don’t understand how to give consent or withdraw consent.”
One method to avoid misunderstanding is to have clear communication between those involved before engaging in anything sexual. Fourth year New Media Design major Maddie Heck responded to our email saying she believes that this communication is particularly important for disclosing sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but fourth year Biomedical Engineering and Computational Mathematics major Michael Potter responded a little differently saying that he thinks how much people choose to communicate depends on their situation.
“The extent to which you should discuss sex before engaging in it depends on how interested you are in remaining healthy and how much you care about whether all parties involved are enjoying themselves. If you don’t mind having to be medicated for the rest of your life and if you’re not interested in pleasing anyone but yourself, then your values probably do not require you to discuss sex before engaging..”
Lane-Williams advocates that people should communicate clearly before engaging in sexual activities.
“You literally need to have a conversation, and that conversation doesn’t need to be scheduled or anything really rigid," said Lane-Williams. "It doesn’t even have to be a long drawn-out conversation. It can be like, you are moving into different acts and asking the person ‘Is this okay?’ And if the person says yes or nods yes or moves in closer or gives you some body language and feedback to say it’s okay, then you proceed.”
Paying attention to what a partner says and any body language that could express enthusiasm or hesitation is important for determining whether someone is consenting. When participants are intoxicated, however, behavior and judgment can be affected. When alcohol is involved in the college hookup culture, issues of consent become more complex.
Alcohol and Unfamiliarity
It is not uncommon for people to drink at bars or parties and then go home with someone — whether that person is a friend, acquaintance or someone completely new. Despite the frequency at which this happens, it is not always clear if both parties can consent or are consenting.
Even the University of California policy is a bit ambiguous on this front. The policy states, “Where alcohol or drugs are involved, incapacitation is defined with respect to how the alcohol or other drugs consumed affects a person’s decision-making capacity, awareness of consequences and ability to make fully informed judgments.” No guidelines or measurements are provided to determine when a person can no longer consent due to incapacitation from alcohol.
“Alcohol affects people differently and, especially if you've been drinking, it can be hard to tell what's OK and what's not, and you could argue that alcohol is always an impairment,” said Hough. “In most situations, it may just come down to judgment calls by individuals — which is not the best yardstick, but works if you're not a complete douche.”
Lane-Williams acknowledged that there are situations in which people who have been drinking can have sex with each other in a consensual way, but she stated that it can still be risky.
“After you’ve been having sex with this person, you can get a drunk 'yes' later" said Lane-Williams. "It’s not ideal, but there’s less risk involved because we know drunk people have sex with one another. It happens, but every time you have sex with someone who's impaired, you run the risk of them saying ‘I did not want to have sex with you,’ and then that’s on you.”
She also heavily recommended that students don’t have sex with a new partner for the first time when either person has been drinking. For two people who meet each other at a party they have been drinking at, Lane-Williams suggested that “It is okay that night to establish that there’s an attraction, and it is okay that night to say ‘Hey, I want to pursue something,’ but you don’t do it that night.” She lamented that if students followed that advice, “That would cut out the majority of assault that we see on college campuses."
Potter, however, raised an important concern: sobriety is not necessarily the most important consideration.
“People tend to take for granted the assumption that lack of inebriation automatically means someone is capable of making informed decisions. This is patently false. Sober people make decisions without understanding the ramifications of those decisions all the time,” said Potter. "A drunk person who has a thorough understanding of sex is probably more capable of making a truly informed decision than a sober person who thinks that because they’re not wasted, they must be making a rational choice.”
Although this can be the case, there is a certain level of intoxication at which it is clear to almost all that a person is incapable of consent.
“We’ve had people urinate on themselves, literally be that intoxicated, and someone still thinks it’s okay to have sex with them,” said Lane-Williams. “Someone who loses their bladder control because they’re so intoxicated or someone who vomits or someone who’s gripping the toilet bowl — gripping the toilet bowl is not foreplay. It’s called 'sick person with too much alcohol in their system.' Not okay. We shouldn’t have to say that, but we do. All the time.”
Many students are also aware that this is not okay. This is why sex educators and the White House alike are encouraging these individuals to make efforts to prevent sexual assault on campuses.
The “It’s On Us” initiative recently launched by the White House asks people to take a pledge to “help keep women and men safe from sexual assault” and to “not to be a bystander to the problem, but to be a part of the solution.” They want people to recognize what sexual assault is, identify situations in which it may happen, intervene in these situations and help “create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.”
Lane-Williams also believes that the role of bystanders and friends is incredibly important.
“If you want to negate any possibility that your friend will be assaulted after you guys are parting, don’t leave them with anyone. If you go to a party with your friend, you need to make sure your friend gets home safely,” Lane-Williams explained. “Just like people have designated drivers, there should be a designated cock-blocker at every party.”
Being labeled a “cock-blocker” may not always seem like the best thing, but when it involves preventing sexual assault, it is definitely something to be proud of.
Heck agreed on the importance of this role.
“People should definitely be looking out for each other. If you see someone who's clearly too drunk to make thoughtful choices [being] targeted by someone who doesn't have their best intentions in mind, it's perfectly acceptable to step in.”
In the end, bystanders can make a large difference.
Whether you are planning on engaging in sexual activities or you are a friend of someone who is, there are ways to talk about and advocate for clear, sober consent. That is what we should be striving for.