In 2017, Hollywood had a plethora of scandals that highlighted a dark culture of sexual assault and harassment that victimized, silenced and exiled many actresses and some actors in their industry. The Me Too movement, originally started by activist Tarana Burke, finally gained international attention. However, the conversation has spread from Hollywood to college campuses.

RIT’s Center for Women and Gender is committed to providing a safe environment for all students and often is a counseling resource for victims of sexual assault. Director for the Center of Women and Gender, Darci Lane-Williams, weighed in on issues of consent.

What is Consent?

The word consent is tossed around quite frequently, but a clear cut definition can rarely be be agreed upon. If victims are intoxicated, “willing” minors or not forcefully resisting, assaulters often find other ways to discredit the victim. Trial cases easily devolve into "he said, she said" competitions. However, in its simplest definition, consent means “permission for something to happen.” Lane wants it to be very clear that consent to one specific form of contact doesn’t mean a person has consented to all forms of intimacy.

“Consent is something you must have throughout the interaction,” Lane said.

Consent can be revoked at any time and can have any limitations or restrictions that a person desires. For example, if a person has consented to kissing and only kissing, then grabbing them on the rear is not a consented action. Consent can get tricky when the subject does not or is unable to say no.

Only Yes Means Yes

If students received any form of sex education in school then they were probably exposed to the now-retired “No Means No” campaign. The problem is this campaign worked more as a loophole for sexual assaulters than a methodology to protect victims. Accusers would use the absence of verbally stated "no" as evidence of consent. However, Lane said this perception needs to change.  

“An absence of a no does not mean consent,” she said.

There are many reasons why a victim would not say no during an unwanted sexual encounter. For one, the victim may be in a predicament where they are unable to communicate no, such as if they are unconscious, drugged, inebriated or impaired in any way. One example is the infamous Brock Turner case where Turner had raped an unconscious student who was physically unable to speak.

However, a victim doesn’t need to be unconscious to refrain from saying no. Many victims “freeze” during sexual assault and are unable to fight, yell or even say no. Just like flight or fight, the freeze response is a very natural reaction rooted in our survival instincts. This is why the “No Means No” movement was replaced with the new slogan “Yes Means Yes” where only an enthusiastic yes is considered proper confirmation of consent.

“‘Yes Means Yes’ puts the responsibility of consent on the person who wants to engage in [sexual activity],” Lane said.

The most important part about consent is that it’s about mutual understanding and proper communication with your partner — remembering to check in with your partner throughout the encounter and being vigilant of verbal and nonverbal cues. One of the biggest misconceptions about consent is that someone engaging in sexual activity means they’re consenting to it.

“Some people will agree to some level of sexual activity to appease the person,” Lane said.

The Difference Between Persuasion, Harassment and Coercion

Sexual coercion is the act of “persuading” someone into sexual activity with the use of force and threats. If a person is disinterested in sexual activity, then pressuring or intimidating them to engage anyway is coercion.

“Coercion is different than persuasion. Persuasion is the absence of a threat. Coercion is when fear bleeds in,” Lane said.

Yes, it’s possible to persuade someone into having sex but there has to be conditions met. There is a fine line between seducing someone and threatening someone into sexual activity. For one, coercion involves the use of fear but not necessarily fear for your life. If someone is in fear of a consequence whether it’s social, political, financial, etc., then they can be coerced into unwanted sexual activity. This could be most prevalent in the workplace when a subordinate is coerced into sex in order to keep their job. Or even on a date if a person refuses to drive the other home unless they have sex. Yet even persuasion isn’t always harmless.

“Persuasion can cross over into harassment very easily,” Lane said.

Sexual harassment doesn’t always involve fear but is the aggressive pressuring of someone to engage in unwanted sexual contact either once or repeatedly over a length of time. For example, if you were to ask someone out and they say no, to continually ask them out without them showing new interest can easily become harassment. Especially if your advances begin to interfere with their life, make them uncomfortable or otherwise become a nuisance.

Spectrum of Sexual Assault

“Anytime there’s a sexual assault there’s an absence of consent. It’s an umbrella term for unwanted touching to rape,” Lane said.

The term sexual assault is often conflated with the term rape. However, sexual assault includes any sexual activity when consent is not present. So even forcible touching such as groping or even surprising someone with a kiss or pat on the behind is a form of sexual assault as long as it’s sexual in nature. Even when defining forcible rape, it’s a misconception that the interaction must be violent.

“Forcible rape doesn’t have to involve violence. It’s called forcible because generally the person can’t resist. Many rapes are not violent or involve physical assault with the sexual assault,” Lane said.

Forcible rape with violence would be on the worst side of the spectrum but all acts of sexual assault stigmatize the victim and feed into a toxic social climate known as rape culture.

What is Rape Culture?

“We are in a society that blames victims for assault,” Lane said.

American culture is very sexualized but talking about sex is still seen as culturally taboo. Sex education is often lacking or nonexistent for many students but behavioral norms are taught very early, especially social constrictions placed on girls. The modesty myth places blame on victims of sexual assault by accusing their past behaviors as fault for their attacks. Women who drink alcohol, dress provocatively or are promiscuous are judged publicly and on trial for assaults.

Using women’s behaviors as justification or why they deserved to be raped and harassed is why many victims wait years to come forward, or don't come forward at all. This aspect of our culture protects predators and silences victims, such as when public figures are accused of sexual misconduct and many fans defend them and try to discredit the victims.

“People can fight for you if you don’t admit it. Victims have much more to lose ... When you tell people not to come clean you tell others not to come forward,” Lane said.

Not only does the modesty myth unfairly slut shame victims, it also isn’t true. At all.

“People can be assaulted in sweatpants and a hoodie,” Lane said.

People of all walks of life, fashion styles and levels of sobriety are vulnerable to sexual assault. But by better understanding consent — and more importantly, condemning and punishing those who ignore it  — can rape culture be eradicated.