Consent & College: A Simple Yet Complicated Issue

(Editor's Note: Indiana University is committed to leading the fight against sexual violence. We encourage you to get involved, learn about policies and resources, and find the support you need.)

Content Warning: consent, sexual assault, rape, sex, domestic violence

I remember as an incoming freshman attending the Welcome Week presentation on issues of drugs, alcohol, consent, and sex. Once I became more immersed in IU culture, I discovered the student-led initiative called Culture of Care, which "promotes helping one another, behavioral change, and raising awareness in four core areas: sexual well-being, mental health, alcohol & drug awareness, and respect."(1) It is comforting to know there's always someone here on IU's campus who is ready to help, no matter what you've been through or what you've seen. 

As we gear up for Little 500 festivities, it is even more important to remember that consent and sexual assault on college campuses is a serious issue. As the weather warms, patios open, friends gather, and Little 5 draws nearer, we need to remember the culture of care we have in place to support each other and live our best academic and social lives. Fortunately, the Culture of Care week takes place two weeks before Little 5, so we can enter the season with love and respect for our neighbors and friends fresh in our minds. Make sure that you block out time during the week of April 9-13 to get a refresher on raising awareness and education on certain wellness topics. Then you can also teach others—especially friends and family who come to visit during Little 5. 

But consent in sexual relationships is an ongoing issue. There is only so much that IU, Culture of Care, and other organizations can do to intervene at a personal level. It's on us to be responsible and know right from wrong. It's on us to take everything that IU and Culture of Care gives us and actually use that knowledge in the heat of the moment. So let's take a moment to talk about consent.

Relationships and consent are tricky subjects at any point in our lives but especially in the unique college environment. When it comes to being intimate (or not) with someone and having sex (or not) with that someone, there are some very important things to remember: consent, boundaries, and respect.

I’m sure we’ve all heard time and time again that consent (or permission or an "okay") is necessary to have sex with someone, that consent means a "yes!" While that is true—consent does frequently involve a verbal affirmative, like a "yes!"—it’s not always that black and white. Consent isn't always communicated through an enthusiastic "yes!" with a smile and a thumbs up. And, importantly, the lack of a "no" also does not mean yes. 

Consent means an "agreement expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions -- mutually understandable to all parties involved -- to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time." Consent can be withdrawn at any time. That seems like a pretty complicated definition, but I can break it down for you:

            An agreement expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions... 

A voluntary and affirmative answer is the part of consent that we’ve all heard over and over again. It means someone is willing and eager to have sex with you and makes sure that you know it. You, on the other hand, also give your partner a clear answer. This answer isn’t always a stated "yes" but it needs to be positive and affirmative. Any answer that takes the form of a negative ("no"), or an uncertain tone ("maybe" or "I guess"), does not mean that person consents. Note that the lack of an answer falls under the negative or uncertain category. Which leads us to the next part:

            ...mutually understandable to all parties involved...

Both people need to give consent and also hear it. Make sure you are heard and acknowledged, whether you are asking for or giving consent. Consent needs to be acknowledged by every person involved. Perception also relates to a person’s state of mind. If someone is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol use, they are not able to make responsible and safe choices regarding their body and with whom they choose to have sex. No matter how many times a person may say yes, if they are not sober or in the right state of mind, they cannot legally consent (2) and you cannot morally and ethically take their altered "consent." This is true even if you and your partner are both incapacitated. (2)

            ...to engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time.

This part sounds rather technical, doesn’t it? If you've had sex, you probably haven’t laid out all the terms, written them down, and gotten a signature from your partner. What I mean by "engage in a specific sexual act at a specific time" is simply what you and your partner agree will or won’t happen during the sexual encounter you are both consenting to. If your partner says they are okay with sexual touching, but not ok with sexual intercourse, you do not have consent for sexual intercourse. If you have a hidden camera set up and someone consents to having sex with you, they are not aware they are being filmed and are definitely not consenting to that part of the situation. If your partner slips off a condom without your knowledge, that is not consent. If your partner tells you they are on birth control but secretly aren't, then you are consenting to something different than reality and they do not have your consent. If you lie to someone to persuade them to give consent, that is not consent. And if something changes during sex, know that you need consent for that change. 

            "Consent can be withdrawn at any time."

At any point during sex, a person can change their mind. Even if nothing weird, unusual, different, harmful, or painful has happened during sex, someone can still change their mind and withdraw their consent. If you hear a "no," "stop," "I don’t like this," "I think I want to stop," or something similar, then you need to stop immediately. Don’t keep going, don’t ask them if they are sure, don’t pressure them, and don’t say, "But I want to keep going." If someone says something in a negative or uncertain tone during sex, they are no longer consenting to sex and if you continue then that is assault and/or rape.

If the concept of consent still seems hazy or abstract, it might be easier to understand what consent is by listing what consent is not.

Consent for sexual activity is NOT PRESENT when:

  • Someone says no
  • Someone is unsure
  • Someone is silent
  • Someone is unconscious or incapacitated
  • Someone is being threatened or forced
  • Someone is being filmed, spied on, or an extra party joins in unexpectedly
  • Someone dresses in a way you find provocative and/or is naked/in a bathing suit/in underwear
  • Someone flirts with you
  • Someone else gives consent for the person you are planning on having sex with
  • Someone lies about an aspect of the situation to convince you to have sex
  • Someone is under the age of consent, as defined by state law.

Honestly, this list could go on and on. But if you’ve had sexual relations with someone who fit a criterion or more on this list, then it may have been rape and/or sexual assault. And that’s not okay.

Unfortunately, a lot of people have either never been taught about consent, choose to disregard it, have never been in a situation where consent hasn’t been given, or just lack decency and respect for other people. If your partner or someone you know is in one of these categories, then they absolutely need to educate themselves. It is human nature for us to want to form relationships, whether sexual or not, and having knowledge of what consent and healthy relationships are is absolutely vital.

If you’ve been in a situation where you have been raped and/or sexually assaulted, or you know someone who has, then reach out for help. IU has a list of resources for the prevention of sexual assault, as well as resources for supporting survivors of sexual violence. The support resources include the Sexual Assault Crisis Services (SACS) through CAPS, the Confidential Victim Advocates in the Office for Sexual Violence Prevention and Victim Advocacy, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners at the IU Health Center. If you need help beyond IU, the Bloomington Police Department is an option, as are non-IU-affiliated therapists. Here are some hotlines that can also help:

  • SACS Hotline at IU: (812) 855-8900
  • IU Confidential Victim Advocates: (812) 856-2469
  • IU Health Center Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners: (812) 855-4011 
  • Middle Way House Crisis Line: (812) 336-0846
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
  • Rape, Abuse & Incest National Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-787-3224

The bottom line is that you need consent every single time you have sex and that consent must be maintained throughout the entirety of sex. Your partner will gain respect for you and acknowledge that you also respect them. If someone doesn’t respect your decision of non-consent, then they do not respect you. No matter what you do, what decisions you make, or who you are, your consent is necessary and always needs to be heeded and taken seriously. I know certain situations are incredibly hard to get out of, but if you find yourself in an unhealthy or toxic relationship, or a situation that is uncomfortable, there are people at IU Available to help you.

Hopefully one day in the future we will reach a point where articles about consent don’t even need to be written, but until that day, be knowledgeable and cautious and respect yourself and others. And as my mom always told me, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

References

  1. Culture of Care [Internet]. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana. Available from: care.indiana.edu
  2. Sexual trauma services [Internet]. Columbia, SC: stsm. Available from: stsm.org
  3. AgeOfConsent [Internet]. Available from: ageofconsent.net

Related We Are IU Blogs:

How To Stay Safe on Campus

I Want to Make a Difference: A Guide for Leadership and Service as a College Student

Balancing Priorities in College

About The Author
Emilie MossEnglish Major, Class of 2018, Naperville, IL

Hi! I'm Emilie and I'm a senior majoring in English and minoring in Spanish at IU! I've always had a passion for reading and writing, and combined with my love for IU, I look forward to sharing ideas, content, stories, whatever it may be, with everyone else. In my free time I'm usually listening to music or playing piano, cooking, exploring as much as I can, and reading the work of other bloggers and writers.