Due to media narratives, court case results, and cultural stigmas, young people – especially those on college campuses – are left with differing definitions of rape and consent. These differences lead to often devasting and troubling sexual encounters on college campuses across the country. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 23.1% of women and 5.4% of men experience sexual assault during their college career, and while St. John’s makes an effort to provide adequate resources to sexual assault survivors, the issue of sexual assault comes down to consent and our understanding of it.
Even though in recent years since the start of the #MeToo movement, the topic of consent has been widely discussed, there seems to still be some confusion about what exactly consent is and what the components of a consensual sexual encounter are.
RAINN defines consent as an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. While we’ve all grown up with the saying “no means no,” consent takes it further and asks us to look out for an enthusiastic and continuous “yes.” This means that consent is not just an absence of the word “no” or “stop.”
Consent must be voluntary. This means that a person must say “yes” by their own free will and not through manipulation, intimidation, or threat of physical violence. Consent must be coherent and informed. This means that the person should be aware of all sexual activity and be able to make a decision based on facts.
For example, if a person is incoherent due to the use of drugs or alcohol, or a condom is used and then taken off during sex without the other person knowing, these acts make a sexual encounter nonconsensual. Consent should be reversible. Either party should be free to say “no” at any point before or during a sexual encounter. If an initial “yes” becomes a “no,” and the other person does not stop the sexual activity, this would now be a non-consensual sexual encounter.
Consent must be ongoing and specific. Throughout the sexual activity, both parties must give continuous consent, meaning that consent must be given as the sexual encounter escalates or continues. Yes to one sexual activity does not mean yes to all sexual activities!
Consent must be given, regardless of relationship status. Partners must not assume that prior sexual encounters with someone is automatic consent for sexual activity in the future. Consent must be given, regardless of prior history or current relationship status.