Navigating University Culture With an Understanding of Consent

Going to college for the first time is a completely new experience, and while exciting, it can be initially tricky to navigate.

Going to college for the first time is a completely new experience, and while exciting, it can be initially tricky to navigate. As sexual assault on campus is becoming more and more discussed in the media, I thought it would be important to write an article about consent in relation to college culture, and specifically, drinking.

Disclaimer: not everyone at college is drinking or engaging in sexual activity, and you don’t have to if you don’t want to. But if you want to, that’s also fine, as long as you’re safe. Your choices are yours, and others’ choices are their own.

Until recently, our understanding of sexual assault was basically a lone girl being attacked in a dark alley by an armed stranger. However, sexual assault encompasses a much broader range of situations and is a more prominent issue than most know. One in four women and one in 33 men are sexually assaulted. Sexual assault happens when someone (or more than one person) engages a person in any sexual activity (this includes everything from penetrative sex and oral sex to touching of intimate areas and watching pornography) without the person’s consent or willingness to participate.

The general rule for consent is “A totally sober and uninfluenced ‘yes’ means ‘yes.'” Assault does not happen only when a person says “no” and their refusal is ignored. Assault also happens when the victim is physically and/or mentally incapacitated. For example, if someone is passed out, they cannot say, “Yes, I want to engage in sexual activity.” If someone is drunk, high, or otherwise incapacitated, they cannot, with full sober awareness, say, “Yes, I want to engage in sexual activity.” If someone is threatened, whether with their own safety or the safety of others or their reputation, they cannot give an absolute, uninfluenced “Yes, I want to engage in sexual activity.”

So, here are some rules that you can use to protect yourself, protect others, and prevent sexual assault on campus. Note: sexual assault is a crime of opportunity and power committed by the aggressor/s. These measures are to minimize risk, but it is in no way a victim’s fault if they are assaulted, regardless of whether or not they took these measures.

1. Do not drink anything from open or unattended containers. Rape drugs like Flunitrazepam (roofies) can be used to incapacitate victims so that aggressors can sexually violate them. So in general, if you put a drink down and out of sight, don’t pick it back up again. Do not take open drinks from people you don’t know or trust. Additionally, be wary of punchbowls and other open drinks at parties because they can also be spiked.

2. When you go to a social gathering, go with one or many very, very trusted friends. The unfortunate reality is that about 80% of campus rapes and assaults are committed by friends and acquaintances of the victim. Choose friends who will take care of you, arrive together, check in with each other throughout the event, and leave together.

3. If you are sexually assaulted, you are not alone, and it is not your fault. You can reach out to any campus support groups or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE(4673).

4. If you are in a social situation with drinking, do not leave a friend alone, especially if they are passed out. A true friend does not leave their friend vulnerable to aggressors. If your friend is passed out, stay with them to ensure their safety or take them home. This also means do not put them alone in a cab or leave them with someone you don’t trust.

5. If you see something wrong, stop it—even if it is someone you don’t know. For example, if you see someone trying to get another person super drunk so that they can have sex with them, you need to step in. Do not be a bystander and allow someone to be violated.

6. In your own sexual encounters, whether in a social scenario or not, make sure that your partner is entirely sober, uninfluenced, and willing to engage with you. If they are not, don’t engage in sexual activity until they are comfortable. Even if your partner is saying “yes” while they are mentally incapacitated, it is better not to engage with them until they can give true consent.

7. If you are intoxicated or otherwise mentally incapacitated and want to give consent in that state, ask yourself if you would do the same sober. If not, remove yourself from the situation.

8. If you and your partner are both mentally incapacitated, it is better not to engage in sexual activity. Often, this type of encounter can result in complicated situations that are best avoided.

9. If a friend comes to you and tells you they were sexually assaulted, the first thing you do is ask, “Are you okay?” Sexual assault is horribly traumatizing and leaves victims feeling incredibly vulnerable and powerless. When helping an abused friend, give them a sense of control. Ask them what they need, and use simple questions. Do you want to see a doctor? Is it okay if I hug you or no? Another important thing is to prevent the victim from showering or washing their mouth out. In order to bring the aggressor to justice and to rehabilitate the victim, the victim should be taken to the doctor and given a rape kit. Showering and washing would remove any remaining DNA the aggressor may have left during the assault.

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