Libresco: The meaning of glorious consent

Apocalypse Next

The national press has misplaced its focus in the coverage of the Title IX complaint. Media outlets have emphasized Yale’s poor response to several high-profile incidents of harassment (the DKE chant, the Zeta sign, the theft of the Take Back the Night shirts, etc.) and have neglected the more important issue on campus: Yale’s persistently inadequate institutional response to reports of rape and sexual harassment on campus.

Yale’s first response to this complaint — the creation of a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct — makes me worry that Yale, like the reporters covering the story, is missing the point. The problem with Yale’s current system is not that the relevant committees are not well-integrated but that their operating procedures are not transparent and that they are alleged to discourage Yale students from pursuing legal solutions to crimes.

I hope the Title IX complaint will force Yale to respond to these criticisms and overhaul whatever consortium of committees is tasked with responding to reports of sexual assault. While we wait for the Department of Education to review the evidence and issue guidance, there’s a lot of work we need to do as individuals to change the sexual climate and protect all of Yale’s students.

Several people I know have had unwanted sexual encounters at Yale that don’t fit into the conventional model of rape. They weren’t abducted and abused by a stranger and weren’t taken advantage of after being roofied or becoming intoxicated. One of the ways in which my friends were taken advantage of occurred when a partner removed a condom midway through sex. Some of the men did not tell their partners they had removed their condoms, and some asked their partners quickly for permission in the middle of a sex act.

This is one of the offenses that Julian Assange has been accused of in the rape cases currently pending in Sweden, and many people questioned whether this kind of behavior could be fairly described as rape. The fact that most media outlets couldn’t decide whether this abusive act constituted rape is evidence that our society lacks common expectations of what consent entails.

The confusion about what constitutes consent or how consent can be withdrawn during a sexual act makes it possible for someone to have the experience of being raped even if the person who had sex with him or her did not intend to commit rape. I don’t believe that the students who abused my friends meant to hurt them or have necessarily ever recognized their own behavior as unacceptable. Because of the ambiguity surrounding sexual behavior, none of the women I know wanted to report their sex partners as rapists to any of Yale’s committees on sexual harassment.

Yale should do a better job clarifying what “glorious consensual sex” entails, instead of just encouraging us to seek it. In the meantime, I’ve written a quick primer on sexual ethics below. The list is not exhaustive, but I hope it can help spark conversation and re-evaluation of appropriate sexual practice:

If you change the method of protection you are using during sex, whether or not you ask your partner for permission, you are behaving abusively. The method you use to achieve safe sex should be worked out ahead of time, to avoid pressuring your partner to agree out of fear of ruining the hookup.

If you change the kind of sex acts you are engaging in or try to switch to a riskier or more intimate kind of sex act, you need clear permission from your partner, and you should have gotten it before you started hooking up.

If you’re not really sure which sex acts are acceptable to both you and your partner and therefore don’t know what changes would require checking in, stop. You are not ready to have sex with your partner.

Consent requires conversation and clarity; you can only make an effort to respect your partner’s boundaries if you are aware of them. A desire to preserve romance or a sense of spontaneity is not a justification for mistreating your partner. Only by having forthright discussions is it possible to avoid inadvertent abuse.

In the coming months, I hope Yale will revamp its procedures to be more supportive of victims of sexual assault. But by committing to conversations about consent, we can reduce the number of students who will ever need to turn to the Committee on Sexual Misconduct.

Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.


  • Inigo_Montoya

    Well said. I hope this spurs people on both sides of the Title IX investigation issue to talk about it in terms of Yale’s handling of rape reporting. So far, as Ms. Libresco notes, the debate over the investigation has devolved into a debate about public sexist speech.

  • The Anti-Yale


    These are a college administrator’s tools and best friends. “If we can old wait out the problem till summer vacation, it will dilute.”

    ” Each year that a new class arrives and one departs, the student body’s institutional memory is diluted.”

    I feel qualified to speak on this since I took a master degree in something called “Student Personnel Services and Administration in Higher Education” and I took it IN THE FIRES OF HELL, from 1969-72 at an University where four students were murdered by National Guardsmen.

    My idea of an effective administrator would have got me FIRED IN A WEEK: dive into a problem head first and stir it UP until all of its facets are identifiable for all to see. (the OPPOSITE of benign neglect and instransigent equivocation)

    (BTW: That’s also how I behave as a YDN poster.)

    Here is the GLORIOUS CONSENT PROBLEM articulated in an honest teenage voice. It has been in front of our noses and TRIVIALIZED (benign neglect and instransigent equivocation) for 61 YEARS despite 65 MILLION COPIES sold:

    Hear Holden Caulfield’s confusion please:

    “The thing is , most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl — a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean — she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell , or whether they’re just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, they’ll blame it on you , not them . . . They tell me to stop, so I stop.” (Salinger, p. 92)
    “The Catcher in the Rye”

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. (’80)



  • silliwin01

    When a girl is sober or near sober and a guy is near blackout and would never hookup with said girl if he were less obliterated because she is ugly and they have sex, would that be considered rape?

  • RiverC

    Are you sarcastically asking whether it’s possible for a woman to sexually abuse a man?

  • silliwin01

    Not in the least. It was a serious inquiry.

  • Branford73

    Silly wino, the answer is so obvious its hard to believe in your sincerity. Rape requires penetration so if the “sex” you are asking about is penis in vagina, that likely cannot happen if the male is in “near blackout” condition. You can use your imagination to decide whether a female in that situation could penetrate the male with something and qualify as rape. Also, various type of sexual assault clearly would still be possible in your highly unlikely scenario. Not all sexual assaults are rape.

    If Yale’s operating procedures discourage Yale students from pursuing legal solutions to crimes, those procedures should be modified. It’s hard for a nearly 40 year outsider to know this, and probably hard for students who have not been through the process to know. DOE has now published guidelines, though, and Yale’s processes should be measured in light of those guidelines.

    Those calling for greater “transparency” need to define the term. That the process should be confidential to the parties involved seems obvious. Making hearings public seems obviously discouraging to students’ reporting. Do the advocates for “transparency” want the names of the alleged abusers released, regardless of conclusions of the hearing panel?

    Ms. Libresco has already concluded that Yale’s responses to the publicized “harassments” and to reported rapes are “poor” and “inadequate”. But her examples of students who didn’t report what they felt were abuses or assaults do not appear to have arisen from Yale’s conduct but “[b]ecause of the ambiguity surrounding [the] sexual behavior.” If the behavior and consent issues of a particular encounter are truly ambiguous, is punishment or education appropriate? Do you really want Yale (or the DOE for that matter) to define or arbitrate for you what “glorious consensual sex” is? Yale has already modified the student conduct code to require affirmative consent. In the criminal law context implied consent by conduct will likely always be sufficient, but as an expressed expectation of students in a private university, that modification may be permitted and useful.

  • River Tam

    > Consent requires conversation and clarity; you can only make an effort to respect your partner’s boundaries if you are aware of them. A desire to preserve romance or a sense of spontaneity is not a justification for mistreating your partner. Only by having forthright discussions is it possible to avoid inadvertent abuse.




  • Leah

    @silliwin: I think people shouldn’t have sex with people who are in altered states of consciousness and aren’t capable of giving consent; gender doesn’t enter into it. If you honestly can’t tell whether your prospective partner can consent because you don’t know them well enough to notice they’re blackout, I think you ought not have sex with them.

    @Branford73: I am glad Yale’s student conduct code requires affirmative consent. I think the university could do a better job explaining what that entails, since plenty of people still seem to not understand (i.e. the sex partners of the friends I discussed in the article).

  • Branford73

    Leah, thanks for your reply. Can you explain what you mean by greater transparency in this context? What parts of the established procedures do you (or others) believe are improperly opaque?

  • silliwin01

    Branford73, use a dictionary please. The following is from a well-reputed internet tome:

    1. the unlawful compelling of a woman through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse.
    2. any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.
    3. statutory rape.
    4. an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation: the rape of the countryside.
    5. Archaic . the act of seizing and carrying off by force.

    Note that one definition specifies women being the recipients while two generalize it as a forced sex act. Penetration is required given that it is sexual intercourse, but by no means does it indicate the person being assaulted is necessarily the one being penetrated. As the law and Yale’s helpful relationships video tell us, sex without consent is forced (and thus rape), and people can’t give consent when they are mentally incapacitated. Consequently, I don’t see how the scenario I described would not qualify as a rape of the male. Moreover, such a situation is not highly unlikely, as I happen to have two male friends who have had this happen to them. Though obviously they did not pursue charges, they mention repeatedly how they feel they were “taken advantage of” and “raped” by the females in question. If the law is applied equally to both men and women, I don’t think you can legitimately argue such acts do not constitute rape of the male.

    As it were, the question was rhetorical and intended to assess the perspectives of Ms. Libresco and other commenters here. You’ve outed yourself as a feminist, while Leah indicated she isn’t as myopically liberal as I thought she was.

  • Branford73

    SW, while I am male I do not shrink from being labeled a feminist or liberal, though the people (unlike you) who have read my other comments on this story critical of the Title IX complaint would probably not apply those labels to me.

    Clearly my assumption in my third sentence that you had adequate imagination was flawed. Your scenario did not specify that penetration was involved. Statutorily in my state and I am sure in many others rape equals non-consensual penetration by part of another’s body or by an inanimate object. So yes, a man can be raped by a woman. My statement that not all sexual assault is rape was meant to suggest that a man in your scenario could well be a victim of sexual assault (oral sex as an example) without having been raped. Rape is a subset of sexual assault. I can’t speak from personal experience but I can imagine being drunk and receiving unwanted oral sex is not as bad as being pegged (use a dictionary if you need to). Both can be crimes or violations of the new conduct code if the consent was implied only, but only the latter would be rape.

    I am snarky in my responses to because you used a rather tired meme of the handsome stud being taken advantage of by an ugly scag. Also, you were remarkably imprecise in your language and jump to criticize me for misreading you, if I did. I might not have reacted so negatively had you used some other descriptor of the aggressor, like “someone other than his girlfriend”. I am not one who believes that an erection is an irrefutable sign of consent, but your scenario of near blackout drunk suggested that an erection, and therefore penis in vagina sex, was not likely. Again, it was my attempt to say that condemnable sexual assault was still possible in that scenario but not rape.

    I doubt we disagree on the matter as much as you imagine.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Rubens: The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

  • silliwin01

    All nighters will do that to you, it seems. Though honestly, I wasn’t really thinking of handsome young studs as much as a couple of less than attractive girls who get predatorial while drunk, to the point where they basically survey parties and then target the guy who seems drunkest.

    Also, basically everyone called the video about sexual relations the rape video even though only one of the incidents depicted entailed intercourse, so this also is a slight issue of incongruity between popular and proper usage of a word.

  • Goldie08

    Leah – you put forth a good set of guidelines that anyone about to consider a sexual act would do well to check off, or whatever, before going down that road.

    I just want to say that, while those guidelines will provide for a safe, consentual sexual experience, it just doesn’t seem, well…sexy.

    that’s all.

  • elijah

    Safe is sexy.