Make no mistake — sexual violence is a pervasive problem on our campus. Though the Yale administration has made steps to foster a more positive sexual climate, recent developments show that toxic attitudes persist among Yale students. To be clear, sexual violence happens because people don’t care about consent — not because they don’t understand it. However, it seems that there is no shortage of ex post facto rationalizations regarding consent that invalidate the experiences of survivors, trivialize the occurrence of sexual assault on our campus and ultimately prevent us from having a serious and supportive campuswide discussion. Therefore, during this difficult time of hurt for some and utter confusion for others, Yale’s definition of consent can illuminate our community standards and lead the way toward a more productive discussion about what really constitutes sexual assault. So, for those of us who didn’t pay close enough attention at the Communication and Consent Educators’ “Myth of Miscommunication” workshop freshman year, or who may just need a refresher, here’s a crash course on consent.
According to the University, consent is defined as “positive, unambiguous and voluntary agreement to engage in specific sexual activity throughout a sexual encounter.” Let’s begin with “positive.” In a nutshell, consent is not the absence of refusal, but the presence of agreement. In other words, it can never be inferred from the lack of a resounding “no.” Neither silence nor nonresistance makes for a consensual sexual encounter. A clear “yes,” or affirmative consent, is the only way to go.
Now, on to “unambiguous.” Contrary to popular belief, affirmative consent can be given non-verbally. Body language is one of the primary ways that humans communicate, so we are exceptionally skilled at reading each other’s in-the-moment signals. Therefore, just because someone doesn’t say “no” doesn’t mean they’re not communicating. We can easily see if someone is or is not willing to engage in a sexual encounter through their body language. In fact, given the rigidity of social scripts, which perpetuate expectations about how sexual encounters are “supposed” to go and thus constrain our abilities to devise exit strategies, it’s often easier for people to communicate their true desires via body language. It’s up to the rest of us to pay attention to those signals and respect them. Consent is not tricky — either you have it or you don’t. If you’re not sure, just ask.
Along with “positive” and “unambiguous,” consent must also be “voluntary.” In other words, it cannot be obtained via threat, coercion, force or incapacitation. If a person is asleep or otherwise mentally or physically incapacitated (for example, as a result of alcohol, drugs or some other condition), they lack the ability to give consent. On our campus and indeed on many college campuses throughout the United States, the role of alcohol in sexual encounters seems to be a major source of confusion and anxiety for many students. To be clear, people can give consent when they are intoxicated — unless they have reached the point of incapacitation. Given that we’ve taken Yale’s crash course on alcohol consumption, we should all know what incapacitation looks like. However, if you’re at all concerned that someone is too drunk to have sex, you probably shouldn’t have sex with them. Consider calling Yale Health instead.
Finally, consent must be continuous. Consent is neither a binding contract nor a blanket promise. It must be given “throughout a sexual encounter,” and can be denied or renegotiated at any point in time. Consent can be rescinded during a sexual act. Consenting to some sexual acts does not automatically mean consenting to others. Consenting to a sexual encounter today does not mean consenting to a sexual encounter tomorrow — or the day after that, or the day after that. Being in a relationship with someone also does not give you carte blanche on consent. No one is ever entitled to someone else’s body. Ever.
Ultimately, as far as understanding the occurrence of sexual violence on our campus and supporting our classmates, friends and significant others goes, reminding ourselves of the definition of consent is a good place to start, though certainly not the place to finish. Consent is pretty low bar. Instead, we should be striving for mutual enthusiasm in each of our sexual encounters. At the end of the day, Yale students are responsible for the campus climate. Our high community standards mean absolutely nothing if we are not committed to them. Our words and actions define the bounds of the acceptable and establish the norms that shape every single one of our college experiences. It is up to us to ensure that these norms are built on mutual respect, understanding and, above all, enthusiastic consent.
Lucia Baca is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .