SparkNotes Blog

PSA: What You Need to Know About “Affirmative Consent” at College

If you’re headed to college, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about the importance of consent—and especially about how uncomplicated it is. Simply put, consent means that in any sexual scenario, both participants (or all three or four or seventeen of you) should be in enthusiastic agreement throughout about what’s on the table and where the boundaries are.

But where consent seems simple enough, let’s be real: sex itself can still be complicated, especially when the people in question are inexperienced, intoxicated, or both. That’s why some colleges have introduced affirmative consent policies, also known as “yes-means-yes,” on their campuses.
By these new standards, the simple absence of a “no” from your partner doesn’t cut it; enthusiastic consent needs to be communicated at every stage of every sexual encounter, with some policies stipulating that consent has to take the form of a verbal yes, or that it doesn’t count unless both people are completely sober. But while affirmative consent policies can be useful, they’re not enough on their own to promote healthy sexual relationships, especially on college campuses. Here’s why:

A coaxed or coerced “yes” still counts as consent under yes-means-yes.

In a perfect world, nobody would ever say “yes” to unwanted sex out of guilt—and nobody would ever make their partner feel guilty about wanting to say “no.” But in the real world, people do attempt to persuade each other to do things, including sexy things, especially if one party seems ambivalent and hasn’t explicitly said “no.” In scenarios like these, a person who struggles to assert their boundaries can easily be convinced to say yes by an insistent partner—a problem that affirmative consent standards do nothing to address.

Many consensual relationships don’t meet the yes-means-yes standard.

If affirmative consent policies have one big downside, it’s that they redefine an awful lot of normal, healthy sexual encounters as assault. Most couples, particularly those in committed relationships, just don’t pause at every stage of activity to get an explicit “yes” from their partner, and many balk at the idea—but yes-means-yes standards don’t really leave room for spontaneous intimacy, even if you prefer it that way. This same issue also opens up the system to absurdity, and occasionally abuse, when a long-term relationship ends and one party’s feelings are hurt. For instance, at Brandeis University, a student was accused of (and found responsible for) “serious sexual transgressions” nearly a year after his breakup with an ex-boyfriend—for offenses that included waking up his then-BF with a kiss.

Sexist double standards are still a problem.

Affirmative consent aims to empower students by providing a strict standard for sexual interaction, and providing recourse in cases where a student either doesn’t remember what happened or doesn’t have evidence in support of an accusation—all of which is supposed to be applied in a gender-neutral manner. Unfortunately, yes-means-yes policies in combination with overzealous administrators can turn sexual assault investigations into a mess of gender stereotypes, especially when alcohol comes into play. Even if both parties were equally drunk and sometimes even in the presence of undeniable evidence that the sex was consensual (as with this case at Occidental College), administrators tend to hold the male half of the couple solely responsible.

That’s unfair to guys, of course, but it’s also incredibly belittling to girls, whose voices and agency get erased every time an administrator assumes that it’s a woman’s “natural” or default position not to be interested in sex. Sometimes, as with the Occidental case, girls are pressured to report as assault an incident that they would otherwise have chalked up as an unpleasant misunderstanding, or even a learning experience. And in cases where a third party has made the accusation (thanks to policies at some colleges which allow students to report assault on someone else’s behalf), administrators will sometimes ignore the victim’s own testimony in their haste to assume an accused student’s guilt—as in this case at CSUP, where a girl saw her boyfriend expelled for sexual assault despite her insistence that their relationship was consensual and her repeated requests that the investigators drop the case.

This is a different problem to the better-publicized issue of investigators (and the public in general) tending not to believe the claims of women, to prioritize the suffering of a “promising” young gentleman derailed by “bad choices,” or to conjure a fake epidemic of unfounded rape claims. The issue of whether campuses are even equipped to handle rape investigations (answer: probably not) is another layer of oh-hell-no to worry about.

In short, yes-means-yes is a good start, but it’s not the whole story when it comes to promoting good sexual communication and healthy, happy relationships. So if you’re headed to college and intend to hook up, keep the following guidelines in mind.

1. Remember that yes means yes, but no means HELL NO.

If your partner is telling you they’re not okay with something, that’s your cue to stop, back off, and talk about it—not to complain and wheedle and whine until they change their mind. (Pro tip: Whining is not sexy, ever.) And if your partner is so drunk that they’re incoherent, disoriented, immobile, or unconscious, for the love of Mike, don’t touch them.

2. Communicate, particularly when you’re unsure, uncomfortable, or unhappy.

Even in the age of affirmative consent, no-means-no is still important, and necessary; do not say “maybe” if what you mean is “no,” and remember that there’s no substitute for an unambiguous “Stop!” when you need to put on the brakes. Sex can be complicated, and misunderstandings happen, even between well-intentioned and decent people. The best solution, and best insurance against a traumatic result, is to speak up in the moment when you’re not okay with something. If you’re so uncomfy about asserting yourself that you can’t say “time out” when a hookup isn’t working for you, then do yourself (not to mention your future partners) a favor, and learn how to use your voice before you get naked with anyone.

3. Don’t get wasted.

If you’re going to drink, know your limits. Alcohol comes with its own baggage, legal and otherwise, but it’s a particular problem when injected into the already-complex territory of consent standards. Even if your college has a yes-means-yes policy in place, it’s virtually impossible (and extremely risky) to try to guess whether your partner is over the line from “buzzed but in control” to “too drunk to consent,” especially if you’re intoxicated yourself—and it’s profoundly unwise to expect your partner, especially one who doesn’t know you well enough to know how you act when you’re sober, to know when you’ve gotten too drunk for your “yes” to count.

Some of the most difficult cases that administrators face involve participants who were drunk enough to be experiencing memory loss, yet still appeared coherent and enthusiastic to their partners and fellow partygoers; in one mind-boggling case from Washington State University, a female student was found guilty of sexual assault and expelled by administrators who claimed she “should have known” her male partner was too drunk to “understand the nature or consequences of his actions,” even though he had left the room under his own power and returned with a condom before they had sex. (In an interesting twist, the evidence of her partner’s intoxication consisted entirely of statements from his friends explaining that he would never have wanted to hook up with the accused student—who was short and extremely overweight—while sober. In other words, this girl was told by her college that she should have known her partner was wasted, simply because no man in his right mind would want to have sex with her.)

And remember, too, that alcohol lowers your inhibitions, which means that the drunker you get, the more likely you are to engage in behaviors that your better judgment would ordinarily keep in check—including things that may seriously freak you out when you wake up the next morning. Sometimes, all you get is an amusing anecdote about eating an entire pepperoni pizza while dancing naked on a table with a lampshade on your head; but on other occasions, it may mean sleeping with someone you’d never hook up with while sober, or failing to recognize or respect a partner’s boundaries when you should. Even if your college has an affirmative consent policy, you are still responsible for the choices you make while drunk—whether it’s a choice to hook up with someone who you later wish you hadn’t, or a choice to violate a partner’s boundaries in a way that’s abusive or criminal. And when it comes to making sure your hookups are mutually enjoyable and respectful, no policy is a substitute for healthy communication and responsible decision-making.

Have you been through the gauntlet of campus consent education? What did you think of their policies?