By Evan Walker-Wells
A key challenge in sexual assault prevention is discussing sexual consent in ways that do not subtly undermine core messages. Well-intentioned consent messaging can counteract the crucial objectives of anti-sexual violence education, inadvertently providing an “out” for aggressors and lowering the bar for sexual expectations. Effective prevention education focuses on the effectiveness of human communication and the importance of mutual enthusiasm, and connects these conversations briefly to concepts of “consent.”
How well-intentioned consent messaging can backfire
- It may imply that sexual consent topic is inherently difficult and confusing—a myth that can lead to victim-blaming and serve as an out for sexual aggressors.
- Some messaging risks framing sexual assault as a matter of miscommunication. This approach can reinforce the myth that sexual aggressors simply didn’t know the person they assaulted didn’t want to have sex. (“Hey, they didn’t say ‘no’ in actual words like the Title IX people said.”)
- Emphasizing a definition of “consent” can unintentionally convey that ethical conduct in sexual encounters and relationships can be reduced to a legal test. For example, there is risk in focusing on whether specific situations involve or don’t involve consent. This approach trains your students to think in terms of a legal baseline, rather than to recognize warning signs of disregard for their wishes, or hold out for enthusiasm from their sexual partners.
- It may come across as patronizing to students who feel confident in how they communicate about sex.
How to develop sexual consent messaging that works:
1. Start with the premise that we understand each other’s signals
In our everyday lives, we’re adept at picking up on how people respond to us. Whether we are asking a roommate to do the dishes or giving someone a gift, the vast majority of us effectively read cues that signal interest and enthusiasm (or not). In romantic and sexual situations, we use these same skills to understand a partner’s willingness to hook up. Research by Rachael O’Byrne, Melanie Beres, and others makes clear that young people already know this. (Caveat: Some people with autism spectrum conditions and related profiles do not intuitively understand nonverbal cues.)
Messaging approach: Assure your students that we are adept at subtle, nonverbal communication, and that these same skills apply in sexual situations. For example, looking away, not smiling, signals a lack of interest. Role-playing brief, nonsexual scenarios emphasizes what your students already know: They have the ability to express their desires or reservations and be easily understood—and to understand others’ desires and reservations clearly as well. This makes the essential point that, for the most part, those students who disregard others’ signals are doing so deliberately—an important warning sign for sexual misconduct.
2. Define consent as “unambiguous and voluntary”—and as a low bar
Effective messaging sets the bar for sex well above the legal baseline for consent. Establishing mutual enthusiasm as a cultural norm helps students express their desires and boundaries, and makes it harder for sexual assault and coercion to hide. In addition, it offsets the myth that sexual assault may often be “unintentional.”
Messaging approach: The goal of campus trainings on consent and sexual culture is to build students’ confidence that their sexual wants and needs can, and should, be heard and respected—and to help them see themselves as people who respect others’ desires and boundaries. This can help students recognize mutually enthusiastic consent as the standard for their own lives. It builds the community values of students watching out for each other, and caring for and respecting their partners.
Beres, MA (2014) Rethinking the concept of consent for anti-sexual violence activism and education. Feminism and Psychology, 24(3), 373–389.
Beres MA (2010) Sexual miscommunication? Untangling assumptions about sexual communication between casual sex partners. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 12(1), 1–14.
Carmody M and Ovenden G (2013) Putting ethical sex into practice: Sexual negotiation, gender and citizenship in the lives of young women and men. Journal of Youth Studies, 16(6), 792–807.
Lindgren KP, Parkhill MR, George WH, et al. (2008) Gender differences in perceptions of sexual intent: A qualitative review and integration. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(4), 423–439.
O’Byrne R, Hansen S and Rapley M (2008) ‘‘If a girl doesn’t say ‘no’. . .’’: Young men, rape and claims of ‘insufficient knowledge’. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 18(3), 168–193.
O’Byrne R, Rapley M and Hansen S (2006) ‘You Couldn’t Say ‘‘No’’, Could You?’: Young men’s understandings of sexual refusal. Feminism & Psychology, 16(2), 133–154.