By Chamonix Adams Porter

Sometimes, people dismiss “affirmative consent” as a series of awkward verbal questions: “May I put my hand on your leg? What about on your thigh?” But this isn’t realistic to how people actually communicate.

In everyday life, we’re skilled at picking up on subtle verbal and nonverbal signals of agreement and refusal. For example, when we ask someone for a favor, it’s easy to tell whether they are agreeing or refusing. If the signals are mixed or confusing—that is, if the situation is ambiguous—it’s easy to spot that as well.

Agreements look like…

Verbal signs

  • Brief, direct answers, such as “Sure!”
  • Concrete planning (e.g., “I’d love to! When?”)

Body language

  • Direct eye contact
  • A step toward you
  • Nodding and smiling
  • Initiating action

Disagreements look like…

Verbal signs

  • Long, indirect answers with pauses, such as “Oh, I’d love to…but I actually have to finish a paper…”

Body language

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Looking closed off
  • Leaning away

Research shows we use the same everyday signals—both verbal and nonverbal—to communicate interest in sexual situations as we do in everyday life. For example, study participants reported easily being able to understand their partner’s subtle, nonverbal forms of agreement and refusal during casual sexual encounters, according to a 2010 study of 21 young adults published in Culture, Health, and Sexuality. They also described interpreting these cues in the same way they would interpret agreement and refusal in nonsexual social encounters.

By drawing students’ attention to their ability to interpret signals of agreement and refusal, we can demonstrate that consent is straightforward.

Moving beyond consent to enthusiasm

While consent is a critical baseline, we can encourage our students to aspire for more. All their interactions need to be consensual, but they should also be engaged, wanted, and enthusiastic. Building communities in which sexual respect is the norm may reduce the risk of sexual violence by making manipulation and disrespect stand out more clearly. And, of course, a positive sexual and social culture will lead to better outcomes for everyone.

Foster a culture of enthusiastic consent by providing opportunities for communication and reflection

When speaking with students about sexual consent, emphasize the importance of genuine conversations about desire. You can help make these conversations more likely by giving students opportunities to think about and articulate what they want, both sexually and socially.

Collage of three romantic couples

Give students time and space to reflect on what they want at social gatherings

  • At dances or campus-sponsored parties, try setting up quiet, well-lit areas with comfortable chairs. With very little prompting, students will come to these areas to take a break from the dance floor and catch up with their dates or friends.
  • Before large campus events, try setting up bulletin boards where students can share one thing that they’re looking forward to about the event. This gives students a chance to reflect on their desires and reminds them that there are many ways to be social.
  • Whenever possible, emphasize that students make different choices about intimacy, sex, and romance. Consider creating avenues for upperclassmen to share stories about how they’ve navigated social life at college (e.g., in the school newspaper or via a student panel) to demonstrate the diversity of their choices to younger students.

Help students reflect on their desires

We can help students reach enthusiastic encounters by prompting them to think about what they want from intimacy, romance, sex, and love. While some of these questions are deeply personal, much of this reflection happens in a community setting. Try building questions about intimacy into moments where students reflect on their values, such as during first-year seminars, group meetings, or leadership trainings.

Encourage questions, such as:

  • What am I looking for from sex and romance? How has that changed over time?
  • What are my core values about how I treat other people? How can I live those out?
  • What kind of values do we, as a community, hold about sexuality? How can we create a campus where everyone feels respected and supported in their choices?

Some of these questions are best answered privately, but even in a group setting, you can use writing exercises to enable internal reflection. In an appropriate setting, these questions can also be good starting points for group discussion.