Willson: Sexual consent should not be complicated

Lauren Willson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

College can be a confusing time. Choosing a major, struggling to achieve work-life balance and discovering your true identity are only a few of the issues we face.

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But whether it’s Valentine’s Day or an average Tuesday, there is one element of college life that should never be confusing: sexual consent.

Sexual consent should be easy—yes or no. But, a lack of federally universal laws muddles the subject. Many people, especially college students, do not fully understand what consent is.

In today’s climate, the haziness of consent is an issue that needs to be cleared up as soon as possible. Failure to do so may worsen current rates of sexual violence, which are significantly more prevalent on college campuses, according to a study by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Although the U.S. federal government provides broad legal definitions of sexual consent, legislation on these matters varies dramatically between states. Few universities offer guidelines on consent that align with those of other institutions. With no unifying standards, individual schools are left to establish their own policies and definitions of consent.

There is promise on the horizon. In California and New York, state-wide affirmative consent laws have been implemented. These are often referred to as, “Yes Means Yes” standards. This legislation stresses the idea that silence, uncertainty or coerced agreement are not equivalent to consent. Only a clear, coherent, voluntary indication of affirmation may be interpreted as a “yes.” This affirmation may be verbal or nonverbal.

Only a clear, coherent, voluntary indication of affirmation may be interpreted as a “yes.”

Affirmative consent is the best option for simplifying sex, both on and off campus. In order to make communication between partners effective and mutually beneficial, all states—and the universities within them—should follow the lead of California and New York.

“Yes Means Yes” guidelines establish a structure for consent that anyone can follow and understand. Yet many universities have not enacted comparable legislation. Colorado State University is one of many schools that does not have Affirmative Consent policies or standards.

An infographic listing the three elements of sexual consent: Cooperation in act or attitude, Done with one’s free will, Knowledge and understanding of what is taking place.
Colorado is one of the states leading the way in enacting firm legislation around sexual consent (Infographic by Lauren Willson)

Luckily, Colorado is already a progressive player in the matter of consent for sexual activity. In 2015, CU Boulder students pressed for statewide affirmative consent laws. Although these have not yet been enacted, the state does enforce a comprehensive, clear definition of sexual consent. The definition is based on three criteria: Cooperation in act or attitude, done with one’s free will, and knowledge and understanding of what is taking place.

The Colorado definition of consent is based on three criteria: 1) Cooperation in act or attitude, 2) done with one’s free will, and 3) knowledge and understanding of what is taking place.

Despite legal definitions and university guidelines, there can still be gray areas when it comes to sex. CSU’s Women and Gender Advocacy Center provides an excellent resource page on consent and how to navigate some of these issues. 

For example, when both partners are intoxicated, neither one is considered capable of giving consent. Any sexual activity that ensues can legally be assaultLegally, the person initiating and performing the act becomes responsible for the crime, even if both parties were under the influence.

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If a partner consents to one thing, like kissing, do not assume they are also consenting to sex. The WGAC recommends frequently checking in with your partner, asking how they are doing, and if they are okay with what is happening.

Last but not least, the existence of a previous relationship does not invite sex at a later time.

Approaching consent with common sense and mutual respect is the best way to clarify any potential gray areas.

Until affirmative consent becomes a universal federal law, it is up to state legislatures and universities to set effective policies. CSU has strong affirmative consent policies, but a startling number of institutions do not.

A study of 513 colleges and universities in the U.S. found that 60 schools have no reference to affirmative consent. Ninety-nine make reference to consent, but do not elaborate on what exactly this means or looks like. Two hundred and seventy-seven institutions have a strong consent policy, yet only 40 of the 513 enforce Affirmative Consent guidelines like those of California and New York.

To reduce the number of sexual assaults both on and off campus, it is imperative that Affirmative Consent become the rule and not the exception. Victims finally have the courage to speak out and the means to receive support, as shown by movements like #MeToo.

The logical next step is removing the confusion and miscommunication around sexual consent that leads to assault in the first place. Universities like our own are a good place to start.

Lauren Willson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @LaurenKealani