The complexities of sexual consent

Larisa Manescu

Voices against Violence, a program of the University’s Counseling and Mental Health Center, performed a series of skits called “Get Sexy, Get Consent” on Monday to illustrate the various complications of genuine sexual consent.

No should always mean no, right? This is undeniably true. Any activity that is clearly unwanted is wrong, no matter the perception given by scandalous dress or behavior. Movements such as “SlutWalk” strive to diminish the existing misconception that victims of sexual abuse and assault bring their situations on themselves and are partially responsible for their victimization. SlutWalk Austin’s mission statement is to “condemn a victim-blaming culture,” which often makes the victim hesitant to report rape or any type of nonconsensual sexual activity because of feelings of shame and guilt.

Unfortunately, the legal ordeal can be frustrating, disheartening and painful for victims of rape and sexual assault who know what occurred to them and wish their predators could immediately be punished for their actions. The process itself can and often does discourage victims from reporting rape to the police. In an article featuring SlutWalk Austin, Guli Fager, health education coordinator at UT’s Health Promotion Resource Center, told The Daily Texan that UT police officers take sexual assault very seriously and would never blame victims. However, the legal process of assigning blame can seem convoluted and arbitrary.

This problem is especially salient when a definite “no” is not uttered. Sexual consent seems like a straightforward, explicit agreement between two partners: both parties verbally express their willingness to engage in sexual activity, and it proceeds without reservations. However, it becomes more complicated in a college atmosphere where drugs, alcohol and perceived pressures to engage in sexual activity dominate students’ social lives, affecting and distorting their decisions. It is difficult to draw clear lines in cases involving judgment-impairing activities. A person may consent while intoxicated to actions they would not while sober.

The most appropriate, rational manner to approach such situations in order to avoid a misinterpretation of desires is for both parties to request an authentic affirmative answer to the question of whether they should engage in sexual activity and not just assume consent based on body language. As the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network website explains, “Social norms put pressure on many of us to be polite and passive. Relying on these norms, many victims of such assaults may suppress feelings of fear and discomfort in an attempt not to offend.”

When the mental states of the parties involved are distorted, taking a preemptive approach is imperative. Asking questions such as “Are you positive you want to continue?” “Is this the right decision?” or “Will you regret this or feel uncomfortable in the morning?” would assure that the act is desired at the time. If one party is physically unable to consent because of his or her intoxicated or drugged state, the other person should take the lack of affirmation as a “no.”

The creator of Voices against Violence, Lynn Hoare, explained to The Daily Texan the need for further analysis of sexual consent: “Students often come to college without any opportunity to have honest conversations about sex, and this gives them a chance to talk about it honestly and hear other people talk about it honestly in a low-stake environment without actually being in the moment.” The Get Sexy, Get Consent program, which is especially important given that spring break begins tomorrow, addresses the complexities of sexual consent and exposes the gray areas in which nonconsensual activity is not always violent, forceful rape.

Manescu is a journalism and international relations freshman.