Could “Enthusiastic Consent” End The Campus Sexual Assault Crisis?

Sexual violence has been a major issue on college campuses for decades.

College-aged women began to organize around this issue back in the 1970s when they started speaking out about their experiences and organized events like Take Back the Night.

While it must have taken an extraordinary amount of courage for those women to speak out at that time, and their contributions to the anti-sexual assault movement cannot be underestimated, there’s unfortunately entirely too much work left to do.

Sexual assault and rape are far more common on college campuses than many realize. Women between the ages of 16 and 24—regardless of whether or not they are students— experience rape at a rate four times higher than the general assault rate of all women. But the college environment is hardly a safe-haven from sexual assault—if anything, it might be the opposite: As many as 1 in 5 women in higher educational institutions will be the victims of attempted or completed rape and yet as many as 95% of campus rapes are never reported. Furthermore, studies show that freshmen and sophomore women are at a greater risk than juniors or seniors to be assaulted.

Young women are still largely trained to believe that sexual assault or rape happens in dark alleys to girls who are “wasted” or look “slutty” by nefarious strangers. Basically, every part of that sentence is hardly true (and all kinds of messed up).

In reality, 90% of rape victims know the person who sexually assaulted them. The bottom line is, rape is rape: It has nothing to do with whether or not the two people are in a relationship, how long they’ve known each other or anything else. The act stands alone. And unfortunately, it’s an act that perpetrators often get away with—97% of rapists never serve time for their crime.

There are probably many systemic reasons why these rates are so high. Rape culture, or a culture like ours in which sexual violence is normalized, certainly contributes to this dynamic, as does victim blaming – our society’s knee-jerk reaction to doubt women who speak out about being raped and/or blame them for the horrifying, traumatic experience that was forced on them.

Survivors are commonly asked what they were wearing if they did anything to provoke their perpetrator (and worse), which is obviously a denigrating experience in and of itself.

But furthermore, considering that serial rapists commit the majority of assaults that happen within closed communities (like college campuses), every woman who feels that she will be shamed for exposing her rapist or won’t be believed at all is another potential rape to occur down the line.

The bottom line is that it’s essential to put the blame not on the person who was raped but on the rapist—where it belongs. We don’t need to teach people how to prevent rape, to police what women wear or how much they drink, but to teach rapists not to rape in the first place.

A really key part of changing the conversation surrounding rape and rape culture generally is to change the conception that people (especially women) should constantly be on guard and policing their partners by telling them “no,” to the idea that both partners should only proceed if they hear a (enthusiastic!) yes.

This is known as “enthusiastic consent” and is at the heart of any healthy approach to a sexual relationship, yet it’s not exactly something taught in sex ed across the country (or in the cultural zeitgeist generally).

There are so many benefits to promoting enthusiastic consent. It simultaneously takes the burden and blame off of women to protect themselves and police their partner and counteracts the insulting idea that men are sexually uncontrollable.

Enthusiastic consent is about partners making an agreement—it involves them both and allows everybody involved to be very clear about what they want and what they’re going to do before they do it. Focusing on a ‘yes means yes’ framework ideally changes the mindset with which both partners enter into a sexual encounter: it allows both partners to agree that you both really want to have sex with each other.

However, enthusiastic consent is hardly the single solution to this widespread issue. Sure, codifying enthusiastic consent as a standard in college’s sexual assault prevention policies – a measure both California and New York have enacted – would help address this widespread issue, as would following Title IX procedures for handling claims of sexual assault (which 91 colleges have currently failed to do).

But ultimately, the solution lies in eradicating systems of power and sexism at the heart of sexual assault. Until then, though, it’s important to speak out on behalf of and support survivors: to make very, very clear to administrations and society in general that sexual assault is not okay and that we need change now. 

Julie Zeilinger

Julie Zeilinger is the founder and editor of The FBomb (thefbomb.org), a feminist blog and community for young adults that recently partnered with the Women’s Media Center, the media organization founded by Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan. Julie has been named one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake The World”, one of the “Eight most influential bloggers under 21” by Women’s Day Magazine, one of More Magazine’s “New Feminists You Need To Know,” one of the London Time’s “40 Bloggers Who Really Count.” Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Billboard Magazine, Forbes, Jezebel and CNN amongst other publications. She is also the author of A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word (Seal Press, 2012) and College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year. Follow her on twitter (@juliezeilinger) and for more information visit www.juliezeilinger.com.

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