The importance of consent: Let’s talk about yes, baby


Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Elise Lavallee, Contributing Editor

Almost everyone loves great sex, but we all have different opinions about what makes sex so great.

Some find pleasure with kinks, others find it in physical attractiveness or mental chemistry. But all these things, as good as they may make having sex, mean nothing without consent.

Federal law defines sexual assault and rape as any unwanted or nonconsensual sexually threatening attention, contact or penetration. As clear as this definition may be, and despite repeated campaigns to normalize consent, it is still unacceptably common for sexual violence to go unrecognized.

This is often due to the cultural context in which we have been raised — we are desensitized to behaviors that reinforce rape and sexual violence. Women are taught to view unsolicited attention or sexual advances as flattering, yet are chastised for embracing their sexuality. Men are excused for aggressive behavior with the phrase “boys will be boys.”

If we want to end rape culture, we must start by creating a culture centered on consent — and we should start right now, in college.

Twenty-one percent of women at Pitt report having experienced sexual assault or nonconsensual sexual contact, according to the most recent campus study, released fall 2015. Men in college between the ages of 18 and 24 are also five times more likely than men of the same age not in college to experience sexual assault, according to a 2016 study from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Yet less than one in every four incidents of sexual violence is reported to authorities due to victims’ feelings of embarrassment or fear.

One of the worst reinforcements of sexual aggression comes from the idea that sex is an expected part of romantic relationships. Sexual violence is so highly underreported because not only are seven out of 10 rapes committed by individuals who know their victim, 25 percent of all rape is carried out by current or former romantic partners. Even though many victims can personally identify their assaulter, they are often too fearful to do so, or they are even unaware that they are a victim. No matter how many times you’ve had consensual sex, it doesn’t mean consent can be assumed every time.

Getting consent doesn’t have to be awkward, either. You can establish where the rest of the night is going before you leave a party or bar with a potential — sober — hook-up or you can find a pause in the action later on to ask: “Are you sure you want to do this?” Respect for another person’s self-determination isn’t uncomfortable, and it’s not going to get in the way of your mojo.

Whether the situation is sexual or nonsexual, we often find ourselves saying yes to do things we might not want to. If we’re able to incorporate saying no into daily interactions, we’re going to be a lot more confident saying no when it comes to sexual encounters. If it is the person who you’re with that is making you uncomfortable in saying no, it’s likely this person does not have your best intentions in mind.

Everyone benefits from increased awareness about consent, not just women.

The 2015 Pitt campus survey reported 6.2 percent of undergraduate men had been the victims of unwanted sexual assault. And harmful prejudgments about consent make these victims even more unlikely to report their assaults than female victims.

Society places an undue pressure on men to always be willing and wanting to have sex. So when they do say no, they may feel like something is wrong with them or their masculinity.

College is a time to learn not only the ins and outs of academic subjects, but the habits of adulthood as well. Learning how to engage in sex in a communicative way that is both fulfilling and respectful of the other person’s boundaries and autonomy is something that’s important for both parties in any relationship, at any stage in life. You should never feel embarrassed to ask for consent or ashamed to revoke it — sex is not sex without consent.

Editor’s note: Education and advocacy of consent are just two components in reducing sexual violence, but not all instances of rape and sexual assault are going to be able to be prevented by consent. Rape and sexual assault are illegal, and if you feel that you may be a victim of sexual violence, there are many legal and counseling resources you can access. The Pitt Police, the University Share Office and the University Counseling Office are committed to your privacy and protection and helping any individual who has experienced sexual misconduct.

Write to Elise at [email protected].