Consent and Sexual Assault on Campus

A College Student's Guide to Understanding and Communicating Permission

With sexual assaults on college campuses making more and more headlines and the #MeToo movement, the definitions and understanding of consent and sexual assault have been at the forefront of public discussion recently, particularly on college campuses where the mix of social events and alcohol can further complicate matters. The reality is that despite knowing the legal definition of consent, many students do not fully understand how to practice consensual behavior on campus.

This guide offers information and resources to help college students better understand consent and how to ask for and give it. Find out what consent is, what it looks like, and what to do if it isn’t granted and a sexual assault occurs.

What is Consent?

Consent is a clearly communicated agreement to participate in any intimate or sexual activity. It is never assumed by appearance, body language, previous behavior, silence, or incapacitation and must be given for activities such as sexting, touching, sex, and any other type of sexualized interaction.

Today, the old school understanding of consent, “no means no,” is no longer enough and has been replaced with “yes means yes,” which is the idea that sexual participants must receive a clear “yes” for each sexual act and/or escalation. In other words, a person must actually ask for permission and not assume they have permission simply because they did not hear “no” or “stop.” Additionally, consent must be the following:

Voluntary

Consent can be initiated by anyone and must be given without threat, force, manipulation, or intimidation. If someone says yes to sex out of fear of the consequences if they refuse, there is no consent.

Unambiguous

There should be no confusion as to whether or not someone has given consent to a sexual activity or escalation. It must be a clear affirmative act -- if someone says “yes,” “that sounds great,” or nods their head yes, they are giving unambiguous consent.

Mutual

Participation in sexual activity must be mutual. If one person does not agree to it, there is no consent.

Coherent and informed

Participants must be coherent and capable of granting their consent. If someone is not fully coherent due to alcohol or drunks, or if they are asleep or not fully awake, they’re incapable of granting consent. Additionally, participants must understanding everything that is going on. For example, if consent is given after someone says they’ll use a condom and a condom is not used, that is not consent.

Reversible

Consent is not set in stone -- if someone initially gave their consent for a sexual activity but started to feel uncomfortable or simply changed their mind, they have the right to say “stop” or “I no longer want this.”

Ongoing and specific

Saying yes once doesn’t mean it’s a yes for everything -- consent must be given for specific activities and must be continual. If someone gave their consent to kissing and the other person wanted to escalate things, permission must be granted before sexual activities advance.

Must be given, regardless of relationship status

Mutual consent must always be granted, regardless of whether participants are strangers or have been married for many years. A girlfriend cannot just assume she can have sexual intercourse with her boyfriend -- even though they are in a relationship, consent must still be given.

What Does Consent Sound and Look Like?

Below are some examples of what consent sounds and looks like to help students better understand when permission has been given without any pressure.

  • Continuous communication at every step, from the very beginning
  • Respectfully stopping and checking in if/when someone is unsure or changes their mind after giving consent
  • Saying “I feel really good about this”
  • Saying “I want to do this right now; what about you?”
  • Saying “That feels good”

What Consent Does NOT Sound Like

For various reasons, sometimes participants give unclear responses when asked for consent. These responses may sound like a yes -- or close to a yes -- but that’s not enough. If the other person says or does any of the following or similar, consent has not been granted (as mentioned before, consent must be unambiguous).

Not consent
  • “I want to, but…”
  • “I guess we could”
  • “If you want to”
  • “I’m not sure”
  • “I don’t know”
  • “Maybe we should slow down”
  • Silence or any form of hesitation, even if the other person’s physiological response may seem like they’re into it

How Do I Ask for Consent?

Asking for and giving consent may seem foreign or weird to some students, especially for those who aren’t comfortable or don’t have much experience talking about intimacy, touching, and sex. But contrary to popular belief, asking for consent does not have to be awkward, uncomfortable, or kill a mood. Openly discussing wants and boundaries is an important part of a healthy relationship.

Consent can be asked for by anyone involved before things are taken to the next level. Here are several examples of how to ask for consent or start a dialogue about it.

Asking for consent
  • “Can I kiss you?”
  • “Do you want to have sex?”
  • “I really want to kiss you right now. Is that okay?”
  • “Would it be okay if I…?”
  • “What are you comfortable with doing?”
  • “Can I take your shirt off?”
  • “Do you like it when I sext you?”
  • “Are you comfortable with this?”
  • “What do you want to do?”
  • “Do you like it when I…?”

Understanding Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal cues can be ambiguous, but oftentimes students use them when participating in sexual acts. Sometimes it’s because they’re just in the moment or it could be because they aren’t used to saying, “yes, I want to do this.” Whatever the reason, it’s still important that consent is explicitly asked for and given. In addition, if someone gives a nonverbal cue that suggests they do not consent to something, it’s essential to stop and check in with them.

Here are several examples of nonverbal cues that indicate a person does not give consent and sexual activities should stop.

Not consent
  • Silence
  • Pulling or pushing away
  • No physical movement or response
  • Shaking head “no”
  • Crying
  • Looking sad, scared and/or in pain
  • Looking as if they’ve “given in” or are checked out
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Avoiding touch
  • Behaviors that stop sexual activities from escalating such as checking their phone or getting up

What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual contact or behavior that happens without consent is known as sexual assault. It can take different forms and can happen to anyone, not just women. According to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, more than 11 percent of students are raped or sexually assaulted while in college.

Below is an overview of the most common types of sexual assault on college campuses:

Sexual assault

Sexual assault is an umbrella term that describes any form of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without freely given consent of the recipient.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwanted and inappropriate sexual attention, remarks or advances from an individual or group and can be verbal, digital and/or physical. Men and women can both be offenders and survivors of sexual harassment, which can occur in class, within college organizations, or at social events.

Stalking

Stalking is repeated and unwanted attention, contact, or harassment, particularly when it causes an individual to feel unsafe or fearful. It can occur with or without a person’s knowledge. Some common examples of stalking include following a person, watching from a distance, waiting for someone at a certain location, or contacting a person’s family and friends without permission. Stalking can go hand in hand with harassment, especially when done via repeated phone calls, social media messages, texts, and unwanted gifts.

Coercion

Coercion is any type of pressure or persuasion used to force an individual to give consent. This often includes behavior such as threats or blackmail, but can also be less aggressive or obvious such as making the other person feel bad for refusing or saying no.

Rape

Rape is any form of sexual penetration without complete and freely given consent. While rape is a form of sexual assault, not all sexual assaults are considered rape. In addition, while rape can be committed by a stranger, it is important to note that it can happen anywhere and can be done by anyone, even an individual that the survivor knows.

Even though RAINN found that 1 out of every 6 American women has been a survivor of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, men can also be survivors -- about 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape, according to RAINN.

Diminished capacity rape

Diminished capacity rape occurs when one person forces sexual penetration on another person who is unable to adequately evaluate what’s happening and, therefore, cannot give their proper consent. A person may have diminished capacity if they have behavioral or intellectual challenges or if they are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

Acquaintance rape

Also known as “date rape,” acquaintance rape can occur in the early stages of a new relationship or with a classmate or someone the student knows as an acquaintance. It is important to note that even if these individuals were in a prior relationship, consent can be revoked at any time, which means rape can also happen any time. According to RAINN, 39 percent of rapes are committed by an acquaintance.

Partner rape

Partner rape, sometimes referred to as “marital rape,” is a type of rape that happens with a partner, current spouse, or former partner or spouse. This type of sexual assault can be further categorized into three types:

  • Battering rape: A combination of physical and sexual violence against a partner
  • Obsessive/sadistic rape: Rape that involves violent behavior with the intention of inflicting harm
  • Force-only rape: The act of imposing power and control over the other individual and acting as if sex is an entitlement

What to Do If You’ve Been Sexually Assaulted

All sexual violence is punishable under federal, state, and local laws. In some cases, survivors may fear reporting the crime for a number of personal reasons. Keep in mind, however, that reporting a sexual assault does not mean the survivor must press charges. But failing to report the violence and pursue legal action has its own consequences, including the assailant potentially continuing to assault other individuals. Survivors that report crimes may be eligible to receive financial support for medical treatment and counseling under the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). There are also state compensation programs, but these often require that the crime be reported within 72 hours. Many college psychologists argue that reporting and pressing charges is a step towards regaining personal power and healing. Still, choosing to press charges is an individual choice.

In the short hours after an assault, whether a person wants to press charges or not, survivors should do all they can to preserve physical evidence for law enforcement. But before any of that happens, they need to ensure their immediate safety and physical/emotional well-being. Below are some basic tips on what to do after a sexual assault:

Find a safe and secure location

Following a sexual assault, the survivor should to go to a safe, secure location. Examples may include the campus police department, a hospital, their dormitory, or a trusted friend’s dormitory or apartment.

Seek medical attention immediately

After an assault, it is extremely important to receive a medical exam -- even if there are no visible wounds -- to test for STIs, pregnancy, or other health-related concerns. Survivors can call the police, 911, or the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline (NSAT) at 800-656-HOPE (4673). Counselors can offer immediate emotional support, including talking survivors through what happened and offering free confidential guidance. Students can receive care from local medical facilities recommended by NSAT hotline counselors or visit their campus health center or local hospital. Emergency rooms will treat rape survivors without collecting evidence at the student’s request. Survivors who intend to report the rape and press charges should avoid bathing or showering until after they receive care and evidence has been collected.

Get support from family, friends, and/or counselors

Survivors often report insomnia, headaches, panic attacks, and sometimes shame following a sexual assault. Talking to others can be a form of healing, but some students may need more than crisis counseling to work through their experiences. Campus counseling centers, college health centers, and community counseling organizations can be instrumental in supporting a student through the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault.

Talk to a legal professional or administrator and consider legal action

In most cases, survivors can choose to submit a formal report and press charges through the police or they can pursue disciplinary action through their college or university. In this case, survivors should talk to a legal professional or college administrator to learn about the process and their options.

Sexual Assault Resources

  • 1in6: Founded in 2007, 1in6 is dedicated to helping men who have had abusive or unwanted sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives. 1in6 offers a variety of resources such as a 24/7 online helpline, weekly online support groups, and a collection of male survivor stories.
  • Culture of Respect: Culture of Respect was founded in 2013 by parents of college students who were alarmed at the high prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. The organization offers programs and tools to guide colleges on how to prevent sexual assault and communicate that it’s unacceptable.
  • Male Survivor: For over 20 years, MaleSurvivor has helped men who are survivors of sexual assault make progress on their healing journey. MaleSurvivor hosts a number of healing events throughout the year and has a trained team of volunteers to answer any questions about trauma and healing.
  • NAESV (National Alliance to End Sexual Violence): NAESV’s mission is to provide a voice in Washington for state coalitions and local programs advocating and organizing against sexual violence and for survivors. The organization collects donations so that it can perform advocacy work and sends out monthly newsletters to anyone interested in its efforts.
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network): Known as the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the nation, RAINN focuses on helping survivors, educating the public, and improving public policy. It’s support specialists are available to give advice, provide information, or make referrals over the phone or via online chat.
  • SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape): SAFER encourages students to combat sexual violence on college campuses. The organization provides them with the resources and knowledge necessary to reform sexual assault policies and reduce the number of assaults that occur.
  • Stalking Resource Center: Stalking Resource Center strives to help those who are or have been victims of stalking. It offers a Victim Connect Helpline that provides information and referrals as well as educational resources on what to do during stalking situations.
  • VRLC (Victim Rights Law Center): VRLC focuses on legally representing victims of sexual assault and rape so they can rebuild their lives. Its services are free of charge and help ensure survivors continue their education and protect their mental health.
  • Clery Center: Clery Center was started by a family who lost their college aged daughter in a rape and murder crime. It guides colleges on how to implement effective safety measures on campus and prevent the type of violence that took their daughter away from them.
  • NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance): NOVA is considered the leading advocacy organization for crime victim advocates in the nation. The organization connects victims with services and promotes public safety initiatives that protect crime rights.

Expert Answers for FAQs

Jill Patterson Title IX Coordinator at Missouri State University

Consent on college campuses can sometimes be complex. To help clarify matters, , attorney and Title IX Coordinator at Missouri State University, answers the following frequently asked questions about consent and sexual assault.

Who commits sexual assault?

Anyone can commit sexual assault. They can be a man, woman, heterosexual, homosexual, young, and/or old. Historically, however, the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence have been men.

What if both people are drunk when they have sex, is that sexual assault?

While consent must be coherent, not all drunk sex is considered sexual assault, which understandably complicates things. There are several factors to consider. Whether or not a couple knew one another and had a consensual sexual relationship, the degree of drunkness involved, and the specific facts of the case will determine whether drunk sex is sexual assault.

What if someone is drunk but still gives verbal consent, is that sexual assault?

Maybe. This depends on the degree of drunkness involved, whether or not there was trickery or deceit, if the perpetrator knew the alleged victim was drunk, and a number of other factors. If a student is ever unsure, it’s best to stop.

If someone is flirting with me, doesn’t that mean they’re giving consent?

Absolutely not. Flirting behaviors such as smiling, giggling, winking, and complimenting do not mean that someone is automatically giving consent for sexual behavior.

Is regretted sex the same as sexual assault?

No. Regretted sex occurs when two people consent to sexual activity but one or both of them feel guilty or experience regret afterwards. In contrast, sexual assault is when one person proceeds with sexual behavior without another person’s consent.

I didn’t report a sexual assault immediately after it happened. Is it too late to report it now?

It’s common not to report sexual assault right after it happened. If you experienced sexual assault, it’s never too late to report it. Even if the incident happened days, weeks, months, or years ago. Reporting it can provide you with valuable support and resources.

What can I do if someone I know has been sexually assaulted?

Be a good listener and offer to go with them to seek support. Tell them that everything will be okay and let them know you believe in them.

What do I do if someone I know has sexually assaulted someone else?

Inform the Title IX Coordinator at your college or university and ask for assistance.

What can I do to help prevent sexual assault?

Communicate with your friends and agree to look out for one another. Let your friends know if you plan on leaving with someone, where you’re going, and when you’ll return. Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right to you, leave and go to a safe place right away.