My Rapist Might Not Know He's a Rapist

Woman crying in bed
Woman crying in bed

The Call for Uniform Affirmative Consent Policies on All College Campuses

I recently had an unpleasant surprise when a friend asked me, "How was it hooking up with ___________?"

Feeling the familiar gut punch at the name and fighting flashbacks to the worst night of my life, I replied, "Well, he raped me. So not great."

My friend was deeply apologetic for having brought it up.

They also were confused, because my rapist boasted and laughed about our encounter with friends, painting it as a fun, consensual hookup. Meanwhile, I was wrought with devastation.

There was an obvious difference in the way my rapist and I had interpreted the incident, and his response gave little indication of any remorse for the irreparable damage done that night.

A disturbing thought formed: What if he doesn't know what he's done?

Is it possible that my rapist doesn't know he's a rapist?

"Is it possible that my rapist doesn't know he's a rapist? "

A recent New York Times article shed light on a rapidly changing landscape as universities undertake more responsibility for sexual assault prevention education. One of the topics addressed was affirmative consent -- a policy that defines consent as "yes means yes."

Affirmative consent is a crucial starting point for bolstering efforts to prevent sexual violence on college campuses. I believe it's the responsibility of student leaders and college administrations across the country to adopt affirmative consent policies paired with significant discussion and mandated training on what that policy change means.

As one of the 1 in 4 women who are sexually assaulted during their college years and the Student Body Vice President at the University of Denver, I'm here to tell you: College students are simply not having safe and healthy conversations about sex and consent.

For every confusing article published on the topic, and for the multitude of disconcerting questions raised when discussing consent and sexual assault, there are hundreds of thousands of college students who are equally perplexed. But instead of analyzing them from behind a newsroom desk, college students are living and breathing these difficult questions, often while under the influence.

"Yes means yes," teaches students that you must proactively ask for and give consent. Alternatively, the outdated adage of "no means no" relies on refusal of what is already happening -- but for some, refusal is impossible, as they can be "frozen" when the brain's fear circuitry ignites extreme survival responses. Approximately 12-50 percent of rape victims experience this tonic immobility. I said no many times leading up to my own assault, but when it occurred, I was among those unable to fight back.

If I had to guess what caused my rapist's possible lack of understanding, it would be that in absence of a "yes," there was also no shouting, "no!" In fact, there was nothing but immobilization.

Without a clear guideline of what consent is, an uninformed individual may perceive this immobilization as consent.

That interpretation is unacceptable. If we rely on a resounding "no" to determine something is unwanted rather than a resounding "yes" to determine that something is wanted, we make it the job of the victim to prevent themselves from being raped, rather than the job of the partner to obtain consent.

Media about affirmative consent has raised questions abound: is affirmative consent a good idea? Do students even want or need these policies? How do we know if students benefit from definitive definitions surrounding something as complicated as sex?

I believe these quandaries prove that uniform affirmative consent policies are necessary. These questions will remain impossible to answer without giving students a clear definition.

"Without a clear guideline of what consent is, an uninformed individual may perceive this immobilization as consent."

Rather than being the end goal once we've addressed all of these confusing questions, affirmative consent could be the launching pad that helps us answer them.

On an organizing call with Vice President Joe Biden, I was inspired greatly when he said:

We will only know victory when every woman who has had a hand wrongfully laid on her doesn't ask herself, "What did I do to deserve this?" and when every person who has physically wronged a woman does not even attempt to justify their actions.

The vice president is undeniably right (and the notion applies to people of all genders and identities). And wouldn't that be easier to achieve if we started with a clear and concise consent definition at every university?

If we're going to end rape on campus, we need to start by making sure everyone knows what rape is -- and when they're committing it.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.