Why We Need Affirmative Consent on College Campuses

At a peer-education seminar during my freshman orientation last year, I was originally taken aback by the boldness of the merchandise worn by the group's members. "I HEART CONSENSUAL SEX" was emblazoned on buttons and t-shirts. Before this seminar, I didn't yet understand just how imperative consent is in the college social setting.

However, it quickly became clear to me that consent is a frequently visited issue in college sexual assault and misconduct cases. The state of California passed a law in September that brought attention to the concept of affirmative consent. This law defines affirmative consent as "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity."

Similarly, my university has an affirmative consent standard. Bucknell University's 2014-2015 Sexual Misconduct and Relationship Violence Policy describes that one's words or actions can convey consent, although a lack of action or silence does not.

The fact that a clear "yes means yes" along with the more popular standard of "no means no" is defined through affirmative consent is just as important as the fact that silence does not mean yes. On November 18th, CNN anchor Don Lemon, who identifies himself as a sexual abuse survivor, queried to Joan Tarshis, who has accused Bill Cosby of rape, "There are ways to not perform oral sex if you didn't want to do it." Here, Lemon implies that by not saying "no," Tarshis was, in fact, saying "yes." By the logic of affirmative consent, this is simply untrue. Silence or lack of resisting an unwanted sexual encounter out of fear or intimidation does not qualify as consent, even though there may be an absence of a definitive "no."

While Lemon has since apologized for these remarks, his comments raise more questions about how people define consent in relation to actual laws and policies. Tyler Kingkade's Huffington Post article on November 21st also references the trouble with defining sexual consent on college campuses. In the recently released trailer of "Pitch Perfect 2," Rebel Wilson's and Adam DeVine's characters joke about consenting to a future sexual encounter. Wilson's character says "no," followed by a wink, implying that "yes" and "no" responses do not bear any real weight.

In recent years, after summits, campus climate panels, and reviews, colleges and universities have started to adopt affirmative consent policies to combat the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses today. It is fair to say that virtually all college students are aware of sexual consent from a "no means no" perspective. However, understanding the importance of obtaining definitive consent is necessary, especially within the social cultures of college campuses, many of which revolve around an alcohol-fueled hookup culture.