Student organizations define what affirmative consent is, and give advice on how students can protect themselves in relationships.
By James Molnar
In the modern age, the rules governing how college students should relate to each other sexually have become increasingly blurred and confused. As we move further away from the more traditional notions of abstinence and purity, a new structure of sexual morality has been constructed. Despite its prominent role in college guidelines and legal policy, the concept of “affirmative consent” remains abstruse to many students. In this article, we will discover precisely what affirmative consent is.
The philosophy of affirmative consent is a moral theory which requires that any sexual act must be preceded by explicit, enthusiastic, and continuous verbal consent from both parties involved. Representatives for the Coalition on Abuse and Rape (SCAAR) and Peer Advocates for Wellness (PAW), student groups at Saint Mary’s, make use of the acronym FRIES to specify the tenets of affirmative consent. This stands for Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific.
“Freely given” means that there cannot be any form of manipulation or coercion present. For instance, if one partner manages to persuade the other to engage in a sexual act with phrases such as “if you really loved me, you’d do this,” this would not constitute freely given consent. Furthermore, as it is reversible, consenting initially to a practice does not constitute an inexorable commitment. Rather, it may be withdrawn at any point.
“Informed” entails that someone must be cognizant of what they are consenting to. “Enthusiasm” is slightly more subjective, but generally describes an eager attitude toward the activity that is consented to. If someone were to ask for consent, and their partner nodded in a woebegone manner and muttered a morose “yes,” this would not be enthusiastic consent. “Specificity” means that the boundaries of what is agreed upon are clearly delineated. For example, someone might agree to participate in a particular sexual act at a specified time. This would not imply consent to any further act, nor indeed the same act at a later date.
This conception of consent is closely linked to the idea of a rape culture. A rape culture is one in which sexual assault is normalized or even promoted by its members. As Sam Newman, a leader of SCAAR asserts, “I definitely do think it's true that we live in a rape culture and Saint Mary's is part of that.” In light of this, the form of consent which is in common practice, which is often nonverbal and more implicit, would appear insufficient. The antidote to this purported rape culture and accompanying epidemic of sexual assault would, in this view, be to concretize our idea of consent so as to make it completely unambiguous.
The problem of sexual assault is compounded by the widespread hookup culture which is prevalent on many college campuses. As Sofia Kakleas, a leader of the Peer Advocates for Wellness, points out, “hook up cultures, a lot of the times, happen in parties and environments like that that are not exactly the most safe situations.”
Though Kakleas and her colleagues are clear that they did not consider there to be any inherent problem with hookup culture in general, there are certainly problems that can be associated with it. Chief among these is the widespread use of alcohol and illicit substances. The PAW representatives point out that consent cannot be given when such substances have been consumed.
Consent is particularly important as we move into the current age of lockdown and digital communication. Not only is sexual abuse on the rise in people’s homes, as they are confined there for most of the day, there is, as Kakleas points out, also a widespread problem of sexual harassment in the digital sphere. This largely consists of people sending unsolicited sexual content, such as nude photographs and inappropriate texts. She stresses that consent is vitally important online as well and that one must ask specifically before sending any such sexual material.
In summary, affirmative consent is the practice of agreeing to sexual or romantic activity through explicit and verbal means.
If you would like to learn more about affirmative consent, you can visit the websites of the two student groups interviewed for this article:
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Ryan Ford '23,