8 Things You Should Know About Consent on College Campuses
A 2017 article written by Sarah Marcantonio, then a student at Emerson University in Boston

Consent (noun): Permission, approval or agreement.

Here’s my definition of sexual consent: two (or more) people actively, explicitly and consciously agreeing to have sexual interactions throughout those interactions, with no party having any reservations at any point. I was taught, both in high school in New Jersey and here at Emerson College, that “Only yes means yes,” so a lack of “No” cannot be taken as consent.

Fortunately, more and more people my age share this understanding of the concept of consent, thanks to recent media coverage of the epidemic of college sexual assault and various efforts to stop it:

  • The 2015 Association of American Universities (AAU) Report, which found that 21.2 percent of seniors from 27 colleges were victims of nonconsensual sexual contact (sexual touching and/or penetration) from either physical force, threat of physical force, incapacitation, coercion, or absence of affirmative consent. For just women, the number was 33.1 percent.
  • NotAlone.gov, President Obama’s first White House task force on college sexual assault launched in January 2014, which released it’s first report in April of 2014 on best practices for students and administrators to protect students from sexual assault
  • Know Your IX, a survivor- and youth-led organization founded in 2013 that “aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools”
  • The Monument Quilt, a “public healing space by and for survivors of rape and abuse,” which collects stories from survivors to demonstrate how sexual violence occurs to many different people in many different ways
  • The Hunting Ground, the award-winning 2015 documentary on rape culture on campuses, which included the Oscar-nominated song by Lady Gaga, “Til It Happens to You”
  • ItsOnUs.org, a campaign aimed at engaging college students and all members of campus communities in preventing sexual assault in the first place, with an emphasis on male bystander responsibility
  • “What If Bears Killed 1 in 5 People,” the viral PSA made by Funny or Die in conjunction with It’s On Us, illustrating how widespread sexual assault is not something you should sit by and idly watch happen

Some have taken issue with the “1 in 5” stat often used, siting the infamous Rolling Stone article on an alleged campus gang rape that was based on false allegations, or the fact that the AAU study might have suffered a non-reporting bias (i.e. people who haven’t been assaulted might be less likely to fill out this kind of survey), or that the study’s authors emphasize that this is not necessarily nationally representative, or that acts simply without affirmative consent were included. But if you only account for nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation — what some might consider “legitimate rape” — the number is still a scary 11.7 percent.

Whether it’s 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 or 1 in 50, it’s too many, especially at institutions of higher learning where students are supposed to be becoming better citizens. Talk to any woman or gender non-conforming person about consent on college campuses, and there’s no denying that sexual assault — from unwanted sexual touching over clothes to oral, anal or vaginal rape — happens in mystifying numbers, both on and off campus grounds, and in any case of sexual offense, the perpetrator needs to be rightly punished.

In an effort to get a sense of how well – or not – American colleges are currently dealing with the issue of consent on college campuses, I conducted an informal online survey with the help of a survey maker tool. One of my friends had suggested that I might find survey tools on sites like Qualtrics. There were 46 friends and friends of friends from at least 19 colleges* across the nation (5 responders did not list their schools). Here are my conclusions:

1. Most young adults are learning about consensual sex during first year orientation for college.

In 2010, the U.S. government reported that over 40% of teens in the United States are having sex. But most teens don’t start learning about consent until years after they are first taught about sex, indeed years after they first have sex. For most, it’s not until college orientation when the concept arises concretely. While consent education does fortunately happen in some high schools, several college students said there was no “full explanation” until college and the previous definitions given were “wishy-washy.” Instead, what is needed for students and young adults is a clear outlining to the various questions they could have, for example, they might ask “what is the legal sex age?” but that question in itself doesn’t go deep enough, do they mean in their state of residence, a different state or a different country altogether? This can be important because sexual consent laws change drastically depending on the location.

2. Sex-related orientation programs and sections of student handbooks are the rule now.

Though they vary from school to school, almost all colleges include a section of the student handbook dedicated to sexual misconduct, Title IX policies, definitions of sexual assault and harassment, and some information on what punishments might be for misconduct. Consent, assault, and harassment are discussed during most, but not all, first year orientations in some format – some have a quick assembly featuring a speaker from outside the college while some have an entire department devoted to these cases.

3. Religious institutions are generally not great on consent.

Religiousinstitutions, which usually advocate for abstinence until marriage, don’t often tackle rape and assault, which exposes their misconceptions that young people don’t have sex, the devout are incapable of rape, and wishing for something makes it so. “There wasn’t much [on consent] because we were taught to be abstinent until marriage,” said one Brigham Young University student in Utah. The student handbook of Loyola University Maryland, a private Catholic university, includes the line “if you believe [our emphasis] that you have been the victim of sexual misconduct…,” suggesting that though you might think you’ve been assaulted, authorities higher up might be able to set you straight in their infinite wisdom. (I myself have heard of students at non-religious schools reporting rapes and sexual assaults and being told by higher ups that either they may not be remembering it correctly or there was not enough evidence to press charges.)

But there are exceptions to the rule, happily: While Belmont University in Nashville promotes abstinence until marriage and a strict no-sex-on-campus and no-abortions policy without offering any info on STD protection or birth control, one student said they did present a program on consent and sexual assault during her first year orientation in which they showed the clean version of this viral video comparing sex with tea.

4. Some colleges and universities without religious affiliations STILL aren’t discussing consent!

While the vast majority of colleges are having open conversations about sex, consent, rape, and assault, there are still universities that are ignoring the problem. Students from four of the nineteen schools represented in my informal survey said they did not receive education about consent or sexual assault during college orientation (though they all have policies on sexual assault outlined in their respective handbooks, but really, how many students are reading those cover to cover?).

5. Peers teach each other about consent, sex, and assault.

For many, peers are where students’ information originally comes from — and continues to come from. Many new students learn about consent from their Resident Assistants, Orientation Leaders, or other Student Leaders. While many administrations at schools aren’t doing the best job of educating about consent, students are working hard to battle this ongoing problem on their own. A fellow Emerson College student said that in addition to the basics covered during orientation, they learned about “rape culture and consent from articles written by students or Facebook posts written by friends.”

6. The emphasis in education is still self-defense – not consent or respecting every partner.

Govenor John Kasich reflected a common approach to sex ed when, during his 2016 presidential campaign, he responded to a female student concerned about”sexual violence, harassment and rape” by saying she should not “go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol.” Two Emerson College students said that the norm is to discuss assault in a “preventative manner” and there is too much “emphasis on teaching women to defend themselves,” rather than teaching men not to date rape…and not to let their friends date rape.

7. Students want more education from their schools about consent on college campuses.

Even universities that offer programs and safe spaces to discuss consent, sex, and rape are not doing enough, according to their students. Many students suggest a semester-long course on the concepts of consent, safer sex, etc., when students begin college. Others just want more information given during college orientation and safe spaces for students to discuss and ask questions without judgment or pressure.

Schools could take a tip from others that are leading the way, like Elon University and Saint Mary’s University (which require a mandatory online sexual assault awareness course), and Stanford and UC Berkeley (which require a pre-orientation online program). According to the Time Magazine expose on the University of Montana, which was under federal investigation along with city police and county attorney in 2012 for the 80 rapes reported in just 3 years, Missoula “launched a cutting-edge bystander-awareness program” designed to help “students come up with realistic strategies to intervene in sexual assaults before they happen.” As the author suggested, these types of programs should be mandated through legislation or executive order in order to get compliance from resistant colleges afraid of tarnishing their reputations.

8. The LGBTQ+ community and male victims are often left out.

The conversations around consent usually deal with heterosexual couples exclusively, even though the AAU study revealed that 8.6 percent of male seniors and 39.1 percent — that’s more than 1 in 3! — of “TGQN” (those who identified as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, questioning, or as something not listed) who took the survey said they had experienced some kind of completed unwanted sexual contact. A Rider University student said that “a lot of what we learn is gender-biased, and while I do understand that sexual assault is more likely to happen to women, I am saddened by the fact that there is less support for male victims.” A Villanova student suggested including discussion of the “threats for LGBTQ+ individuals” in sex education.

*The colleges represented were Emerson College, Belmont University, Rutgers University, Rider University, Brandeis, University of Rhode Island, Cooper Union, Marist College, University of Michigan, Bridgewater State University, University of Delaware, SUNY Purchase, Boston College, Tufts University, Brigham Young University, Villanova, Elon University, Western Connecticut State, and University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Want a perfect example of rape culture?
How to Define “Classic Rape”


  1. As a college student – this certainly speaks to me and my experience, as well as the issues I see with consent on college campus. I also think it begs the question of whether we should be having this conversation early. Personally, I think the same conversations should be had at a high-school level – high school students have sex and equally, sexual assault is prevalent in high schools. Would be interested in the research about the extent that this conversation happens in high schools…

  2. I don’t believe there is consent, its a stupid man who feels he has consent even though he has asked or she intiated sex. All he can do is wait for the police for the rest of his life to arrest him then go to jail. Any sex at all is rape, so men are incredibly naive to think any sexual activity is consensual. Many women just plain hate men and this is a sure fire way to ruin any man’s life. As a man, you should avoid any sex at all while in college and be damn sure to get written consent after college but this probably won’t help. Women are so liberated, they feel men are just sexual pigs and no longer see any point to even having a guy around. Masturbation is far safer though at some point this will be taken from men too. The best idea is to take saltpeter and kill your sex drive. Women no longer need or want men in their lives.

  3. “While some take issue with the “1 in 5” stat often used…”

    Right here.

    1. A little more than 150,000 took the survey. That’s 31,815 people from just 27 colleges who were sexually assaulted. That’s too many! Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water: Just because some people will erroneously say that “1 in 5 American women will be raped,” that doesn’t mean this study’s findings aren’t alarming and don’t reflect a serious problem in this country.

      1. Like the author said, any sexual assault is a serious problem; I just find that stat dubious.

        Their definition of “assault” is highly fraught if you ask me. I did a little more reading in to this. Booze counts according to the one-in-fivers. If drunken college hook-ups are assault, then I am both a sexual assaulter and a sexual assault victim. Several times over! So many college kids drunkenly hook up that the one-in-five stat becomes preposterously low – if booze negates all agency, then it’s probably more like 4/5.

        Also, as the author points out, acts minus affirmative consent make the list; so, if a girl gave me a BJ without asking, and I didn’t explicitly say, “you may give me a bj,” THAT counts.

        That’s two examples of things that COULD constitute assault SOMETIMES, but usually don’t.

        The survey also counts stalking. Nope! Stalking, while creepy and threatening, is NOT assault. Following someone around isn’t attacking them. I’m not suggesting it’s ok, and I certainly acknowledge that a stalker can become an assaulter, but until he crosses that line, stalkings don’t belong on the same list as assaults.

        Sexual harassment also makes the list – so women who got catcalled on campus are grouped in with women who were forced to have sex against their will? Again, nope. Inappropriate and annoying, but not assault.

        Finally – and this leads me to a serious question – there’s the VAST discrepancy between college assault stats and law enforcement assault stats.

        My answer is, “prosecute your assaulter.” That’s every man’s answer. It’s plain as day to us. Yet women – particularly feminists – hit the roof when you suggest this, sometimes going as far as suggesting it’s rape apologia. My question: why is this suggestion, which is so glaringly simple to men, so very offensive to women and feminists in particular?

        1. Unreported rapes and assaults are a huge problem. While the solution may seem simple, a lot of women do not feel safe reporting their assaults. According to Rainn.org (link: https://rainn.org/get-info/legal-information/working-with-the-criminal-justice-system) “Out of every 100 instances of rape, only 7 lead to an arrest and only 3 are referred to prosecutors.” Unfortunately, a lot of survivors do not feel safe reporting their assaults because so few of the cases go to trial, and those that do don’t always lead to prosecution. While it’s definitely true that statistics aren’t full-proof, I think we can all agree that assaults happen way too frequently, and there are a lot of reasons that survivors don’t feel safe reporting. Taking the stand as the only witness of your own assault can be extremely traumatic and detrimental to the survivor’s healing. Since survivors know that these percentages are SO dramatically low, survivors often avoid reporting because of fear of harassment from the assaulter or isolation from their community due to the assault and the report.
          In terms of what defines assault, there are a lot of varying opinions, which is part of the reason that so many assaults go unreported. Harassment and assault are two separate problems but in terms of assault, any form of sexual activity that makes one party uncomfortable or unsafe is wrong. While the numbers can be argued against, the problem is still something that everyone has to work on understanding, because if someone hasn’t given or can’t give consent for any kind of sexual activity — be it creepy attention or penetration — it shouldn’t be happening.

          1. Thanks for the reply, but this still doesn’t make sense to me for a bunch of reasons.

            1. If you feel unsafe reporting your assailant, aren’t you even MORE unsafe with him running around free and flying below law enforcement radar? What’s to stop a one-time rapist from coming back for more once he’s realized his actions carried no consequences?

            2. Oneself aside, as I’ve said before on this site, you have a responsibility to other women and society in general. You can’t let a rapist run around free no matter how bad it makes you feel.

            3. Your stat – ““Out of every 100 instances of rape, only 7 lead to an arrest and only 3 are referred to prosecutors.” Do you mean 7 out of a hundred rapes overall, or 7 out of a hundred REPORTED rapes? If it’s 7 out of 100 because most of them aren’t reported, that’s no surprise.

            4. If testifying against an attacker is traumatic, what’s it like to see him walking down the street, a free man with a smile on his face?

            5. Rape is a time-sensitive crime. You have to report it fast or the evidence expires. Perhaps delayed reporting is a reason so few rapes result in consequence?

            I still think my solution is the most feminist one of all. Talk is cheap. Accusations made in the media devolve into popular entertainment. Colleges kick men out based on hearsay, then get sued. If every woman who got attacked went right down to the police station and reported her attacker, law enforcement would be forced to take it seriously. Society would take her accusations seriously instead of debating the veracity of an unprovable accusation made on the internet months after the fact. Rapists, even if they got away with it once or twice, would have a paper trail against them.

            Reporting a rapist is no doubt difficult, but not doing it is wrong in every way. I still don’t get it. If I were a feminist leader, my anti-rape campaign slogan would be, “immediately prosecute your assailant every time.”

          2. Johnny, your list of points is reasoned out, but I’m guessing in the hours and days following an attack, a victim’s thoughts(men’s too) are more visceral than cerebral. Maybe your slogan should instead be “Reach out to someone you trust” – someone who could be more clear-headed and help out in going to a medical center.

          3. I understand your points, but I don’t think anyone really can understand why someone doesn’t report until they are in that situation. Even if a women marches right down and reports the rape, the arrest is most likely not going to be immediate, and if the rapist found out about the report, the victim could face repercussions. I completely agree with you that ideally every rape would be reported immediately, but it just isn’t always possible and I think society has to be understanding of that. I think that placing judgment on those who did not report their rapes is a serious issue and one of the key to bringing rape numbers down is to be understanding of the many situations that survivors are in, and that every case is a different one.

          4. I checked your link and this jumped out at me:

            “No matter the final outcome, reporting increases the likelihood that the perpetrator will face consequences. ”

            That’s what I’m saying.

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