Students entering college may expect that living away from home with other young people who are above the age of consent will be an occasion of unlimited sexual opportunity, especially for sexual minority students. However, colleges and universities have since 2011 become especially vigilant in policing student sexuality because of concerns about non-consensual sexual activity. The drive for this surveillance stems from both federal mandates issued in interpretation of Title IX and pressure from some student activist groups claiming to represent victims of sexual assault [4,5].
Even a later regretted or unpleasant sexual encounter that does not qualify as sexual assault under criminal law may become the subject of a complaint to university authorities who are able to subject students to discipline (up to expulsion) after investigations that do not have to observe normal legal due process and rely on “preponderance of evidence” standards rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt . Special care must therefore be taken by university students interacting with other students to establish that consent to any sexual encounter was clearly communicated by their partner and granted without any undue pressure. The advice we give here will help you to explore your horizons sexually without getting into trouble
Colleges and universities have since 2011 become especially vigilant in policing student sexuality because of concerns about non-consensual sexual activity.
For inquiries about Title IX, the current state of the law, and how it applies to your campus, visit www.knowyourix.org.
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What defines consent?
Consent is an ongoing process of discussing and respecting your own and your partner’s boundaries. Consent cannot be given under any pretense of force or intimidation. This includes unequal power dynamics like those between an employer and employee. Consent cannot be implied. Consent cannot be gained or given if any person involved is heavily intoxicated, incapacitated by any external influence, asleep, or unconscious. Consent cannot be given if either party is not provided all the information they need to make an informed decision. This includes deception, lying, and many forms of manipulation. These behaviors can take the form of lowering a partner’s self-esteem to make them more vulnerable, lying about a personal characteristic to gain another person’s trust, or applying any form of peer pressure.
Consent is not permanent nor is it infinite. Consent for one activity on one occasion does not imply or provide consent for any activity that might occur afterwards. The fluid nature of consent as it relates to our behaviors is part of what can make reflecting upon particular encounters difficult and confusing. To elaborate, it is very possible to have consented to a sexual activity and then as little as a few hours or days later, begin to question if you would have consented to that same activity under other circumstances.
Oftentimes, levels of individual or shared comfort are used to define consent. While prioritizing comfort and safety in potentially vulnerable situations is incredibly important, sometimes we will knowingly consent to things that might make us uncomfortable, such as a horror movie. Part of discovering our boundaries includes trying or doing something that we decide we would not like to do again.
Consent is not inherently sexual. Some of the very first boundaries that we learn are lessons of consent. When we are children, we learn that we must ask before taking toys from our friends, thereby gaining consent. We consent to things every day, even when we are alone. Consider waking up after having slept into your alarm with 30 minutes less than you planned to get ready for a job interview. You know that you feel the most prepared for an interview when you have taken time to shower and pick out a clean outfit that morning. In this scenario, you have to make a choice. Will you take a shower, get dressed and potentially arrive late to your meeting? Or will you skip your morning shower and arrive early to your meeting with the understanding you might not be entirely on your game? Depending on which option you choose, you are consenting to put yourself in a particular situation and subsequently experience a certain reality.
It is important that we are as gentle and kind to ourselves as we can be if we put ourselves in situations where we are trying something new. No one knows you better than you know yourself. You are the only person who can fully make an informed decision on how your past experiences affect new ones. Choosing to try something new can be new based on your never having done it before, or sharing a familiar activity with a new person or in a new context. Unfortunately, we are not entirely in control of each situation that we find ourselves in. We often share spaces with other people and external forces that have the ability to alter our experiences. In order to take care of ourselves the best we can when entering new spaces and activities, we must gain and give informed consent.
What is informed consent? Informed consent is consent given after a person has been provided all information necessary to properly judge their comfort, safety, and willingness to participate in a certain activity . Informed consent can be given only when the individual is fully aware of possible consequences of their, or another person’s, behavior. This means that informed consent looks different depending on which situation and person it applies to. Informed consent within a sexual or physically intimate scenario is comprised of many factors, some of which vary from person to person. There are still universal conversations and information required for informed consent to be gained for sexual activities.
The following check-ins, conversations, or verbal acknowledgements are recommended in order to gain fully informed consent.
- Safe sex equipment: What protective measures are you taking to have safer sex? Who is responsible for supplying safer sex equipment? Was one person assumed to bring protective measures, but did not? How will you proceed in the moment or the future?
- STD status: Discuss your most recent STD panel test results. If you have not been tested recently, be honest with yourself and your partner about your safe sex practices and how they affect both of your safety.
- Birth control: There are many different forms of birth control. If any individual is using birth control methods, how can you make sure that they remain effective?
- Clarifying assumptions: Is either party entering this scenario expecting something of the other person? Had there been discussion of trying a new sexual activity that you might be second guessing? Did you find yourself in someone’s bedroom because it felt like the right thing to do at the end of a date? Is there an elephant in the room? Make sure to name it.
- Location: Are you in a safe and secure place?
- Clarify your relationship: Will sex, or physically intimate activity, with this person alter your relationship? If so, will it be positive?
- Proximity on campus: If you live on campus, what are the chances that you will run into this person? Will you be okay with that level of contact?
- Cyber/virtual sex: Am I sharing my personal information (including photos) with this person over a phone or the internet? If yes, am I okay with the possibility that the content might be shared further without my knowledge or permission?
Enthusiastic (affirmative) consent: The absence of a no does not indicate a yes
If any participant in a sexual or intimate scenario expresses ambivalence or unwillingness to participate, the activity or encounter should be put on pause. Consider skydiving: would you want to jump out of a plane with a skydiving instructor that seemed unsure they wanted to jump with you?
The conversation about consent has shifted from “no means no” to “yes means yes” [7,8]. This is helpful in providing people with the framework to engage in enthusiastic consent. A positive assertion provides much more clarity than the absence of any dislike or protest. Expecting a “no” instead of looking for a “yes” helps keep everyone involved in a safer position to advocate for themselves and their pleasure. The narrative of “no means no” was created within the social context of preventing malicious sexual assault or rape. There are many ways that someone’s consent may be violated or that they may be harmed by sexual activity that may not have been met with a clear and unequivocal “no” . This means that there are varying levels of harm that one might experience if enthusiastic, informed consent has not been established.
Discussing intent is a great way to consider the important differences between “no means no” and “yes means yes.” If you are involved in sex with someone and you are assuming and not asking what you will do to them next, you are operating from a “no means no” perspective. In this scenario, if you are not actively asking your partner if certain touches are okay, the responsibility to say no has now become theirs. Even if you are familiar with the other person’s body and are making intuitive decisions as to how to touch or kiss them to increase their pleasure, you are still operating from a “no means no” perspective. You must continuously check in and confirm consent in order to truly operate within a “yes means yes” framework. Your intention of making another person feel good is entirely irrelevant if that person has not consented to what you are doing.
“Affirmative consent,” similar to enthusiastic consent, is a legal principle that has been proposed by a number of attorneys, research scientists, and academics, and has been adopted as a legal mandate for college students in California, New York, and Connecticut, although its enforcement is uneven . This doctrine criminalizes sexual acts not preceded by real and very clear verbal consent.
The best way to ask someone for consent is by asking them verbally. Asking for consent will look different depending on what it is you are asking for and from whom. The following are great starting points in asking for consent .
- Do you like (fill in the blank)?
- Is (fill in the blank) okay with you?
- Have you ever tried (fill in the blank)? Would you like to try it with me?
- Is it okay if I keep on doing this?
- Would it be okay if we both did this?
- Are you comfortable with us trying this?
Asking any of these questions only once does not ensure that you are engaging in entirely consensual activity from start to finish. The start and finish of sexual activity, or intimate/romantic activity, are not always easy to identify because of the fluidity of sex. As a matter of respect for yourself and those around you, thorough communication should find its way into any romantic relationships.
Hard No’s, Soft No’s, and Definitely’s
You can create a pattern for consenting with particular partners, or even yourself. Where do you and your partner’s sexual preferences overlap? These can be things that you have established as mutually pleasurable activities to be tried repeatedly. It is helpful to understand even before you begin engaging in sexual activities with others: what are things I know I like, some things I might want to try, and some things I never want to try? This can help you to know what to agree to beforehand. Lastly, these do not have to be limits that you share with anyone else! They can simply be a way for you to get to know yourself and your body.
- Hard no’s: I never want to try this.
- Soft no’s: I might be open to trying this under particular circumstances.
- Definitely’s: This is something that I know that I am comfortable with and want to try with partners.
Consent moves with individuals through time and space. It is something that must be maintained. Here are a few easy ways to make sure that you are maintaining consent.
- Do you like it?
- Want more?
- Let me know when you have had enough.
- Do you need some water or want to take a break?
- Is there anything you want to talk about so far?
- It seemed like you enjoyed it when we did this. Do you want to do it again?
- How are you feeling?
- Do you need anything?
Even if it might feel obvious, remind your partner that you can stop any activity at any time for any reason. Be aware whether your position might be uncomfortable for your partner, or whether aspects of your own anatomy, such as heavier body weight or a large penis, might cause discomfort your partner is not accustomed to. Oftentimes when we are engaging with other people in activities that involve our bodies, sexuality and intimacy, our brains function in a cloudier space than in our everyday lives, particularly if we are under the influence of substances. On the other hand, sometimes we have fantasized about and anticipated doing particular things and through high levels of excitement might experience tunnel vision. These are two of many reasons why it is so incredibly important to maintain active, affirmative communication. Consent is comprised of a language that is founded on mutual pleasure, experimentation, and accountability.
Different bodies, sexualities, and genders
For queer folks, particularly gender nonconforming, non-binary, and trans individuals, positive relationships to your body can be difficult to attain and express. Just as with any sexual partner, it is important to discuss boundaries, hard no’s, soft no’s, and definitely’s. Two very important questions to ask someone who is trans, GNC, or non-binary are:
- Is there anywhere on your body that you do not want me to touch or pay attention to?
- Is there any part or piece of your body that makes you feel especially good and like yourself?
Oftentimes the paths towards understanding your gender and sexuality are fluid and evolutionary. Someone might feel differently about their chest today than they did yesterday, so it is important that whichever sexual activity they participate in is affirming and validating for them in that moment.
The most conservative answer to this question is no. Yet, there are non-verbal ways to provide or gain consent. Our minds and our bodies are both present during sexual activity, so it is possible for things to be communicated by the brain through the body. A verbal yes or clarification of consent does not mean that you should stop paying attention to your partner’s body language. A diminished ability to read and perceive body language correctly is one of the reasons why choosing to engage in sexual activity while under the influence can be risky.
Any and all non-verbal cues for consent need to be discussed beforehand, mutually understood, and practiced thoroughly. You cannot and should not adopt a non-verbal system for consent at the last minute or under the influence. Consider all of these things before deciding whether or not to allow non-verbal consent.
- Do I know this person? If so, how well do I know this person?
- Are either of us so under the influence that we are not our usual selves?
- Are either of our mental states altered for some other reason? Are either of us particularly upset, tired, or excited?
- Can this person verbally communicate with me effectively? For example, do we speak the same language? Do I or another person have any physical differences that prevent us from being able to understand each other when we speak?
Our society has defined a non-collaborative list of non-verbal or physiological cues that individuals give each other in moments of sexual activity or intimacy. By non-collaborative, I mean that what movies or popular media depict as normal ways for sex to escalate include physical responses that we are not always in control of. In addition, the majority of the representations of sex within media are heterosexual and cisgender. The average trope of kissing leading to touching, leading to removal of clothes, leading to penetration, is not applicable to everyone nor a guide to follow. Take for example some of the things that our bodies do involuntarily: erections, lubrication, arousal, and orgasm.
While it isn’t recommended to have someone else judge your level of consent or comfort based entirely on your body language, it is highly recommended to pay attention to your own body. Our bodies will communicate with us when we feel that a boundary has been crossed or that we are entering territory to which we did not properly consent. Scientists have defined something called the Gut-Brain-Axis. You might know this phenomenon as a “gut feeling.” This axis outlines the way that your brain regulates your gut and vice versa. Oftentimes environmental and emotional stressors trigger physical responses from our bodies as a product.
Listening to your body is a huge part of the non-spoken aspects of boundaries, comfort, pleasure and consent. We have discussed a long list of things to consider when you are in the beginning, or process, of engaging in sexual activity with someone else. A large part of understanding consent is building it into the way that we consider our interactions with other people on the most basic levels even in non-sexual situations.
Any activity that involves someone else’s physical space. It is that simple. If you want to touch a new part of a person’s body while you are making out, make sure your partner is comfortable with it. If you are wanting to help put your date’s coat on after dinner, ask if you may. If you are thinking of pouring someone another drink, first ask if they want one, and if they say no, don’t do it.
Some activities that have become more accepted in the sexual mainstream recently, particularly amongst college-aged people, qualify as forms of BDSM or “rough sex.” Diversity in sexual interests and activity is a part of human life. There is no shame in people having different interests and preferences. That being said, there are certain behaviors that are less socially accepted or more “taboo.” There are things to consider when engaging in sexual activities that push “vanilla” boundaries and play with particular sensations and touches.
- Level of knowledge: Have you done thorough research of the potential risks associated with this particular activity? Do you have the proper equipment to safely try this activity? Does your partner have the same level of knowledge?
- Reason for interest: Are you participating in this activity because you want to? Do you feel any societal pressure to participate in a particular activity because others are?
Many young people in college experiment with alcohol and/or other substances for the first time, and are often unaware of their limits. Moreover, your partner may have a lower level of tolerance for these substances than you. You cannot properly gain or ask for consent from someone when either of you are using or have recently used drugs/alcohol to the extent that judgment may be clouded. Even if you and your partner were able to decide before consuming any substances, “We both consent to having drunk sex later in the evening,” there is no guarantee that either of you will still want to have sex when you’re drunk, that either of you will remember any limits or boundaries set earlier, or that you will feel comfortable with the sexual scenario afterwards.
Thresholds of sobriety and intoxication differ from person to person, substance to substance, and circumstance to circumstance. That being said, some individuals do conservatively and responsibly use alcohol/drugs. Take for example having one shot of vodka while getting ready for a date to help you feel less nervous. This is a realistic habit of college-aged individuals. We do not promote substance use, especially among young people who are not of legal age to drink or smoke. We do understand that it is safer to discuss the safe use of various substances as opposed to ignoring the subject. If you are planning on having a drink before going out to a party or date, make it one. Additionally, do your best to consider how much more or what you will be drinking once you go out. Mixing liquors or substances puts you in a much more dangerous position across the board. You may be at risk of either having something bad happen to you or later being accused of doing something your partner did not want. The consequences can be life-changing.
Never feel sorry or embarrassed to turn down sex; be proud of yourself for recognizing what isn’t right for you physically and emotionally .
Yes, absolutely. You may revoke your consent at any time, for any reason, under any circumstance. Let’s run through some examples of what you might say without offending a considerate partner.
- I do not like that, stop.
- It hurts.
- Stop doing that, I don’t like it anymore.
- I need some space, please stop.
- Can we try something else? I’m not sure I like that.
- I need to take a break.
- I am tired and need to rest.
It is important to remember that level of comfort is not always identical to level of safety. Old stereotypes have conditioned some women and sexual minority individuals to accept upsetting and violating experiences as normal. Most of this is due to women’s and queer folks’ sexuality being fetishized, unallowed, stigmatized, or ignored. We must validate feeling uncomfortable about a sexual scenario regardless of who the individual is who is upset and what causes their discomfort.
It is okay for something not to sit right with you and for you not to know exactly why. You never need to have a reason. Yet, learning from instances where we feel icky and letting them influence our emphasis on communication will only help us as we continue to grow and move through the world. If you are not comfortable with something, you should speak up, as some partners will mistakenly take silence or passivity as acquiescence.
Consider that individuals, whether purposefully or not, might try to manipulate a situation to their advantage or liking. Oftentimes this is a product of one person prioritizing their pleasure and preferences over another’s. Here are a few situations to keep in mind where you might consider withdrawing your consent.
- The other person is not acknowledging your “no” behavior and language.
- Your partner is displaying a higher level of desire, libido, or sex drive than you.
- A sexual transaction seems implied by circumstance or your partner’s behavior before it has been discussed.
- There is an uneven power relationship. These are not always apparent when getting to know someone or spending time with someone in more neutral spaces. Where you choose to engage in certain sexual activities can create a power dynamic based on locked doors, who inhabits a room, who is driving, and proximity to other people/places. If one partner is paying for everything, they may wrongly assume that they are entitled to sexual favors. This is helpful to consider in relationships that have significant age gaps. Sexual minority youth often experiment with or date partners who are older than them.
Any time your partner seems too pushy, you should consider backing away. A genuinely trustworthy partner is one who is sensitive to your feelings and reactions.
In whichever way is most comfortable and effective, make yourself clear. Due to the current state of sex education and the lack of sex positivity within our society, we oftentimes have to overcompensate for our own autonomy and safety. If you do not feel comfortable using any of the prompts provided or saying “No” outloud, you can do the following things with your body to signal your withdrawing consent.
- Move yourself away from the other person.
- Move your partner’s hands off of your body.
- Make eye contact while discontinuing a certain activity.
If that doesn’t work, then you really need to verbalize your wishes with no ambiguity.
Feeling gross about a sexual encounter is justified, even if the encounter doesn’t match a criminal definition of rape or assault .
First, understand that what you are feeling is entirely valid and real. Do not let any expectation of what “rape” or “sexual assault” is supposed to look or feel like influence your ability to feel hurt. You have the right to be upset if a sexual encounter wasn’t violent or physically forceful, but exceeded the limits of what you expected going into it. Perhaps you consented to sexual activity, not because you really wanted to have sex, but because of external pressure from someone you did not want to disappoint. Truly sitting down and trying to talk through or think through why you are feeling negatively about a sexual encounter is incredibly important. Although you do not need to find an answer, if you do you will be better prepared to seek help and treatment. If this negative encounter is with a partner you still want to associate with, talk with them about it so they better understand your comfort zone.
Physical and/or psychological harm may occur even where there is no legal violation or intent to inflict harm. Understanding that intent and harm are separate can help you to see all individuals involved as people with nuance and difference, but still accountable for their actions. Do not push yourself to hold other people accountable. That is not your job. Your job is to take care of yourself, heal, and actively learn from your experiences.
If the person who harmed you lives in your dorm, is in one of your classes, is a frequent member of activities that you participate in, and you are uncomfortable being around them in the future, reach out to your school’s counseling and mental health center or Title IX office, but be aware that doing so may trigger a long and complicated process of investigation that can itself be traumatic and uncomfortable for you. Also be aware that most colleges require all faculty and staff to be “mandatory reporters,” which makes it impossible for them to keep what you tell them confidential . Don’t hesitate to call on your closest friends for support if you need to discuss it with someone in confidence.
Seek mental health care if you find yourself in a position of regret, harm, discomfort, or uncertainty about your past sexual encounter. You may find this in the form of hotlines, counselors on your campus, trusted family members, friends, or mental health clinicians. If you have no idea where to turn or what to do next, hotlines are a great place to start.
- RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-4673
- National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 217-714-1141
- LGBT National Hotline 888-843-4564
- The Anti-Violence Project (Bilingual) 212-714-1124
- FREDONIA LGBTQ Survivors Counseling Center 716-673-3424
Lawyers have clarified that in many cases of sexual misconduct allegations, malicious sexual assault is not intended. Thus, people sometimes experience sexual violation at the hands of non-malicious, but undereducated, clumsy, or inconsiderate young people. However, this does not under any circumstance excuse any person’s behavior if they have caused harm.
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 Student Caffé. (2019, March). Consent: What College Students Need to Know. studentcaffe.com/thrive/health-and-wellness/consent.
 Pauly, A. (2021, April 10). Coercion Is Not Consent. Salty World. saltyworld.net/the-spectrum-of-consent-you-can-say-yes-still-feel-gross-about-an-encounter/.
 Announce. (n.d.). University finalizes federally-mandated Title IX update. https://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/gradstudies/11600/67617
 Association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure & Committee on Women in the Academic Profession. (2016, June). The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX. https://www.aaup.org/file/TitleIXreport.pdf
 Oxendine, J. B. (n.d.). Consent and Coercion Discussed. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke: Office of Title IX and Clery Compliance. https://www.uncp.edu/resources/title-ix-clery-compliance/sexual-misconduct/consent-and-coercion-discussed
 Little, N. J. (2019). From No Means No to Only Yes Means Yes: The Rational Results of an Affirmative Consent Standard in Rape Law. Vanderbilt Law Review, 58(4), 1321-1364. https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1648&context=vlr
 Hamilton, P. C. (2021, October 12). Affirmative Consent in New York; What Is It, and When Is It Legally Required? Hamilton Clark LLP. https://www.hamiltonclarkellp.com/recent-news/2021/october/affirmative-consent-in-new-york-what-is-it-and-w/
 Thompson, R. (2018, January 24). We urgently need to talk about the grey areas of bad sexual encounters. Mashable. https://mashable.com/article/grey-areas-conversation