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Yes means yes: why verbal consent policies are ineffective

Communication around sex on college campuses tends to be poor in general—not only do students struggle to communicate and have hang-ups and fears about communicating, but hookup culture is one that privileges noncommunication. After all, what better way to signal a casual attitude toward your partner than to ignore him or her? Because students are often afraid to challenge these established norms—they fear rejection but also wider social implications—campus culture does not support open and mature communication about sex. At least, not yet. This, of course, does not mean that we should give up on teaching students to become better at communicating with their partners—we absolutely should teach verbal communication as central, even ideal, especially when it comes to hookups because the lack of a prior relationship makes other forms of communica­tion unreliable. But without also attending to the peer culture in which students are immersed, we’re asking them to thwart estab­lished norms without really considering how difficult it can be to do this, and many students don’t have the necessary emotional and social courage. We’re setting them up to fail.

Verbal consent policies also assume that everyone knows ex­actly what they want in sexual situations, which, of course, is not always true. A sexual encounter can be a fact-finding mission with one’s partner, and it can result in a bevy of confusing feelings about one’s desires and interests. Learning to communicate better, and building intimacy and trust, can help a great deal toward talking through what is working, what isn’t, and where to go next. But again, on college campuses, the typical context for a first- time sexual encounter is a hookup where often there is no prior inti­macy or trust. And we must acknowledge how college students al­ready practice consent (or don’t).

Kristen Jozkowski of the University of Arkansas is the premier researcher in this area. Jozkowski has challenged the prevalence of policies that teach that true consent can be only verbal, arguing that such policies have been established by universities and the State of California without looking into the lived realities of how people actually negotiate consent. This failure to contend with re­ality can limit the effectiveness of these policies, especially because one’s ability to offer verbal consent is often influenced by gender and because our culture discourages young women from enthusi­astic “yeses” altogether.

It is unre­alistic to ask young people simply to change these scripts without first transforming the problematic culture that creates them. Only the hardiest of them can swim against such a strong current.

According to Jozkowski, in the sexual scripts that young women and men inherit, women are expected to refuse sex, and men are expected to verbally and physically push past women’s refusals. Women who give an enthusiastic “yes” run the risk of getting la­beled sluts, while men are socialized to discount women’s “nos” as “token refusals” they need to turn into nonverbal acquiescence. To expect women to say “yes” enthusiastically, so that consent is crystal clear, is to ignore the power of these scripts. And it is unre­alistic to ask young people simply to change these scripts without first transforming the problematic culture that creates them. Only the hardiest of them can swim against such a strong current.

Cultural biases work against women in the other direction as well. Short of a woman aggressively and forcefully exclaiming “No!,” men are expected to proceed as far as they can get. “When women are not aggressive in rejecting sex, not only are their part­ners likely to misunderstand their desires,” writes Jozkowski, “campus discourse may suggest that they did not do enough to ‘prevent the assault.’ This can lead to internalized self-blame, pre­vent reporting, and perpetuate rape culture.”

Scholars Melissa Burkett and Karine Hamilton agree with Jozkowski, and argue that while women should be empowered to say no or yes to sex, gender imbalances and inequalities exist in college culture that limit women’s being listened to and respected. Worse still, women learn that any “no” should come with an explanation for why they are saying no—such as “I can’t tonight because . . . I have my period”—so as not to seem rude. An aggressive “No!” challenges traditional gender norms for women, turning a sexual encounter into something awkward and uncomfortable.

Jozkowski worries that, while affirmative consent policies have good intentions, they simply may be ineffective. They don’t consider the cultural biases and scripts around gender that may impede students from taking up certain words, phrases, and emo­tional attitudes in sexual encounters. “Campus climate is that thing that needs to change,” Jozkowski writes. “While students need to be involved in this shift, those at the top (including campus administrators, athletic directors and coaches, faculty and staff, and inter- fraternity and PanHellenic councils, etc.) need to take the lead. And in order for them to demonstrate a genuine commitment to eliminating sexual assault, strong campus- level policies need to be in place, and violations of those policies need to result in serious repercussions.” One of the most worrying problems with consent education, according to Jozkowski, is how it still puts the burden on women to prevent sexual assault by asking them to become more “sexually assertive” (yes means yes!) and to protect themselves and their friends through bystander education programs and personal safety programs. Jozkowski is in good company when she also argues that these efforts, though well-intentioned, take the focus off the perpetrators of sexual assault.

While it’s possible to change cultural attitudes over time, af­firmative consent policies run counter to the scripts young adults inherit about gender norms and hookup culture. If we don’t en­gage students in sustained conversations that help them to analyze, evaluate, and critique these norms and narratives (not to mention the ways in which gender, sexual orientation, race, economic back­ground, ethnicity, and religion operate and are expressed within these narratives and norms), our policy and education efforts will amount to little. But most institutions have yet to find new and creative ways of having conversations about consent. They simply haven’t devoted the required resources and time to prevention and education programming. And many schools simply don’t know how to tackle it adequately. Instead, they focus on government compliance and avoiding scandal.

Featured image: Oxford College Christchurch by Jewels. Pixabay License via Pixabay


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