Dear post-secondary students: welcome back! It’s time for a new fall term, a fresh academic start, and a fresh chance to indulge in time-honoured campus traditions: all-nighters, shitty food, beer pong, capers and hijinks, dorm sex, too much booze (SO MUCH BOOZE), parties, clubbing, money troubles, and occasionally (if not frequently) questioning your life choices, identity, and place in this mad, mad world.
While my list of college-level fun is by no means exhaustive, there is one alarmingly common campus activity that I have firmly, and intentionally, omitted: raping people. Do not rape people. Not genitally, not digitally, not with foreign objects. Do not rape people.
It may be surprising that I need to spell it out like this, but unfortunately there still seems to be quite a lot of confusion on post-secondary campuses about what constitutes rape, and the people experiencing the most confusion seem disproportionately to be young, college-aged males, university administrators, and trial judges. Generally speaking, everyone seems to agree that sexual assault is bad, but many people seem very reluctant to identify and acknowledge it when it has occurred.
According to UBC’s AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre,*
Sexual Assault is any unwanted contact of a sexual nature, including unwanted kissing, touching, or sexual intercourse. Anyone can be a perpetrator. People from all walks of life, all ages, and genders can experience sexual assault.
This concept seems very simple but somehow, many college and university students have failed to grasp it. There is often hue and cry about “grey areas”, “blurred lines”, “the dangers of drugs and alcohol” (as if being drunk gives you an excuse to rape someone), and attempts made to characterize sexually assaulting another person as some kind of booby trap in a byzantine labyrinth set up to trick you, regrettable perhaps, but impossible for the rapist to have avoided. So how can you make sure that YOU don’t become a sexual assailant, i.e. a rapist? The key, of course, is consent.
Consent is mandatory for sex to occur.
If you don’t have the other person’s consent, you are not having sex, you are raping them.
Consent is enthusiastic and freely given.
If you have pressured, coerced, physically dominated, or made use of a position of authority in order to have sex (or participate in any other kind of sexual activity) with the other person, you do not have consent. Therefore, you are not having sex. You are raping someone.
Consent is ongoing.
If you are engaging in sexual activity with someone, and they tell you either verbally or with their body (i.e. pushing you away, pulling their body away from you, or even falling asleep) that they are no longer interested, you must stop. Even if they said they wanted to before, even if they did it with you last time, once they want to stop, everything stops.
If you continue the sexual contact after the other person has withdrawn their consent, you are no longer having sex. You are raping someone.
Consent is a YES–it is not merely an absence of “no”.
If you are having sex with someone who is unconscious or too drunk/high to actually make a decision about and communicate whether or not they want to have sex with you, you are not having sex. You are raping someone.
Human beings are not like $5 bills left on the sidewalk. Just because you “find” someone lying around, doesn’t mean you are allowed to do whatever you want with their bodies. If you do come across a person who is unconscious or otherwise seriously out of it, maybe ask them if they’re okay, or call them a cab (or, if necessary, an ambulance).
It’s also important to remember that cuddling, kissing, and other kinds of physical intimacy are not necessarily invitations for sexual activity. Within friend groups and in college dorms, it’s not uncommon for people to be “cuddle buddies” or the like–leaning on each other while watching movies, spooning, giving back rubs, or even sleeping next to each other–without actually sharing the kind of chemistry that would prompt the participating cuddlers to pursue romance. Sometimes people miss their high school boyfriends/girlfriends. Sometimes people just want a cuddle, or some (safe) physical touch that stays well within everyone’s boundaries. Sometimes friends pass out together after a night of partying or even share the odd sloppy kiss. It’s all good.
What’s not good is assuming that the person lying in your bed has given you carte blanche to touch or use their body sexually. You need consent buddy. Be a friend, not a rapist.
Some folks have complained that non-verbal consent (or the lack thereof) can be hard to read, and if you aren’t adept at social cues and body language my advice to you is simple: take the mystery out of the equation and ask. To those that complain that stopping mid-action to give and receive verbal consent kills the mood, I say this: if you believe the other person’s desire to have sex with you is so tenuous, so fragile, that they would say “No” if you actually asked them, you DEFINITELY need to ask. Because if that’s the vibe you’re getting from your potential partner, they probably don’t want to have sex with you and you need to stop now.
To sum up: obtain enthusiastic and freely-given consent before making sexual contact. And when in doubt, just STOP. There will be other opportunities for awkward university sex. In ten years, you won’t regret not hooking up with that random girl or guy at that party that time. But you might really regret violating another person’s humanity and dignity, and burdening them with a trauma they may carry the rest of their lives.
*Note: I chose to quote the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre (which is run by student union groups) because the University of British Columbia is the largest and most well-known post-secondary institution in my province. I have neither attended nor ever been employed at UBC. Additionally, while the AMS SASC website looks great, it’s worth noting that, as a larger institution, the UBC administration has had plenty of bad press in recent years for turning a rather tolerant eye to sexual assault on campus. UBC has recently announced that they are extending campus-community consultations as they craft their new (provincially-mandated) sexual assault policy.
**Second note: sex is a two-way street. YOUR consent is also required. Your consent must be freely-given and ongoing, and can be withdrawn at any time.