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Our conversations on consent require more

Education on sexual assault has come a long way. Massive movements have swept across the media, spreading messages of empowerment and pushing for accountability. However, a societal reality check is needed: targeting our ingrained rape culture and the power imbalances that allow this complex issue to persist remains critical. Starting with conversations surrounding consent is the way to do so.

As a hot spot for sexual assault, colleges have been tasked with leading the way for change. Like many other universities across the country, University of Maryland, Baltimore County now requires annual, mandatory awareness training on the subject for all students.

Developing a sexual assault education plan is a crucial responsibility that requires great sensitivity and a space for constant feedback and improvement.

Besides ensuring that the essence of the training to not be extremely triggering or re-traumatizing for survivors of sexual assault, the content must also dig deeper than surface level discussions. Colloquialisms and catchy phrases like “no means no,” which many of us have heard before, are overused to the point of redundancy.

A prime example? The topic of consent. It is a principle of incredible importance to understanding what sexual assault is and how unintentional sexual violations occur, yet UMBC’s training barely touches the tip of the iceberg.

The training (primarily a series of videos) defines consent as “an active and informed yes…[which] can be withdrawn at any time,” and of course something that cannot exist if alcohol or other substances are used, if underage parties are involved, etc. Notably the videos touch not only upon verbal consent, but also upon the significance of body language and other signs of non-enthusiastic participation.

While these are certainly valid points to include in our modern education on sexual consent, the nuances of the term must also be addressed to expose the intricacies of what constitutes sexual assault.

Consent is complex, always requiring the larger context of a situation to be considered along with verbal or physical cues (i.e. a facial expression) from a potential partner. Furthermore, the principle of asking for and giving permission is something that applies, and should be applied, to education beyond that on sex.

From a young age, the way we interact with the idea of “give and take” reflects our privilege and societal standing in a hierarchy, with much of our responses and behaviors shaped by unspoken relationships of power and social conditioning.

Women, for example, are usually conditioned to please, to sacrifice their own needs and focus on the care of others. The effect is visible in all sorts of daily interactions, whether with a cashier at the grocery store or with a professor in a class, but it also applies to the way women understand and use sex. Oftentimes, sex becomes a means to shape their own image or gain some power in a relationship where these factors and more remain out of their control.

Women are also conditioned to hold back any expression of sexual desire for fear of shaming or the emasculation of a partner, providing another example of how layered sexual interactions and consent become when considering a cultural context.

Encountering everyday exchanges involving consent builds strong, often subconscious, mindsets in us all about what is comfortable or acceptable to “give and take”. If a culture of rape and male entitlement is solidified early in life for everyone this way, it becomes difficult to deconstruct later in life.

An hour-long course on sexual assault, formatted in a tired, traditional testing sense with dull multiple-choice questions towards its conclusion, hardly stirs the deeper questions we must all be asking of ourselves and our peers about how to make a college campus, and the world, safer. The focus of the training becomes passing, with students completing the course to unlock their class access for the semester rather than entering the program with the goal of gaining a true education.

As you go “down” our societal hierarchy, especially reaching women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, outside respect for consent declines. Obtaining it is viewed with less priority by those in positions of power, and affected individuals can easily internalize beliefs about the irrelevance of their own ability to give permission.

This internalized mindset resulting from the power dynamics at play makes it so that even an active “yes” is not always consent and makes verbal cues and body language unreliable at times when conditioning and social standing forces people to experience a sexual activity in a certain way. All this is just another aspect of consent that UMBC training fails to fully address.

In the 2021-2022 school year, UMBC has updated its introductory sexual assault training, cutting down on the inclusion of graphic assault retellings, placing functioning skip options for sections of triggering content and more. The training now covers a wide variety of topics from dating/domestic violence to sexual harassment, as well as information on how to build healthy relationships, to intervene and stop assault from occurring when you see it and how to change our culture of victim blaming.

The program’s existence and its considerable updates are signs of university attention on the complexities of sexual assault and consent. However, an 11-minute video on consent, over half of which is marked by red bars signaling disturbing content which many students may feel the need to skip, is still not enough to shift cultural beliefs about what assault is, how it occurs and how we can stop it.

Although education on consent and much more should truly start in elementary and high school, that is not where we currently stress its importance. As universities have become a place for sexual assault education, there is a duty to require more, to expand beyond the current support systems in place and online trainings. We cannot allow for such surface education to be enough.