Talking about sex makes for better and healthier sex. This is especially true when attempting to obtain consent, which is often defined as the informed willingness to engage in sexual activity. Thanks to many people—groups like Common Ground, Prevent Action Challenge Teach and the Women’s Center, as well as individual student activists—dialogue about consent on campus has increased in recent years. Yet confusion persists. What is consent exactly? How does one obtain it, especially when alcohol is involved? How can we educate the general student body on the best practices of consensual sex?
Consent is an attitude, not an act. In other words, consent describes a state of mind—the willingness to have sex—which can be hinted through certain behaviors, ranging from prior sexual history to explicitly saying, “Yes, I want to have sex.” But these consent-suggesting behaviors never guarantee consent. For example, a woman in a long-term relationship could one day decide she does not want to have sex, and what she did with her boyfriend last week would be irrelevant. In another example, a woman in a life-threatening situation might lie and say she wants to have sex, even though she is not actually consenting.
These distinctions may seem like splitting hairs, but they are crucial. The point is this: because no one is a mind-reader, the only way to try and obtain consent is by making inferences based on your partner’s behavior. Sometimes it will be easy to read someone’s behavior. Other times—especially when you or the other person is drunk or high—it will be harder. Regardless, you will always be making inferences about consent. So it is crucial for Duke to educate its students on how to make the best inferences, especially in dicey situations.
The real challenge to obtaining consent arises when alcohol or drugs come into play. The addition of mind-altering substances to the mix adds what Amy Cleckler, gender violence services coordinator for the Women’s Center, calls “layers of risk” to sexual interactions. Although layers of risk do not make consent impossible, they do make it more difficult to infer.
As with most things, Duke students need education and practice to get better at obtaining consent. Because talking about sex does not come naturally to many students—especially during a casual hook-up—formal programs like PACT are extremely important. Currently, PACT simulates various situations—where your partner is sober or drunk, talking or silent, scared or enthusiastic, a one-time hookup or long-time lover—to train students to make the best inferences about consent. PACT also instructs students on how to discuss consent prior to sex—the optimal way to gauge your partner’s state of mind. PACT should aggressively increase its audience—perhaps becoming standard fare for Orientation Week—and instruct students about being discerning sexual partners just as much as being good bystanders.
Practicing consent in vague situations can be difficult. (We should mention that if you are too drunk to infer consent, you should not have sex.) However, if students are trained to process these situations better—and gain more information about their partner’s attitudes through plain old talking—consent will stop being a guessing game and start being what it should be: transparent and essential.