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Either by choice or when required to do by state legislation, colleges in recent years have moved toward a policy of affirmative consent.

The change moves colleges away from the old “no means no” model of consent -- frequently criticized by victims’ advocates as being too permitting of sexual encounters involving coercion or intoxication -- to one described as “yes means yes.” If the student initiating a sexual encounter does not receive an “enthusiastic yes” from his or her partner, the policies generally state, there is no consent. 

Research by two California scholars, however, suggests that students’ understanding of consent is not in line with the new policies and laws. Instead, students often obtain sexual permission through a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues, both nuanced and overt, that do not always meet a strict definition of affirmative consent.

“The idea of affirmative consent has resulted in progressive advancement of college policies,” Jason Laker, a professor in San Jose State University’s department of counselor education, said, describing the concept as the ideal. “But just because you make it clearer what we expect in terms of consent from a legal or policy standpoint, that doesn’t change the fact that people are limited in their ability to meet those expectations.”

Laker, a researcher for San Francisco State University’s Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality, spent many years as student affairs administrator and counselor before starting his research. In 2012, he began collaborating with Erica Boas, an adjunct lecturer at Santa Clara University, to extensively interview students about sexual consent and coercion.

The researchers began by interviewing freshmen at one unnamed Bay Area university. For the purposes of this first project, they only interviewed heterosexual, cisgender students, though their research has now expanded to other institutions and includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, as well as those interested in kink subcultures.

While interviewing that first cohort of freshmen, Laker and Boas discovered that students often had trouble recalling the buildup to any one sexual encounter, even when sober.

It just happened.

“That’s what they said hundreds of times in our first round of interviews,” Laker said. “‘It just happened.’ Part of it was them being teenagers, but it was also because of mindlessness. Human beings can get on autopilot, with one thing just leading to another, whether it’s sex or the commute to your office. With sex, there’s all these taboos and stigmas and politics and complexities around the topic, as well. It can make it difficult to recall what happened.”

Eventually, by using a rhetorical device of asking students to try and replay an encounter in slow motion with commentary like a football broadcast, the researchers were able to get the participants to recall the encounters in more detail. Rarely did students ever indicate they asked each other if they were consenting to the activity.

One young woman said she and her boyfriend never talked about consent. Instead, when the boyfriend wanted to have sex, he would nuzzle her neck, just below her cheek. If she also wanted to have sex, she would turn to him. If not, she would turn away. Another student said that when he wanted to have sex with his girlfriend and they were already making out, he would tug on her sweatpants. She would respond by removing them, and the couple interpreted the exchange as consent.

“In these cases, there’s an asking and answering, but not an enthusiastic yes,” Laker said. “These are often the real vocabularies of consent.”

Only one of the 15 students interviewed in the initial project reported specifically asking, “Would you like to have sex?” Students also frequently reported being intoxicated during sex, many of them purposefully drinking before the encounter to feel more comfortable.

Colleges and states that have adopted affirmative consent polices and laws do say that an “enthusiastic yes” can come from nonverbal cues, but Laker and Boas said they worry that many of the students’ more subtle ways of signaling consent (especially while intoxicated) would not be considered enthusiastic under such rules.

In 2014, California became the first state to require all of its colleges and universities to use an affirmative definition of consent. Consent is now defined as “an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.”

The consent has to be ongoing throughout any sexual encounter. If the student initiating the sexual encounter doesn’t receive an enthusiastic yes, either verbally or physically, then there is no consent. If the student is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol, there is no consent. Connecticut, Illinois and New York have adopted similar laws, and many individual institutions and college systems have also made the switch to affirmative consent.

Many women’s groups and victims’ advocates have praised the change. Under the traditional “no means no” model of consent, they argue, rapists can get away with sexual assault simply by saying the victim never said no or struggled enough against an attack.

"Traditionally we've focused on a lack of consent as someone fighting off an attacker," Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, said when California adopted its law. "You looked for evidence of resistance. We only talked about what consent was not, which is not a very helpful paradigm. From the victims' side, it says we have to resist. But even looking at this from the perspective of someone being accused, the traditional definition is telling them that it's O.K. to do this until the victim says 'no.' That's not really a helpful definition for them either because it can really be too late at that point. With affirmative consent, it's simple. Consent is consent."

The concept has begun to receive some pushback, however. This year, six states failed to adopt proposed laws requiring colleges to begin using affirmative consent policies. In May, the American Law Institute overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to endorse affirmative consent. Had they voted in favor of the definition, the organization would have updated the Model Penal Code, a guide followed by many state legislatures.

Laker said while the researchers are supportive of affirmative consent as a goal, many affirmative consent policies treat students as though they have “just hatched out of an egg,” rather than arriving on a campus with 18 years of socialization about sexuality and consent. A policy that assumes students are overtly asking someone to have sex with them is one that may privilege students who are extroverts, for example, while not providing a framework for introverted students who are less likely to talk openly about any issue, consent or otherwise. More broadly, the researchers said, students are taught from a young age that sex is not something meant to be talked about.

“The answer to this problem, we believe very strongly, is not going to be found in laws and policies, but that’s where 95 percent of the efforts are,” Laker said. “Very often, this is about lawyers making sure universities are not going to get sued. What is that going to do to prevent these problems? We need to give students the tools to help them communicate in a way that fits their own temperament.”

Note: The researchers whose work was featured in this article felt that the story's initial headline did not accurately portray their stance toward affirmative consent. The headline has been updated.

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