Talking Consent

In their upcoming book, two professors discuss federal laws and institutional policy around consent, and what colleges get wrong.

July 22, 2019

Colleges and universities have taken major steps during the last decade to try to reduce sexual assaults. Part of this effort is teaching students about the concept of consent through campaigns and events. But most administrators don't have a holistic understanding of consent, say two Miami University professors, Theresa A. Kulbaga, an associate professor of English, and Leland G. Spencer, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary and communication studies.

In their upcoming book, Campuses of Consent: Sexual and Social Justice in Higher Education (University of Massachusetts Press), which is scheduled to be released in October, the duo critique campus policies on consent and discuss federal efforts on sexual misconduct (including the sex antidiscrimination law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972).

The authors responded to questions via email.

Q: What do college and university administrators get wrong about the concept of consent on their campuses?

A: Most administrators take a narrow, legalistic and individualistic view of consent. This is partly the result of federal laws, partly the result of problematic cultural norms and partly the result of administrators’ tendency to prioritize minimum compliance and public relations over students and survivors. Most universities consider consent (and violence) in an individualist framework: as something that someone “gives” or “receives” in a moment. By contrast, we argue that consent is inseparable from the larger contexts of power and oppression that characterize rape culture in the U.S. and on college campuses. Moreover, many university administrators are, unfortunately, susceptible to misinformation about consent and violence when they (for example) use victim-blaming language to communicate with the university community or when they purchase a one-time online training program that is full of stereotypes about gender and sexuality or that erases the experiences of trans and gender-nonconforming students. These are all problems we discuss in our book.

We see consent as a central component of sexual and social justice. In the book, we examine how the concept of consent can illuminate not only sexual violence and inequalities, but also intellectual and emotional violence and inequalities.

Q: How can institutions improve training around consent?

A: One of our primary recommendations is to move away from a training model (with its troubling corporate entailments) and toward thinking about consent education as education. Best practices for teaching students about consent engage students in the topic relationally over the course of time and provide numerous opportunities for analysis, reflection and growth. Isolated, one-hour online trainings have limited utility, practically or politically. We also argue that consent education should specifically include the experiences of marginalized students. For instance, a number of consent programs segregate by sex and thus exclude nonbinary students and alienate many other transgender and queer students. Consent education should also resist victim blaming, gender stereotypes (such as the sexually passive woman) and other damaging myths about sexual violence.

Q: What degree of understanding do college students have around consent?

A: In both our research for this book and our everyday work with students, we feel encouraged about students’ level of interest in, and commitment to, consent. Students are often savvy when they analyze and reflect on personal experiences and cultural frameworks. On many campuses, student activism leads to more awareness and better practices around issues of consent and institutional responses to sexual violence. Student organizations dedicated to peer education offer some of the most robust and effective learning opportunities about consent.

On the other hand, we feel troubled by understandings of consent that mirror administrators’ individualistic framing. Anyone -- student, faculty or staff -- who understands consent as a binary in which one person “gives” and another “receives” consent has adopted an inaccurate understanding. Our book points toward the hope and possibility … [of] conceptualizing consent more broadly as a community commitment to respecting a spectrum of physical, intellectual and emotional boundaries. Individualist definitions of consent can easily reproduce rhetorics of blame for targets of sexual violence and inappropriately paternalistic expectations for bystanders.

Q: How does consent play into the recently proposed changes to Title IX? Are these new draft regulations a positive or negative step for the Education Department?

A: We are deeply concerned about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s announcement in September 2017 that universities are no longer required to follow a preponderance of the evidence standard in adjudicating suspected cases of sexual assault and can now use a much more difficult to prove clear and convincing evidence standard. This announcement, like DeVos’s statements about gender-based violence on campus more generally, was accompanied by familiar arguments about how the futures of accused young men are ruined by overzealous Title IX staff, feminist faculty and regretful or revengeful women students. This focus on the bright futures of accused students -- along with the accompanying rhetoric about due process that has supposedly been eroded by antiviolence efforts -- is regressive, misogynist and against proven best practices. Therefore, we see the Education Department’s revisions to Title IX to be a negative step -- no question.

At the same time, however, the current administration’s efforts to take us backward are not new or unique. Historically, antiviolence activism -- which has been led by women of color, queer and trans people, and feminist movements -- has met with resistance and entrenchment of regressive views. For example, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which we critique in Chapter 1 of the book, was passed in 1993 as part of a conservative wave of paternalistic laws that attempted to “protect” young college women by requiring universities to report crime to their parents. The Clery Act has had decades of negative impact on higher education’s response to sexual violence.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand, what practice or myth would you want to eliminate about consent on campuses? Why is this so important?

A: We would wave our wand to eliminate victim blaming on college campuses, especially the overzealous focus on whether a student was drinking when they were assaulted. You might think that victim blaming only happened in the past, but our research found it everywhere. Colleges and universities, parents and guardians, and even training programs designed to educate students about consent focus on drinking -- especially underage drinking -- as a supposed “cause” (or “risk factor”) of sexual violence. No! Drinking does not cause violence. A sense of entitlement and disrespect of another person is what causes violence. And being of legal age makes absolutely no difference at all in incidents of assault.

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Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

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