Creating a Culture of Consent on Your Campus

If we’ve learned one thing at Her Campus, it’s that college is an important time for personal discovery and navigating the world of sexuality. But with the excitement, it’s crucial to get educated about sexual assault and how we can foster a healthy culture of consent on campus and off.

Students walking on campusSexual assault is all too common on college campuses, affecting students of all ages, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. One in five women in college experience sexual assault, and studies show that the first few months of the first two semesters are often when students have these experiences. Women who identify as LGBTQ+ are also more likely to experience sexual assault on campus.

The stats, the stories you read in the news, and the stories you hear from your friends are absolutely heartbreaking and scary. But, before you let that overwhelm you, know that there are a few basic things you can do right now to help prevent assault on campus and support survivors.

1. Understand what consent really is and what it is not. Consent is about someone enthusiastically, freely choosing to agree to do something (in this case, a sexual act) with someone else. The best way to get that confirmation is to talk about it, ask questions, and be open to and mindful of your partner’s body language. If you’re unsure about doing something — even just a little bit — always ask first. If you don’t feel comfortable with sexual activity, in any form, at any time, you can always speak up and say “no.”

While it might seem like a no-brainer, here are the consent basics that everyone should know:

  • The absence of a “no” is not the same as a “yes.”
  • Consent can always be withdrawn.
  • A “yes” to one thing does not mean “yes” to everything.
  • If someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, for example, and is blacked out, unconscious, or unable to understand what is going on, they are unable to give consent.
  • If a person feels like they can’t say “no” because they feel pressured or afraid of what could happen if they say “no” — that does not equal consent.
  • If a person said “no” over and over again and only said yes after being worn down, guilted, manipulated, negotiated with, or yelled at — that does not equal consent. 

2. Normalize consent with your friends and partners. There’s a lot of stigma among young people around actually talking about sex in a meaningful way. There’s pressure to be up for anything. Following along with something because it’s how sex is supposed to happen reinforces a culture of silence that harms survivors of assault, especially women. Instead, focus on being direct and talking about what you do want to do with your partner and what doesn’t feel right. Don’t lose sight of those essential rules about consent or get the idea that talking to your partner about what you want or don’t want is awkward or weird.

3. Look out for each other. Unfortunately, knowing the basics of consent doesn’t mean you’ll never find yourself in a difficult situation where a friend, classmate, or date needs a reminder about consent. For example, maybe you see someone trying to initiate sexual activity with someone who is too drunk or who has attempted to say “no” already. In these situations, don’t be afraid to flex your new talking skills (and maybe bystander intervention skills, too. You can help make sure the people around you know what kind of behavior is acceptable (and what seriously isn’t).

4. Shut down victim blaming. Here’s the bottom line: If someone assaults you or betrays your trust, it is never your fault. It doesn’t matter what you wore, what you drank, or who you kissed or slept with previously — no one ever has the right to touch you or do a sexual activity with you without your consent.

While there’s no way to guarantee that you or someone you know or care about won’t have an experience with sexual assault, college students like us are in a unique position to set the standards for the culture they want on their campuses. You can take steps to create a campus where everyone just gets the concept of consent — and hopefully help the rest of the world get there, too.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.