9 College Women on What Consent Looks Like to Them

Urging the idea of consent doesn’t mean it’s always integrated smoothly into real life. On paper it’s giving permission and saying a verbal “yes” to a sexual activity with another person, all the while maintaining that saying “no” could stop the encounter at any time. But here’s the thing: boiling consent down to a simple binary of saying “yes” or “no” completely erases the gray area from actual sexual encounters and fails to acknowledge just how uncomfy and anxiety-inducing saying “no” to another person can be.

During college, women are trying to navigate online dating, dorm crushes, first-time hookups, and learn their personal boundaries with alcohol. Since we’re operate in real life (and not within the boundaries of a supersafe sex-ed lecture) that pretty much leaves consent to be something that’s assumed rather than said out loud. Couple that with the fact that there’s no standardized approach to navigating consent that works for everyone, and you end up getting a lot of gray area where sexual harassment, assault, and partner violence can slip through unchecked. That’s how we’ve ended up in this bummer-of-a-2018 place where #MeToo and a plethora of stories have been brought forward by women forced too far by partners or abusers that didn’t ask for or acknowledge their feedback.  

So, what does consent look like in real life? Well…it’s complex.

This week, The New York Times launched a project, 45 Stories of Sex and Consent on Campus, and to continue the conversation we asked college women what enthusiastic sexual encounters look like to them. Here’s what they had to share.

What does consent look like to you?

“It looks like respect: Respect for my wants, needs, desire, and space. Respect for my body, my safety and my limits. Not taking advantage of me if I am asleep, too drunk, or in a bad situation. Not pushing and bugging for me to go further than I want, not pushing me to step into a sexual realm that I have expressed negative feelings towards. Most blatantly taking no as a no, not as a challenge to try harder.” – Meagan, Athabasca University

“I’ve been lucky so far to have dated some really sweet guys who are concerned about doing more than I’m comfortable with. A guy I dated last year would even ask before he touched me in certain ways. At first, it seemed a little awkward, but I’m so glad he asked me and didn’t just assume that I was down for whatever, because I’m not. So, for me, consent is done right when you don’t make assumptions. Just because I’m dating you or was flirty with you doesn’t mean I want to have sex with you. I’ve noticed in relationships, sometimes guys feel they are entitled to your body, but that’s not how it works. I don’t owe you sex or anything even remotely sexual just because we’re dating. If I’m not feeling it or I’m just not ready to go that far with you yet, I absolutely don’t have to. Consent to me is all about realizing that sex should never be assumed in any situation.” - Micki, University of Missouri, Columbia

"Consent is being told yes throughout sexual actions such as kissing, touching, and any form of sex, both oral and penetration. Basically, if one doesn't say yes, don't assume they want it." - Student at William Paterson University

"Saying nothing at all does NOT mean consent." - Haylee W., University of Nevada, Reno

“One issue is how consent is depicted on screen. In educational settings about consent, we’re taught that it needs to be explicit, not implied. That means asking directly. But in films, we rarely see a person in the bedroom stop kissing and then ask, ‘Do you consent to sex?’ The idea may seem ridiculous. I appreciated in the Kay Cannon-directed movie Blockers when Kayla is about to take her first swig from a flask, she stops and makes clear to her prom date that she wants to have sex — because intoxicated people cannot give consent. I’d like to see more shows addressing it and how that conversation should go.” – Student at University of California, Los Angeles

"I hate the phrase consent is sexy. Like??? Uh, consent is a basic human right." - Rebecca, Colorado State University

Tell us a story of a time you felt your consent was valued by a partner.

"The first time with my boyfriend was also my first time ever. He asked me if I was sure and if I liked it several times. Now, he doesn't ask because [we're at the point where] it's really obvious that I like what we are doing, but he always pays attention to my reactions. I know he would stop if I showed some type of rejection. For me, consent is not only saying yes, but showing you like what is happening. For me, if someone just stays quiet, it is not consent, it's just the fear of saying no." - Jazmín, University of Buenos Aires

“When my current boyfriend and I started dating we took everything really slow, he would ask before taking any big physical steps and even some small ones. I even remember him asking if he could put his arm around me while we watched tv at my apartment. Our first kiss happened to be at party where we had both been drinking, he made a comment that he would like to kiss me but he didn't even make a move closer to me until I told him that It was ok for him to. This was very important to me as I am a victim of sexual violence, but my boyfriend didn't actually know that when these moments happened making it even more comforting.” – Student at Athabasca University

“I impulsively hooked up with a friend of a floormate sophomore year. He was very nice and clarified each and every step along the way. This person was completely attuned to my needs and stopped once I felt uncomfortable. We negotiated, and although I felt like I didn't get as much as I put into the act, we both laid out our expectations before proceeding with anything. We maintained a kind, healthy, respectful dialogue throughout.” – Allie, Mount Holyoke College

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can get help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN, End Rape on Campus, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.