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You are responsible for your own body, just as everyone else is for theirs. No one should dictate with whom, when, or how you express your sexuality. Unfortunately, almost every day, there are instances of rape, sexual violence, and harassment on college campuses. Campus rape statistics vary depending on the study, but they may not be accurate anyway; not all survivors decide to file a report. It is estimated that one in every four women will survive a sexual assault by college graduation. The statistics vary for other victims, but sadly, sexual assault affects men; transgender individuals; and nonbinary, intersex, and gender-nonconforming people as well.

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Consent is essentially an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activities. Consent should be given each time there is an interaction before the interaction occurs. If one or more participants expresses ambivalence or unwillingness to participate, the sexual encounter should not be pursued. Only when a participant gives a resounding “yes,” has consent been granted.

Legally, the age of consent is the minimum age at which an individual is able to consent to sexual activity. Depending on location, this age may range from 16 to 18. If an adult engages in sexual relations with an individual who has not yet reached the age of consent, a crime (statutory rape) has occurred. Some states have laws that provide exceptions for individuals who are close in age but have not yet reached the legal age of consent. While it’s important to know the law in your state, most college students will have reached the age of consent by the time they arrive on campus.

Giving and Receiving Consent

With so many instances of college sexual assault, consent is a hot topic on campuses across the country. Programs and orientations, such as Consent is Sexy, have developed to help undergraduates understand when and how to ask for a partner’s consent to engage in sexual activity.

Campus rape is in such a state of crisis that states are adjusting their legislation to clarify what consensual sex looks like. In the past, many states and colleges abided by “no means no” policies. Today, millennials typically prefer to think that “yes means yes.” This means that only an enthusiastic “yes!” counts as sexual consent. “No” means no, silence means no, and hesitation generally means no. You do not have consent until your partner says “yes.” Similarly, your partner does not have your consent until you say “yes.”

Consent affects everyone, whether they are sexually active or abstinent, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Consent given for one thing (e.g., kissing) does not automatically imply consent for another (e.g., intercourse). If at any moment, you or your partner wishes to revoke consent, it is well within your or their rights to do so. Give your consent at your discretion.

Furthermore, don’t let peer pressure control your sex life. Pressure to have sex or to remain abstinent can come from friends, family, significant others, religion, and the media. Young people, especially women, are often called prudish if they are virgins and promiscuous if they aren’t. Young men are pressured to lose their virginity and to boast about sexual conquests to fit their gender role. Don’t worry about the stereotypes and the name-calling. Do what’s right for you.

In fact, abstaining from sex in college is more common than you’d think. An onslaught of movies such as American Pie and Superbad give the impression that it’s abnormal to arrive at college still a virgin. There’s no substance behind that assumption, however. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, over 40% of American adolescents do not have sex until after their 18th birthdays. (Males are more likely to have had sex at all ages than females.) Additional research featured on NPR by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 10% of 20- to 24-year-olds are virgins.

When it comes to giving and receiving consent:

  • Feel comfortable saying no. If something does not feel right, say no. If you’re hesitant to get involved with someone, get yourself out of the situation. Other times, you can love your partner but not be ready to have sex just yet. Your partner should always listen to your needs. Never feel sorry or embarrassed to turn down sex; be proud of yourself for recognizing what isn’t right for you physically and emotionally.
  • Respect your partner or significant other’s wishes. You don’t want to be pressured, and you don’t want to pressure anyone else into any sexual activity. Ask questions. “Is this okay?” and “What would you like to do?” are examples of questions that help you communicate with your partner. If your partner says “no” or otherwise hesitates, stop the encounter immediately. Respect your partner’s wishes. As a popular consent campaign would say, “Sex with consent is sexy. Sex without consent is rape.”
  • Know that alcohol and/or drug use affect consent. Alcohol is often called “liquid courage” or a “social lubricant.” It can increase your confidence, but it can also impair your judgment, decision-making processes, and perception, as can drug use. People under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs cannot consent, period. Avoid sexual situations when you’re drunk or high, avoid them when your partner or potential partner is drunk or high, and avoid them when you’re both drunk or high. Alcohol and drugs will affect anyone’s decision making, and a lot can go wrong: Blackouts, memory loss, forgotten birth control, accused date rape, actual date rape, viral videos, etc. If you and your partner want to have sex when one or both of you is drinking or under the influence of drugs, wait until you sober up and see if you both still feel the same way.

Making Empowered Decisions

Giving and receiving consent is the best way to take control of your sexual health. If you want to give your consent to your partner and think you’re ready to enter a sexual relationship, you probably are. You know yourself best. For some students, coming to that conclusion requires a lot of thought. Consider your safety, emotional well-being, birth control options, and sexual health before saying, “Yes!” Be sure you know the answers to these questions before entering a sexual relationship:

  • Do you want it? “Yes” is the only acceptable answer.
  • Does your partner want it? Again, “yes” is the only right answer here. If you’re unsure, or even if you’re pretty sure that your partner is on the same page as you are, now is the time to ask.
  • Are you both on the same page about the relationship? First of all, be honest with yourself before your partner’s answer influences yours. Are you looking for a hookup or something more? Whatever you want is fine. It’s your choice. Now think about your partner. What does that person want from you? Are you both looking for the same thing? If one of you is after a relationship and the other is after a one-night stand, it’s a good idea to back away from the situation before sex is involved. Respect your wants and needs while also respecting your partner’s.
  • What are your sexual risk factors? It’s not exactly a sexy conversation to have, but clear the air before you get intimate. “Have you been tested since your last partner?” and “Is there anything I need to know?” are great ways to communicate with your current partner about your sexual health and any risk factors. Ask about birth control too. Who is responsible for buying condoms? Are you or your partner using any backup protection? Know before you go.
  • How will sex affect your life in the college bubble? It’s a small consideration compared to the others, but consider how sex will affect your relationship with your partner. Compared to high school, college can feel big, but it’s really just a campus bubble. You will run into your partner after the encounter. Most students want to avoid “dormcest,” or casual sex with someone who lives in their building. Other students prefer not to sleep with their friends, their friends’ exes or crushes, or their study buddy. You and your partner might be fine to resume your previous relationship after the encounter, or you might not. If you foresee that you’ll be ignoring each other in the classroom or hiding from each other in the dining hall, the awkwardness may not be worth it. Choose your education and comfort on campus over your sexual escapades.
  • Can you take on the responsibility of getting tested regularly? More than half of Americans will acquire a sexually transmitted infection (STI) in their lifetime. In fact, the CDC says that half of all new infections happen to people younger than 25. If you’re among them, it doesn’t mean you’re promiscuous, but it definitely means that your health is at risk and you need to seek treatment. Unfortunately, some people lie about their sexual escapades for reasons that have to do with shame or self-interest. Other people with STIs may never show symptoms, so they assume they’re in the clear. An untreated STI can lead to severe pain and life-threatening consequences such as ectopic pregnancy and infertility. Getting tested is quick, easy, and always confidential. Your primary care physician, local clinics, and campus health centers can test you or direct you to free or low-cost clinics. Plan to get tested after every new partner with whom you engage in any kind of penetrative sex. Doing so will help you know your health status and pinpoint the start of any new infection. If you have multiple sex partners or if you cannot get tested after each partner, be sure to use male or female condoms. They are the only kind of birth control that protects against STIs.
  • What are you going to do about birth control? The more precautions that are taken to prevent pregnancy and the spread of infections, the safer you are. Both (or all) partners, no matter their sex or gender identity, are responsible for birth control. In heterosexual couples, the responsibility is often left to the woman. Hormonal birth control is designed to be taken by women (or people with a uterus), and these women should decide what’s best for their bodies. At the same time, barrier methods of birth control also exist. Talk to your partner about the birth control that is right for you. Remember that the only kind of birth control that protects against infections and STIs is condoms, but for the best protection against unwanted pregnancy, use a backup method.

Many of these questions you can’t answer on your own, no matter how empowered and in control of your own health you are. Sex is a partnership and between obtaining consent and figuring out the logistics, you must have a real conversation. It’s inherently awkward and can even be seen as a taboo topic, but your health and safety, and that of your partner, are of utmost importance. If you cannot have a mature conversation about sex with your partner, you probably haven’t found the right partner.

Page last updated: 12/2017