I have spent much of the last few years talking with college students about sexual consent. In fact, a colleague and I created a sexual consent education campaign called Define Your Line with an advisory board of undergraduate students based upon these conversations, because there is still so much confusion about what consent is and is not.
When I ask college students in focus groups, surveys, or informal conversations to define sexual consent, they can often only articulate their responses in vague, formal terms that are not always transferable to real world sexual situations.
“Clear, ongoing, sober, freely given ‘yes’ from both parties,” responded one college student in an online survey.
“The uninhibited and continuing consent to have sex from all parties involved,” replied another student.
Now, these are great, correct answers and would likely get you an A on any “sexual consent exam,” but when you provide specific sexual scenarios to college students, ones that include alcohol, previous sexual encounters, or lack of verbal agreement, it becomes much harder for them to identify if consent was given or not.
Scenarios in which college students seem to have the hardest time determining consent are ones where alcohol is involved. A major focus of the Define Your Line campaign is about allowing college students to submit questions they have and respond to questions submitted by other college students. One of the most common questions we receive is how to tell if someone is too drunk to consent. While students typically respond to this question by referring to a person’s ability to speak or stand, one of the responses we received from a college student truly gets at the heart of the issue, “If you have to ask, then they are probably too drunk.”
The fact that this question is one of the most common questions we receive from college students should be extremely encouraging. That college students want to know how to know if someone is too drunk shows that it is actually a concern, because the role of alcohol in sexual assault is more than just whether someone can tell if someone is “too drunk” or not. It’s about whether someone cares enough to ask that question.
A recent advertisement released by the It’s On Us campaign called “Autocorrect” gets right to the heart of this issue.
The 32-second spot released on YouTube shows a text conversation between two people (one of them presumably a man because the text starts with “Hey man”) discussing events of the previous night. The text initiator tells his friend about taking a “drunk chick” up to his/her room to try and have sex with her but the girl’s friend shows up and takes her away before a rape could occur. Many of the words in the texts are autocorrected to reveal the true intent (or “subtext”) of what is being said in the conversation, such as autocorrecting “encourage” to “force” or “good time” to “rape.” The spot seems to primarily encourage bystander intervention, such that friends should intervene when a friend may be “too drunk” to consent to having sex with someone.
But because we know that college students do not always have an easy time discerning when someone is “too drunk” to consent, the spot is actually more powerful than just promoting bystander intervention. It reveals the true source of alcohol’s role in sexual assault – intent.
One of the first texts said, “Remember that drunk chick I was talking to?” and the autocorrect attempts to change “talking to” to “targeting.” This is where the brilliance of this spot is revealed. The perpetrator in this scenario revealed in that text that he or she was aware of the woman’s intoxication and in the next text said, “So I took her up to my room.” The friend also acknowledges that he knows the woman was intoxicated, “Yeah she was so wasted,” followed by an approval of “Nice. Get some?”
The perpetrator in this scenario was clearly using alcohol as a weapon to ensure that this woman was intoxicated enough to be more likely to engage in sex with him/her. It did not matter whether she was “too drunk” to consent, and it was implied that the more drunk she was the more likely the perpetrator would be able to “get some.” This is critical in making this spot work, because when discussing alcohol’s role in sexual assault, I often hear college students blame their peers for “putting themselves” in bad situations when under the influence of alcohol.
“Do you expect a guy to just take you home and kiss you on the forehead and be like, ‘Good night, sweetie’? I mean, we’re in college,” said one female college student in reference to what young women should expect when drunk.
The answer to this question should be, yes, we should expect that. While it is clearly important to promote to college students that friends should look out for each other because there will always be predators looking to “take advantage” of those in vulnerable states, it is also extremely important to point out that we should be calling out these predatory behaviors. That using alcohol to encourage sex from someone, willingly or not, is unacceptable.
Some college students are going to drink alcohol, and many are going to have sex while under the influence. And when conversations about alcohol’s role in sexual assault are only about a person’s responsibility to limit their intake and whether another person can discern if they are in fact “too drunk” or not, we are missing a key part of the issue.