con·sent |kənˈsent|: Permission for something to happen or agreement to do something
According to the United States Department of Justice, "sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient."
The absence of a "no" is NOT explicit consent. Explicitly consenting to a sexual activity one time does NOT imply that everlasting explicit consent has been given. Explicit consent CANNOT be obtained if either partner is under the influence of any drug (alcohol is no exception), if either partner is otherwise impaired, or if either partner is asleep.
Explicit consent IS -- and is only -- the presence of enthusiastic and voluntary "yeses" on the parts of both partners.
I wish someone had taught me these definitions before college. Someone should have taught me these definitions before college. The day I learned what sexual activity was also should have been the day I learned what consent was. Lucky for me, I somehow managed to avoid being sexually assaulted or -- God forbid -- sexually assaulting someone even before I knew the definition of the word. Unfortunately, many people -- particularly college-aged women -- are not so lucky: one in four of them will be a survivor of rape or attempted rape by the time she graduates.
There is no doubt in my mind that many sexual assaults -- and not just those that occur on college campuses -- would be prevented if more people knew the definitions of explicit consent and sexual assault. Sadly, in many high schools, discussions about consent and communication are noticeably absent from curricula. In my experience teaching sex ed. to high school students in Connecticut, I've found that these students can often barely comprehend what it would even mean to consent to a sexual activity. This should come as no surprise, given that my high school health class teacher, for example, covered the symptoms of STIs exhaustively, but not once did he bring up such topics as communication, mutual consent, or sexual assault, much less explain what each meant. In fact, I didn't learn the legal definition of sexual assault until college orientation and I was astonished when, also during orientation, I found out that people actually -- in real life -- convey their desires and boundaries to their sexual partners (whoa!).
I am certainly not the only person who has found herself in this situation. In fact, I would wager that many college students, including those on my campus, still don't understand the importance of communicating and, worse, still don't know the definitions of sexual assault or consent. Or if they do know them, they have not yet fully internalized them. This is absolutely unacceptable and this is why it is absolutely imperative that we teach our children, from an early age, the power and necessity of setting their personal boundaries, conveying their desires, and expressing their enthusiastic consent.
There is an event held on many college campuses across the country called "Take Back the Night." It aims, through vigils, storytelling, marches, and other public acts of protest, to support survivors and raise awareness about the prevalence and harmfulness of sexual assault, with its ultimate goal being to bring sexual assault to an end. As meaningful as "Take Back the Night" is, no one should have to take back the night. The night shouldn't have been taken in the first place.