Why the Fight to Define Consent Needs to Start Much Sooner

Many Americans from all age groups still don’t understand the definition of sexual consent.
(Photo: Justin Case/Getty Images)
May 4, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Paging anti–campus rape crusaders: It isn’t just college-age Americans who are confused about what it means to consent to sex. It seems pervasive “no means no” messaging might not help boost understanding.

That’s the main finding of a survey released this week by Planned Parenthood that showed many people have misconceptions about what constitutes consent and sexual assault. The survey included results from more than 2,000 adults ages 12 to 95 from across the U.S. and also highlighted the disparity that exists between men’s and women’s understanding and definition of consent.

“For a long time the legal standards have had to do with the ‘no means no’ mentality. For too long, the burden has been on the person who needs to stop the assault, and too often, that’s been women,” Leslie Kantor, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of education, told TakePart.

The definition of consent, according to Planned Parenthood, is an “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” The survey results indicate that women were overall more likely to strongly agree with statements that provided a more narrow definition of consent, whereas men were more likely to have a broader interpretation. The study also found that parents talked to their daughters more than to their sons about sexual assault and consent.

RELATED: See the College Acceptance Letter That’s Shocking High School Seniors

There were bright spots in the results. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed agreed that engaging in sexual activity when one person is incapacitated, owing to alcohol or other factors, constitutes sexual assault. But the survey also found that only 27 percent of women strongly agreed that consent must be given at each step of a sexual encounter—still nearly 10 percent higher than the 19 percent of men who strongly agreed. Only 64 percent of men strongly disagreed that consent for sex one time meant consent for sex in the future, whereas 75 percent of women did.

When asked to respond to whether or not saying no means they are giving consent for sexual activity, only 9 percent of men and 12 percent of women said they strongly disagreed that not saying no implied consent. That means most people were unsure about whether the lack of a no meant consent, or they thought it directly implied consent.

The “No means no” slogan was created in 1992 by the Canadian Federation of Students as part of a campaign to end sexual violence. Mike Domitrz, founder of anti–sexual assault advocacy group the Date Safe Project, told TakePart that the antirape phrase is confusing because if nobody says no, people may assume that signifies yes. Domitrz, who travels the country educating people on the importance of giving and asking for consent, said the message should always have been, “Was the question even asked?”

Kantor noted that it’s hard for young people to understand the importance of consent if they don’t see it reflected in the media, particularly films and TV shows. Planned Parenthood has created videos with the goal of including consent and rejection in realistic scenarios—same-sex couples, biracial couples, in person, or over text—to help contextualize what students might encounter in real life.

Recent movements from universities and advocacy groups, such as the “Don’t Accept Rape” admissions letters, have drawn attention to the epidemic of sexual assault on America’s college campuses. Some campuses have adopted affirmative consent policies that approach the issue from a “yes means yes” mind-set.

According to Domitrz, policy changes won’t be enough to reduce the number of sexual assaults. “People need a skill set.... If you’re in a situation that doesn't feel right and you don’t know what to do, you freeze,” he said. “We need to get to a place where consent is enthusiastically given and mutually understood and that’s common sense, so you feel like, ‘I have a voice. I can intervene.’ ”

RELATED: Can We Question a Sexual Assault Accusation Without Putting the Victim on Trial?

In schools, awareness and education is decreasing. Only 21 percent of respondents to Planned Parenthood’s survey said they learned how to ask for consent in high school, and only 14 percent did so in middle school. That result echoes recent research in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which showed that teens are receiving less sex education now than they were in past decades. It found that adolescent girls in particular received less instruction about birth control, saying no to sex, STDs, and HIV/AIDS from 2006 to 2010 and 2011 to 2013. Some school districts have tried to block sex education altogether; Kansas, for example, has attempted to require parental consent before children are exposed to the curriculum.

Even if schools incorporate these lessons, the teaching has to start at home to have a real effect, said Kantor.

“If young people aren’t even learning about healthy relationships, they’re certainly not learning about the skills to say no, to consent, and recognize consent,” she said.