Content warning: sexual violence, rape
As a Greeks Against Sexual Assault, or GASA, peer educator, I visit Greek houses and deliver presentations about how to ask for consent. I can pretty much recite the famed tea video; I know the five pillars of consent like the back of my hand; and I’ve exclaimed how consent is sexy to hordes of blank faces more times than I thought I would ever need to.
We follow the same model of consent education that UC Berkeley utilizes in order to combat high incidences of sexual assault on campuses — think online modules with zany interfaces containing “What would you do?” situations. The problem with online modules and PowerPoint presentations is that they’re a nonstrategy. As a campus community, we have grown comfortable with relying on consent culture to counter rape culture.
Consent culture seeks to teach us what consent looks like, how to give consent and how to ask for it. It’s where memorable sayings such as “no means no” and “consent is sexy” come from. It’s the often perfunctory consent talk that you get before entering a fraternity party. But at the end of the day, consent culture is just a nice Band-Aid on the festering wound that is rape culture.
Let me be clear: Consent culture does an amazing job of providing survivors with the linguistic and emotional tools to deal with pain and trauma. In settings, like Greek life, where drunk hookups are glorified rites of passage, consensual sex can be difficult to discern from nonconsensual sex. One person came up to me after a discussion and told me they didn’t know they were violated until they saw the GASA presentation.
Consent culture teaches us that ambiguous sexual advances are not acceptable, that we should always seek an enthusiastic “yes” throughout sexual relations. For those who didn’t know that a “yes” could be revoked at any time or were happy to accept a halfhearted response, consent culture offers a straightforward answer for what is acceptable. We need consent culture to protect each other and lay the groundwork for examining nonverbal cues.
My concern with consent culture, though, is that it ignores the fact that rapists already know that no means no. Perpetrators of sexual violence don’t want your unambiguous, enthusiastic “yes.” They want to get you more drinks. They want to get you alone or gaslight you. They want to abuse their power because it’s easy, and it turns them on. I have a hard time imagining any perpetrators mistaking their victims’ silence or discomfort as consent.
Pretending like rapists don’t know what unambiguous, enthusiastic consent looks like is on the same wavelength as blaming sexual assault survivors for wearing revealing clothing. That is to say, both actions completely eviscerate any possibility of actually holding perpetrators accountable.
In some cases, consent culture’s emphasis on a distinct “no” and a distinct “yes” places the onus on survivors to assertively vocalize their desires, which is, mind you, a form of victim-blaming. Nonverbal cues that display uncomfortableness should be enough to stop sexual advances. I would love to live in a perfect world where everyone feels empowered to say what they want and advocate for their needs, but the reality is that women are still taught to protect men’s feelings. We are still learning to express our needs in assertive ways, especially considering the gendered nature of sexual violence.
Maybe “accidental” rapists genuinely don’t realize they are committing rape. But they should. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, our conversation about consent needs to go beyond “no means no,” since “no” isn’t the only way in which people withhold consent. I’d bet a good amount of money that anyone with an inkling of intuition can work out when someone is feeling unenthusiastic about sex. I’d wager that a lot of rapists really aren’t confused about rape at all.
By solely relying on consent culture to educate rapists around us, we oversimplify the relationships of power and privilege that are invested in sexual violence. In Greek life, for example, we ignore the ways in which men often talk about women’s bodies.
So, I’ll gladly deliver presentations about consent if it helps clear up what consent looks like, but I won’t waste my time believing that rapists won’t rape just because I defined consent for them. Rape culture persists not because of ignorance but because of power — because rapists know what consent is and choose to violate it anyway.
Stop making rape jokes. Call out your friends for using violent language about women. Don’t buy into myths about the “accidental rapist.” Believe survivors. There are so many things we need to actively do in our daily lives; completing an online lesson about sexual assault is not enough.
As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to an end, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the work we’re doing to dismantle rape culture on college campuses. UC Berkeley and GASA have made good efforts to move beyond the pure semantics of consent, but our work isn’t done yet. Like I said, we need consent culture, but we also need a more critical conversation about how we can hold perpetrators accountable — about how we can change our culture.