If you spend much time on a college campus, read college ministry-related blogs, or talk to students (or their parents), sooner or later you will run into talk about the problems of students consuming too much alcohol and “hooking up” (a term for causal sex covering activity all the way from “making out” to intercourse).  Two experiences yesterday prompt me to ponder.  I attended a meeting where this topic occupied (again) our attention.  And Scot McKnight’s blog, “Jesus Creed,” had a synopsis of Christian Smith’s book, Lost in Transition: the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, which puts reliable numbers to the picture.  I’ve read the book and it is sobering.  I think maybe I’ve mentioned it before in my own blog.

In making judgments about whether sexual activity among our students crosses a line or not, we use the concept “effective consent.”  The Center for Sex and Gender Relations (http://centersgr.com/support/sexual-misconduct/effective-consent/) defines effective consent thus:

  • Is freely and actively given. It requires communication between all partners in any sexual encounter
  • Consent can be communicated verbally or by action(s).  In whatever way consent is communicated, it must be mutually understandable.
  • Is an informed decision
  • Is the responsibility of the initiator of the sexual act to obtain.

Look at the words highlighted.  How often is consent “freely and actively” given?  What assumptions operate here?  I seriously doubt that virtually any of the sex that most often takes place between two college students could meet the criteria of this definition.  It may help us figure out whether someone has broken the law, but it does not even begin to address the residue of issues swirling in our campus communities.

Imagine this scenario.  A first-year (age 18) female student, new on campus and eager to make friends and be accepted into the social scene, goes to a party.  There she spies a guy from her Econ class.  They have talked and she is familiar with him, but doesn’t know him that well.  (It’s in that murky, in-between area of “know well enough” to feel comfortable talking and hanging out, but far from knowing someone intimately.)  He’s very good looking and seems to have a good personality and she feels attracted to him.  He has been feeling the same, so he approaches her, chats her up for a while, then invites her to his room.

Now, let’s say that they’re both stone cold sober, so we can’t blame alcohol for what happens.  I know, it’s just a hypothetical.

She goes, and they start to hook up.  It feels good to have his attention and the moment is racy and exciting – just like what “everyone says” college is “all about” (notice the moral norm inside those scare quotes).  But she likes this guy, too, and wants to get to know him.  She stands on the edge of giving a little bit of her heart to this guy.  Once they get started, where and how does it stop?

Even if you go back to the very beginning of the encounter, how free was her set of decisions (several have been made throughout)?  What pressures did she feel, even if they were desired pressures?

The CSR definition for “effective consent” seems to me to be based on an assumption of humans as free, rational beings.  In terms of policy, this is the most common assumption working in higher education today, academic debates about human nature, notwithstanding.  Examining it, I find it staggeringly naive relative to what actually takes place on a daily basis on campus.

I agree that we must have working definitions, that people have “agency,” that they must be responsible for  their choices, etc.  But, far beyond our policies, we need to re-consider our assumptions about just how “freely” our students exercise free choice.  This is a basic and gigantic question that demands our attention.  Otherwise we will never know if we’re actually helping or unwittingly hurting them.

A little PS: I googled “couples kissing” to find an apropos photo or image to use with this blog.  Stupid me!

Effective Consent

2 thoughts on “Effective Consent

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks for this article, Steve. You’ve got me thinking!
    I expect it is likely that said college students would argue pretty strongly that they indeed are giving “free and active” consent. How does one convince someone else that s/he doesn’t have (?) or cannot exercise (?) free will in certain situations?

    There is, apparently, another Christian Smith book I’ll have to read…

    Thanks again.

    • April 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Thanks, Steve. I’m working on a hunch and it’s not a happy one. That is, campus culture, established as much by faculty, staff and administrators as by students, contributes to the naive notion that we are all free, rational beings, which seems to suggest that we are all capable of making free choices about private behaviors. But this is exactly the problem. It sets up an environment in which much troublesome behavior takes place and then we turn around and “blame” the college students for the trouble. Add in some “peer pressure” (which is moral pressure of a sort) and the scenario I sketched in the blog post looks less and less “free” to me.


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