Navigating Sexual Consent at University

Beginning the transition to university can be a time that brings up lots of different emotions – excitement, nervousness, anticipation, even feelings of grief. Going to university can mean lots of things for different people – it can mean leaving home, getting a new start, having more freedom, starting adulthood, making new friends – and hopefully some learning in there too!

You may have heard lots of stories already from older siblings, friends or just through the grapevine about what campus life is like – some of which may sound really fun and some a little daunting. One of the big topics outside managing classes and your workload for first time Uni students is the social scene. University can be a lot of fun, and it’s important to balance your learning with enjoying yourself and socializing – if that’s your thing!

At Gippsland Centre Against Sexual Assault, our prevention team is committed to offering helpful education to new university students about navigating sexual and/or romantic relationships to address the rates of on campus sexual violence. In 2017 a report was released outlining the troubling statistics on sexual harassment and assault at Australian university campuses (https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/change-course-national-report-sexual-assault-and-sexual). Of these statistics, social events or residence parties accounted for 10% of students who reported sexual harassment and 21% of students who reported sexual assault. Additionally, almost half of all students who reported experiencing sexual harassment or assault knew the perpetrator/s.

Whilst these statistics are indeed concerning, we all have a part to play – regardless of our gender or sexual orientation, in reducing these incidences and we can do this by having a solid understanding of the dynamics of consent where sex or sexual touch is concerned.

Let’s explore!

What do you mean by consent?

Consensual sex or touch is where all participants agree and willingly make the decision to partake in sexual activity. The agreement must be made without pressure, coercion, force or intimidation with the knowing that consent may be withdrawn at any time.

I gave consent to someone once and we had a good time, I’m not interested anymore, but they are. I feel guilty saying no – what should I do?

When we give consent, we are giving it for that exact moment, and it is not a blanket statement for possible future interactions – even if you enjoyed it the first time. You are entitled to honour what you are feeling and withdraw consent even if they feel disappointed and rejected. On the flip-side, check in with the person you are with to make sure it’s still okay, ‘listen’ to body language as well, if someone is agreeing, but they seem tense and unsure, respect that and have a deeper conversation.

Sometimes in new social settings like university some folks want to seem more ‘grown up’ and ‘cool’ or want to reinvent themselves by proving they can ‘hook up with people’ or are ‘up for a good time’. Being consent-savvy means listening to more than words being willing to respect boundaries that may be unspoken. When in doubt, consider it a no.

Some parties can get pretty wild, especially after some drinks, what about consent if someone is drunk?

If someone is intoxicated or high, they are not able to give informed consent – this means that even if someone is saying yes and ‘begging for it’ – it’s still not consent as they do not have the reflective capacity to make a clear judgement.

How do I know if they’re just playing hard to get or they’re actually saying no?

Assuming someone is ‘playing hard to get’ is moving into what is often problematic territory. It plays into beliefs formed by culture and media that men need to be sexually dominant and ‘pursue’ until the other is convinced. If someone isn’t clearly showing interest in making a connection, the best assumption is to make is they’re not interested and to leave it at that.

Someone told me I shouldn’t wear the tops I like because it means I’m asking for it – are they right?

Regardless of the type of clothes someone wears, it is not an invitation for others to make sexual comments or that someone wants sexual attention. Culturally, women’s clothes have been central in the debate about what ‘causes’ sexual assault, with blame placed on what women were wearing, instead of placing responsibility and cause with the perpetrator and their behaviour. Wearing clothes that you like, where you can express yourself and feel comfortable does not automatically give others consent.


Written by Gippsland Centre Against Sexual Assault, Restore Counsellor, Ashlee Bennett

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