Consent & College Life
What did you learn about consent prior to arriving at UNH? Were detailed and holistic discussions of consent woven into your health or sex education curriculum in high school? Did your family talk openly about consent? We know from research, as well as personal stories and testimonies, that our culture and education systems don’t spend very much intentional time on the topic of consent, even though the practice itself is woven into our everyday lives.
Going to college is ultimately about gaining an education – but your experience at UNH will involve so much more than classroom learning, tests, and projects. For many, college is a brand new living experience that comes with a lot of social decision-making: Where do I want to live? Who do I want to spend time with? How do I want to spend my evenings and weekends? Am I interested in drinking? What do I want my sex life to look like? These are decisions that you should be able to make for yourself, free from outside pressure, influence, or expectations. And that’s the crux of consent!
Let’s explore more about this key concept and life skill…
What is consent?
Permission for something to happen; agreement to do something. 
UNH defines consent as “seeking and receiving expressed permission.” If you think about it, we do this all the time – even outside the context of sex:
- Will you hold the door for me?
- Can I post this photo?
- Are you finished eating? Can I take your plate?
- Wanna order takeout tonight?
- FREELY GIVEN
- Doing something sexual with someone is a decision that should be made without pressure, coercion, force, or manipulation. If someone is incapacitated, they cannot give consent.
- Minds can change at any time and consent can be withdrawn. Even if you've done something before, even if you're in the middle of doing it right now, even if you said you wanted to earlier.
- You have all the information you need to make the best decision for yourself, knowing all of the "risks" involved. For example, knowing someone's age, STI status, whether they have other partners, safe word(s), etc.
- Yes means yes! Everyone is present and excited. Consent is not hesitation, excuses, silence, or the absence of "no."
- Saying yes to one thing doesn't imply yes to anything else. Going to someone's room with them doesn't mean you're willing to hook up, making out doesn't mean you're willing to go farther. Ongoing check-ins are key.
How do I know if I've got consent?
UNH is clear that consent is a mutual practice and exchange: seeking and receiving expressed permission. The clearest way to seek and receive consent is through verbal communication: asking a question and receiving an affirmative answer. This could sound like…
- Are you okay with…? YES!
- Do you want to…? YES!
- Should I keep going…? YES!
Although it is possible to seek and receive permission without words, non-verbal communication can be easy to misinterpret. Consensual body language should look like….
- All people actively moving an encounter forward
- You kiss me, I kiss you…
- You take your clothes off, I take my clothes off…
Practice seeking consent in a way that makes it clear someone has the option to say “no.” Think about the difference between “we should have sex” or “let’s have sex” vs. “do you want to have sex tonight?”
What if they say no?
Good question! This is probably something that anyone who chooses to engage in sex will encounter at some point in their life, because sometimes our partners just aren’t in the mood! Consider what it would feel like for someone not to offer consent (either verbally or through body language) and plan for how you would respond in a way that doesn’t create pressure, guilt, or defensiveness, but that demonstrates care and respect for their agency and bodily autonomy. Something like…
- That’s okay, maybe we can try that some other time
- I totally understand, let’s keep it here
- You seem unsure, wanna watch TV together instead?
Consent in Digital Spaces
Relationships, sex, and intimacy don’t always play out in person, but that doesn’t mean consent goes out the window. Digital consent violations are serious and violent. If someone shares a nude photo or sexual messages with you, don’t share them with others – this is a violation of privacy, trust, consent, and the law. Let’s think about some digital mediums or spaces where consent is key:
Texting & Messaging
Just because technology connects us 24/7 doesn’t mean your friends, family members, classmates, or partners are always available. Make sure you check in about what people feel comfortable with:
- How do you feel about texting at work?
- Do you want to be in touch while you’re away this weekend?
Not everyone has the same boundaries around being mentioned online, identified on social media, or tagged in photos. Don’t post or tag without asking for consent:
- I love this photo of us, can I post it?
- Are you okay with me tagging you when I share this article?
Sexting & Photos
It’s never okay to send unwanted sexts (even to a long-term partner) or to violate someone’s digital privacy. Just like any kind of intimacy, digital sexual interactions should feel exciting, comfortable, and safe. Here are some approaches to keep in your toolbox:
- I’d love to show you exactly how I’m feeling. Can I send a pic?
- Heads up, that most recent snap is NSFW!
Just because someone has signed up to use a dating app doesn’t imply their consent to chat back & forth with you, share additional personal information, or exchange sexual messages/photos. Remember, consent is a specific and ongoing process:
- Would you feel comfortable sharing your # and moving our convo to texts?
- What are you looking for right now?
Consent & Substance Use
Alcohol and drugs do not cause sexual assault. Lots of people choose to drink or use drugs and never perpetrate violence or harm while under the influence. Importantly, many college students who have experiences of interpersonal violence (sexual assault, harassment, stalking, relationship abuse) say that alcohol or drugs were involved. A person who is incapacitated by alcohol and/or drugs cannot give consent, and initiating sexual activity with someone in that state is a violation of UNH policy and of the law.
- They are unaware of their surroundings
- They are unsteady on their feet, stumbling, or need assistance to get from point A to point B
- Their speech is slurred
- They have trouble focusing or holding a coherent conversation
- They have lost control of bodily functions (urinating, throwing up, etc.)
- They are asleep or having trouble staying awake
There is no specific amount of alcohol or drugs we can use to determine when someone is incapacitated; everyone’s body reacts differently depending on their body size, metabolism, food eaten that day, other substances ingested, etc. Hold yourself and others accountable to know these signs and respond with care.
- Alcohol can be used as a weapon to incapacitate someone and take advantage of them, and/or to discredit or blame them for their experience.
- Alcohol can be used as a camouflage to cover up, excuse, or obscure harmful or violent behavior.
But the reality is: you are responsible for the things you do when you are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Whether you’re operating a vehicle or operating your own body, you are accountable for your actions and the impact they have on others.
Some of our earliest learning is about sharing, taking turns, and asking permission – all practices of consent and mutual agreement. As we get older, the context may change and the stakes may get higher, but the essence of this concept remains simple and familiar. Don’t get caught up in the myth that consent is mysterious or a trap. Instead, lean into the reality that it’s a crucial building block of safe and just communities in which all people have inherent rights to bodily autonomy and self-determination. And remember: Wildcats Get Consent!
There is so much more to learn, discuss, and dig into around the topic of consent. If you think that your community, org, chapter, class, etc. could benefit from a consent workshop, request SHARPP’s “Wildcats Get Consent” program!