What is consent?

Grey. Blurry. Uncertain. These are words that students and even faculty use to describe sexual consent in universities across the country.

The elusive term that is impossible to define and yet impossible to ignore has been challenging administration to set boundaries and educate students on actions they deem “cross the line”.

Despite efforts to convey a clear-cut definition of consent – a word that by its subjective nature eludes definition – school officials still struggle to pin it down, and piecing together sexual assault cases is nearly impossible as everyone’s own definition of consent seems to differ.

Consent Defined

At St. Edward’s University, consent is defined as “sexual permission,” according to the university’s student handbook. Consent, it explains, can be verbal or nonverbal, but “non-verbal consent is less clear than talking about what you want and what you don’t.”

The handbook continues to remind students that “consent to some form of sexual activity cannot be automatically taken as consent to any other sexual activity” and that silence, “without actions demonstrating permission,” cannot automatically be taken for consent.

The language is straightforward enough, but for clarity the handbook’s definition of consent closes with a simple adage, “‘No’ always means ‘No,’ and ‘Yes’ may not always mean ‘Yes.”

Where is the Confusion?

Although consent is outlined in the student handbook, it cannot be assumed that students will actually read it. And students are not without excuse: The lofty handbook is not the most accessible, and is easy to lose among piles of undone homework and laundry.

However, the Title IX team in the Dean of Students Office does as much as possible to improve communication between administration and students. Rather than handing over a lengthy list of do’s and do-not’s, they prefer to simplify the rules through demonstrations, videos and a comprehensive website, allowing students to interact with them.

Administration and Consent

Steven Pinkenburg, the associate dean of students and Title IX deputy, is in charge of outlining consent for incoming freshman at orientation. He also lays out the university’s policy on drugs, alcohol and other tedium at orientation that would probably get overlooked otherwise.

“We cover consent when we do Title IX trainings, so any of our incoming freshman during orientation sessions [hear] about Title IX, sexual misconduct and consent.”

Pinkenburg, who is thoroughly committed to student safety, is also comic and approachable, acknowledging how “grey” and difficult an area consent is for students to navigate, especially when freshman year is the first time they have the conversation.

To simplify the mystery, Pinkenburg describes consent as a dance: even though a person joins a potential partner on the dance floor does not mean that either party is obligated to dance.

“If I grab your hand and lead you to the dance floor, great, I’ve got your consent to walk with you, but once we get to the dance floor and I start dancing and you’re not, I need to find out whether that’s [okay],” said Pinkenburg.

He added, “If you are sensing silence or the other person is not reciprocating, you need step back and ask, ‘are you okay with this?’”

Pinkenburg explained that the handbook also makes the distinction between seduction and coercion.

“I might get a ‘yes’ to participate in activities, but if I’m coercing someone into doing something- if I’m telling you I’m going to spread rumors unless you do this- I’m getting a yes, but it’s not really consent”

He also talked about the difficulties that arise when alcohol and drugs are involved, noting that it is especially hard for administration to figure out what happened when one or both parties were intoxicated and there were few or no witnesses.

“Once you start throwing in drugs and alcohol, [decision making] is really blurry.”