This year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month theme focuses on how we all can work to create Safer Campuses and Brighter Futures. Recently, national discussions have included legislating or clarifying what consent should look like to create safer communities and institutions. California passed the “Yes Means Yes” Law this past Fall, New York is considering the same, and the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management has made recommendations for affirmative consent policies with currently 800 colleges that have instituted them. With such attention to sexual violence on campuses, isn’t this the perfect time to talk about what affirmative or enthusiastic consent could look like in our communities?
Consent is more than “No means No.” Consent is about making sure everyone involved in sexual activities is enjoying themselves and feeling safe. A verbal confirmation is ideal (“Yes!”), but clear non-verbal confirmation is also consent (e.g. nodding of the head or motioning with the hands). This is the common understanding around affirmative or enthusiastic consent – there is no question that everyone is ready and willing to move forward.
When society focuses on the existence of a “no” versus the absence of a “yes,” they are holding victims responsible for stopping sexual violence. To survivors who have reported the assault to police, it can be confusing and disheartening to hear law enforcement ask questions about how loud they said no or how many times. Making “yes” the standard provides a more supportive space.
Consent is something that exists in all aspects of our lives. Teaching kids early about defining their own boundaries and respecting others’ boundaries builds the foundation for future relationships. When children learn to ask and give permission (on their terms), for something as simple as playing with a toy, it helps frame consent as the appropriate way to communicate with others and value what is said.
Following the rules of affirmative and enthusiastic consent means all parties are excited participants with equal power in deciding what happens. Consent is never assumed and partners are invested and engaged in each other’s enjoyment. It is not about creating a binding contract; instead it is about developing a culture that embraces positive conversations and sexual experiences. Communication is crucial and provides a clear, open space for sexual expression.
Consent is not a one-time, all or nothing, experience. It requires partners to pay attention and check in to make sure the experience is consistently mutual. By focusing on not just the verbal, but physical and emotional cues, all parties are agreeing to see sexual interaction and consent as a continuous process. It shows the highest level of respect to acknowledge that all persons need to be on the same page, and when they’re not, it stops.
NJCASA views ongoing conversations about consent and sexual assault as essential building blocks for a foundation that better supports survivors and creates safer communities. We look forward to working with allies and stakeholders to help New Jersey address this topic.