Updated October 8, 2018 at 7:14 p.m.
A new study conducted by Columbia researchers has found that while most students know the legal definition of affirmative consent, this knowledge does not always translate into their actual sexual and consent practices in a college context.
Students described the blurred lines that surround giving consent, especially in social situations involving alcohol, and some male students feared that their consent practices fall short of legal standards, the paper also showed.
The paper, which was published at the end of last month, drew on interviews with more than 150 Barnard and Columbia students over a period of 16 months about their understanding and practical application of affirmative consent. The paper is the latest to be released by the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation—a research initiative carried out by faculty that began in 2015—and follows the ground breaking 2017 report that found that one in three women at Columbia experience sexual assault by the end of their senior year.
Students are taught the legal definition of consent during affirmative consent awareness and bystander intervention sessions held by Columbia and Barnard during the New Student Orientation Program. However, the study found that students practice consent in a variety of different ways, and that their real-world experiences with consent are heavily influenced by gender and racial dynamics as well as college drinking culture.
Both men and women said they felt that if one agrees to go back to another student’s room from a bar, they are implicitly agreeing to have sex in the near future. Many women expressed anxiety about saying no to engaging in sexual acts once they had made this initial agreement because they were scared of being rude.
One woman, who said she had experienced multiple sexual assaults, characterized this pressure by saying, “You give consent when you walk in the room.”
Both men and women said that they saw the need to ask for consent as solely the man’s responsibility, reporting that it was rare for women to ask for consent and for both parties to verbally express consent.
This dynamic, researchers found, contributes to male students’ fear that they are “doing consent wrong.” Male students interviewed emphasized their fear of sexual assault accusations, saying that such accusations can “ruin your life.”
The paper also revealed the role that race and ethnicity play in consent practices. Black men described more careful consent practices than white men, revealing an intense awareness of the racialized risks of sexual assault accusations, especially after sexual encounters with white women.
While SHIFT’s overall research included students across gender and sexuality spectrums, the study focused on the consent dynamics of cisgender heterosexual couples, explaining that the consent practices of LGBTQ students are sufficiently different from those of heterosexual students to merit a separate analysis.
To prevent sexual assault and promote consent education, SHIFT researchers suggested several strategies that universities can implement. These strategies include encouraging conversations on consent between student groups and continuous discussions on consent throughout the year rather than just during orientation programs.
Currently, Columbia requires that all new students complete the Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative, a mandatory online training about gender-based misconduct first unrolled in 2015, in addition to providing a tutorial about key policies and resources during NSOP. “Enough is Enough” training is also required for student group leaders as part of Club ReFuel, which is mandated by New York state law.
Researchers emphasized the need for education that stresses the need for both parties to ask for and receive consent, recommending that future consent awareness trainings make clear that the legal standard for consent is just the beginning. Students should be encouraged to critically reflect on their own behavior and practices, rather than being taught to recite a “correct” definition.
The paper also highlighted the need for policies that address binge-drinking, suggesting the creation of spaces on college campuses that allow students to socialize without using alcohol.