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Communication is consent: Exploring the role of consent in modern dating culture


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According to research by Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, a NYC-based sex researcher and educator, the most effective way of obtaining informed consent is by asking verbally. Silence never means "yes." (Photo Illustration by Isaac Ritchey | Photo Editor)

Consent and sexual assault continue to be heavily discussed in the media as more survivors feel comfortable speaking out.

Men and women ages 18-24 have the highest risk for sexual violence, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). The risk increases if the individual is a college student. 

A majority of the population at Central Michigan University are both 18-24 and students, putting them at greater risk for sexual violence.

"(College aged individuals) are more likely to be assaulted than any other population and that increases two folds on campus or in a campus community," Mary Martinez, interim executive director of the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity and Title IX coordinator, said. "Sexual assault is reported more than those not in that age range and not on a college campus."

Consent remains as an important concept to understand as ever, both on and off campus.

Defining Consent

Consent can have many different specific definitions depending on the context, organization and governing laws.

For instance, Oxford defines consent as "permission for something to happen or agreement to do something," whereas according to RAINN, "consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity." Oxford, a common dictionary company for all ages, gives the general definition, but RAINN, an organization that deals with sexual violence, puts the definition in context to their site and mission. Both definitions include the key word "agreement".

To Martinez, communication is the only word that defines consent. 

"Communication is really the foundation of what consent is," Martinez said. "It doesn’t come in one shape or form, it can look different, as long as it’s clear."

In addition to communication, Rebecca Hayes, sociology, anthropology and social work faculty member, believes consent is respect.

“The pushback from students is always that (asking for consent) will make it less sexy," Hayes said. "My quote is always, 'If you can't talk about sex, you shouldn't be having it.'"

Consent needs to be an affirmative response and before the activity begins, continuing throughout.

"Any type of sexual activity, and that can take many forms, you need to have consent," Brooke Oliver-Hempenstall, director of sexual aggression services, said. "Regardless of if it's someone you just met, someone you just started dating, a long-term relationship since junior high or you've been married for 40 years, consent is crucial."  

Consent & Communication

Positive consent can be shown through communication as sexual activities progress with phrases like, "is this OK?," explicit agreement to specific actions and physical cues, according to RAINN.

"You need a verbal yes or body language, a person nodding yes," Hayes said. "You need an affirmative, assertive consent. Absence of consent is a no, silence is a no."

The key to confirmed consent is clear, continuous communication, Martinez said. 

 "It’s difficult, even for people who have been in relationships for decades to communicate clearly, but that really is what it’s about – making sure you’re engaged in the process," Martinez said. "It’s not a one-time 'do you consent?' question."

Martinez discussed the importance of having consent throughout the entirety of the process – checking in with your partner, making sure they’re okay with it. 

"If they’re not okay with it, if they’re not liking what you’re doing, if they say something or their body tightens up and reacts, be attuned to that and say ‘is it okay if I do this instead?'”  Martinez said.

According to Martinez, if it's a question to whether someone's body language is saying yes or no, the answer is no.

“If you can’t read someone’s body language, ask them," Martinez said. "It’s okay if you can’t read body language or pick up on cues, that’s why you can have that communication and ask.” 

Body language for consent is simple if they are unconscious or heavily intoxicated.

“When alcohol is involved, an individual who is incapacitated cannot give consent,” Martinez said. “If they are so intoxicated that they are not able to make that decision, it is against the law and university policy.”

Consent's Role in Dating Culture

No matter how the dating culture has changed or will change, consent will always be important, according to Oliver-Hempenstall.

With dating apps and virtual communication as key aspects of of relationships, dating culture is more fast-paced than before. 

"I’m not in the dating culture – let me just preface by saying that – but my perception and observation is that it’s a fast-paced culture," Martinez said. "That it is literally at your fingertips, swipe left, swipe right, multiple dating apps."

In addition to sexual assault and harassment that occurs in person, it happens through the internet as well with unwanted pornographic pictures, also know as "unsolicited dick pics."

"Regardless if it's an in-person activity or something that is not but is still engaging in sexual behavior, then consent is the crucial element," Oliver-Hempenstall said.

The classic mother answer of "listen to your gut" happens to be the perfect way to avoid possible unsafe scenarios and ensure consent. 

"Sometimes if you are in a situation, you need to trust your gut and listen to that little voice inside of you say it,” Martinez said. “If it doesn’t feel right, try to get out of the situation."

Martinez mentioned that in order to get out of a one-on-one situation with an individual, it's okay to lie and do what is necessary to get out.

"Be aware of what’s going on around you and your friends and if there are ways avoid someone getting in a situation where it’s a one-on-one encounter," Martinez said. "Some people feel more encouraged or empowered in numbers, so there are a lot of techniques that way."

In many ways, females use friendship to avoid sexual assault or to confide in.

If You or Someone You Love is a Survivor

Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates is a campus resource that offers free 24/7 confidential services via online chat or by calling (989) 774-2255.

The CMU Counseling Center offers free confidential counseling to any current student. Appointments can be made by calling (989) 774-3381. 

Recovery, Independence, Safety and Empowerment provides emergency shelter, counseling, safety planning and legal advocacy. R.I.S.E has a 24-hour crisis line, (844) 349-6177 for counseling, emergency shelter and safety planning. For legal advocacy, call the main office at (989) 773-0078.

McLaren Hospital offers additional confidential services as well and can be reached at (989) 775-1600.

Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity, located in the Bovee University Center 306, offers nonconfidential services and has forms to report sexual misconduct. Contact OCRIE by calling (989) 774-3253.

  “If someone discloses to you they were sexually assaulted, it’s OK not to know what to say,” Martinez said. “I often tell students, 'it’s okay that you don’t know all the answers, the most well-trained psychologist or counselor might not know what to say in exactly every situation, and that’s OK.'”

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