Let’s Have a Serious Conversation About Consent

Let’s Have a Serious Conversation About Consent

At a time where rape culture is garnering more headlines, it’s time to reevaluate what ‘yes’ and ‘no’ look like.

Published September 12, 2016

As classes begin to start on campuses around the country, discussions regarding rape culture are more prominent than ever. This summer, the high profile rape case of convicted white athlete Brock Turner and the revival of a previous rape acquittal of actor/director Nate Parker has made people question their own understanding of what consent is.

Being a Black man that’s now two years fresh out of college, my education on rape culture and consent has evolved since then. The antiquated teachings of “no means no” as the only method of preventing rape is part of the problem. For far too long, my generation’s ability to practice more informed ways of healthy sexual interactions have been dictated by our parents’ outdated models.

That needs to change immediately if we intend on being serious about combating rape culture in the future.

I’m going to get very frank here in order to emphasize the need to change our current situation. Our parents’ generation and ones before us never really took the time to sincerely understand rape culture. Society back then was more patriarchal and visibly sexist.

For one, rape culture as a term wasn’t introduced conceptually until the late 1970s. Back then, it was mainly talked about amongst feminists and women’s rights groups — not campus administrations and the general public. There were no tough laws or research done on addressing campus rape cases during that time period and it can be argued that current actions today still aren’t strong enough.

For example, one of the few rare national surveys done back then on college men and rape culture reported in 1987 that 7.7 percent of male students admitted to engaging or attempting forced sex. Almost all of the men surveyed believed it was not a crime based on the fact that they faced no accusations, public shame or legal consequences. Similar surveys conducted today place college men who admit to committing sexual assault at around 11 percent.  

Title IX, the landmark portion of the United States Education Amendments of 1972, serves as the basis for government oversight into campus sexual assault cases. But as Title IX slowly evolved since the 1970s, it was not until 2003 when Kelly vs. Yale (the first Title IX civil action case involving student-on-student campus sexual assault) made college rape culture national news. It would not be until 2014, when we would see the White House enlist a task force to toughen their stance on combating college rape culture.

In other words, there has been over 40 years of slow incremental federal progress which could rightfully make victims feel powerless within the system. Over the decades, respectability politics was the name of the game in regards to whether or not a sexual assault victim could be taken seriously. Concern for victims was reduced to sexist levels of whether or not they attempted to fight back or gave a perceived sexual innocence that warranted automatic protection.

Fast-forward to 2016, and things look a little different. Women are more socially liberated and beginning to visibly take ownership of their sexuality. Culturally, women are freely talking about casual sex while “slut-shaming” is also getting called out more often. Campuses are more prone to sharing information publicly about reporting rape.

College social life now includes the expectation to indulge in drugs and alcohol, social media, dating apps and larger-than-life intermingling. In other words, the climate has gotten more intense and chances of a rape occurring are also more likely. In fact, reported rape cases on college campuses have ridiculously climbed in recent years. Analysis from the NPR Investigative Unit drew the conclusion that while sexual assaults are part of the reason why campus rape reports are increasing — a failing on the part of colleges to discuss consent amongst their students factor in heavily.

This isn’t because millennials are more inherently problematic, but because our current education on rape culture is at the same myopic level of previous generations. And for all of the technology and access to new information available at our fingertips, frequently talking about rape and consent is something that’s still taboo.

Unless there is a current national news story surrounding the topic, that’s about the only time people who aren’t associated with a sexual assault prevention organization seem to care. The way in which we continuously talk about social justice issues routinely should be the same way we educate our current generation on preventing sexual assault in our communities. 

But in order to do this — we must let go of the conspiracy theories and stubbornness, and accept the facts: 

But these are the general trends of rape culture overall, here are the hard facts that we must understand about consent in order to change the current narrative moving forward: 

  • Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission or says “yes” to sexual activity with someone.

  • Consent can only be deemed legitimate if that person is able to give it freely without the manipulation or interjection of physical force, intimidation, drugs and alcohol, or other illegal ulterior motives.

  • Consent cannot be obtained if the person is not in a physical condition to say “no” or “yes.” Individuals who are asleep, passed out or visibly incoherent should not be propositioned for sex under any circumstances. In other words, they can’t say yes if they can’t say no.

  • Consent can only be given currently by the person at the time of the event — their clothes, friends, perceived flirtation and past encounters doesn’t warrant automatic sexual entry.

  • Consent can change at any moment of the sexual encounter and should be respected. If a person decides that they do not want to continue in the middle of sex, it must stop immediately.

In other words: “they look like they want it,” “I can see it in their eyes” or “they didn’t say no,” isn’t acceptable anymore. Furthermore, the use of alcohol and drugs to “lighten the mood” also isn’t the proper channel to ensure consensual sex either. If you can’t get sex sober, you shouldn’t be getting it any other way. Because at that point, any and all things outside of freely expressed consent is grounds for criminal charges and prosecution.

But the fear of doing jail time shouldn’t be the major reason why our young Black men should practice consent or concern themselves about rape culture. Too often, our community engages in conversations about rape prevention and sexual assault as fear tactics that unintentionally turn Black men off from understanding what overall healthy sexual relationships should look like. Although most of us will never be accused of committing a rape and typically recognize what consent is — we are still in fear of randomly getting accused and have become socially defensive as a result.

Real talk, one can never be accidentally accused of raping someone — it’s an individual’s own decision to put themselves in a situation in which the terms of consent weren’t clearly established. There are no blurred lines when it comes to having consensual sex and as long as you take responsibility for your actions at all times — it’s all good. Most of us get that, which is why we should look at combating rape culture with a heart of empathy rather than a sense of forced obligation. Empathy emotes compassion for victims and their trauma. It also signifies guilt when not feeling as though you care enough. It’s time for young black men to become more openly empathic when it comes to discussing — and now combating — sexual abuse and rape. “Boys will be boys” is no longer the excuse to blocking us from growing into manhood that mature and compassionate enough to empathize.

Overall, it’s important that we keep reminding our friends and family what consent really looks like. The conversation shouldn’t only be had when the media is watching, but something more common than that. As my generation continues to set new standards, we must also break the old traditions holding us back. I truly believe with sheer determination and persistence, our community can defeat rape culture in its tracks.

Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Ernest Owens is an award-winning multimedia journalist and editor for Philadelphia Magazine's G Philly. His work has been featured in USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Advocate, Metro US, and other media outlets. Later this year, the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists will be awarding Owens their prestigious Trailblazer Award for his innovative, barrier-breaking contributions to media. A graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, he is currently producing and starring in his own television talk show, ErnestlySpeaking!, at Philadelphia Community Access Media, where he is the youngest television host to have a talk show in Philadelphia.

Written by Ernest Owens

(Photos from Left: David Buchan/Getty Images for Westfield, Greene County Sheriff's Office via AP Photo, file)


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