Consent isn’t always verbal and sexual assault prevention training needs to address that

When allegations of sexual misconduct against actor Aziz Ansari were published this month, the circumstances of the accusations felt a little too familiar. The story of a young woman who didn’t want to have sex, but also didn’t explicitly say the word “no,” coupled with a man who either didn’t understand her nonverbal signals – or just chose to ignore them.

From conversations with my peers, I know that it’s not rare to talk to a woman on a college campus and have her explain how she had sex because she didn’t feel comfortable verbally saying “no” in the moment. I have heard phrases like “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings” or “I didn’t want him to think less of me” over and over again from my friends at home and at GW, but those thoughts should never be how we feel. Part of the problem is that these conversations are happening among friends and not being talked about in sexual educational programs or sexual assault prevention trainings. But every form of consent is essential, and we can work to prevent these conversations after the fact if people learn how to read nonverbal cues.

It seems that all of these programs talk about sex on the surface level, without actually talking about it in depth.

Although GW does spotlight verbal consent in their mandatory in-person freshman sexual assault prevention training, officials need to dedicate a specific session to teaching nonverbal cues people may give off if they do not want to engage in sexual activity.

Freshmen going through the training can choose from six specialized workshop options, like one on LGBTQ students or relational violence. No matter which workshop you choose to attend, the training covers definitions of consent and sexual assault, information about campus resources and policies governing sexual misconduct. Even though verbal consent is vital, we should be past the point of needing to only teach people that “no means no.” It’s 2018, and it should be expected that every person understands the meaning of the word “no.” But since there is still a focus on watching out for verbal consent, many are not picking up on the cues that their partners give off when they aren’t comfortable with the situation. Women across the globe are raised with certain gender norms, where we are taught to protect others’ feelings before our own and to constantly be ‘nice’ and ‘polite,’ and often that makes them afraid to say the word no.

What we need to be teaching students in sexual education programs, especially at the mandatory freshman sexual assault prevention trainings, is the need to open up the conversation. It seems that all of these programs talk about sex on the surface level, without actually talking about it in depth, where more questions about consent and nonverbal cues would typically arise. Programs tend to try and avoid discussing the often graphic details, but sometimes it is necessary for a frank and effective conversation on consent and sex.

Sexual education programs can’t just keep teaching people to listen for the word “no” because many are afraid to say it in the moment. Programs need to do a better job of teaching nonverbal signals, which can range from something as simple as avoiding any kind of touching, or something harder to notice, like avoiding eye contact. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s website goes beyond defining consent and gives several examples of what nonverbal consent can look like in addition to nonverbal signs that the person does not want to consent. A training at GW should use this guide as a model to provide to students during training.

After talking to multiple freshmen who went through GW’s required sexual assault prevention training program this past summer and fall semester, I learned that each one of them said nonverbal cues was only discussed in passing, or they did not hear about them at all. But a major topic like nonverbal signals deserves a dedicated spot during trainings and workshops to thoroughly discuss what they could look like and how to notice them.

The longer we wait to alter our programs, the larger risk there is of having more women say #MeToo.

Consent is not just black and white. The young woman’s experience with Ansari shows this exact problem, as she engaged in intercourse with him despite trying to give off cues she was uncomfortable. Since the article was published, more stories have been written addressing affirmative consent and the lack of knowledge around it. Although I do disagree with some points made in the Babe article, her story is one I’ve head many times. I have also heard more experiences similar to this one, from my peers’ experiences and even a Twitter thread that a woman started about similar experiences her former college roommate went through that has gone viral. This is why it’s so important that we start talking about the scenarios in between the extremes of eager consensual activity and violent assault, where nonverbal cues can often be spotted.

Elsie Whittington, a Ph.D researcher at the University of Sussex whose background is in sexual health youth work, called these gray areas something that is difficult to talk about, but “we need to get better at.” She says that discussing these gray areas will not undermine messages that stress the importance of clear consent. Rather, consent education “needs to be taught – but in a way that doesn’t only rely on the law and binaries of yes/no and rape/consent.” And this needs to include nonverbal signals.

Although the signals of discomfort may be different for everyone, if we can teach the general signals, we may be stopping a lot of terrible incidents. We also need to teach that just because someone says “no” at one moment, they won’t necessarily say “yes” 10 minutes later. This no longer can be taught in passing, and greater emphasis must be placed on it. Teaching people to just say no is not enough. The longer we wait to alter our programs, the larger risk there is of having more women say #MeToo.

Saara Navab, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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