Marketing Consent – Brianna Rettig

I never want to hear “consent is sexy” again.

I’m not going to argue that consent is not sexy. Consent is what makes sex sex. If anything, this should be obvious. I am, though, aggravated that as students we have to be sold consent with a promise essentially saying, “Don’t worry, it won’t kill the mood! It’s sexy!

I’m also not prepared to hop on the bandwagon that trivializes consent to the point where it becomes a joke. First-year orientation, which leaves one evening to discuss sexual assault, loves to throw the phrase “consent is sexy” at students repetitively and really quite mindlessly. For most students, this is the first time that they’ve sat down and had serious conversations about sexual assault. Consequently, people create jokes out of something that feels foreign to them, isn’t explained properly, and does in fact come off a tad silly in presentations.

Take for example consent pot, the popular game on most WOOLF trips in which people have to get in sexual positions together after losing (formerly called sexpot, but now featuring the new and improved version with consent)! Is this really practicing consent, though, or is it making a mockery of real consensual, situations by turning it into a game? It feels a lot more like a trivialization of what should be a very basic concept of human respect. Consent represents an acknowledgment that you are with a person and you care about their comfort, their well-being, and their pleasure.

In a game, you laugh.

As the “consent is sexy” phrase continues to be repeatedly mindlessly, we can ignore the more serious issues that accompany learning what sex really entitles. Our language shapes the way we see the world; when we think the end-game should always be the sexual, we miss out on the other intricacies of what sex can be. Yes–sexual–but also, ideally, it serves as a way of exploring another human individual. But the way it is marketed to us, as some sort of super sexualized and tantalizing act, undermines the exact issue of why we even have to promote consent.

If you can’t find the courage to ask if your partner wants to have sex, you should seriously ask yourself why you’re having sex. If asking, “Is this okay,” kills the mood, there might not be a mutual trust between partners. If we really want to fix this problem of sexual assault cases on campuses, we cannot use sexualization-marketing tools to sell consent. We must advocate that this is a basic human right.

Up until now, we’ve been treating sexual assault as if it’s a natural disaster, inevitable as if we only have control over the repercussions of the acts themselves. The Obama administration has set out to combat sexual assault on college campuses employing the “active bystander” ideology; we very much mirror this ideology on campus with the Circle of Six app and promoting active bystander actions. This is great. But why are we still not calling out the rapists? Why are we not saying, “Do not rape”? This sounds as ridiculous as asking, “Why don’t we telpeople not to murder others?” but in a system where 97% of all rapists will not spend a single day in jail (RAINN), there’s an implicit notion that everyone except the rapist themselves holds responsibility.

I have no doubts that efforts on college campuses have the greatest intentions in changing rape culture, but they still only address the superficialities of the problem. Only beginning sexual assault awareness programs in college and not at the high school level, something outside of the college’s jurisdiction, I know, contributes to the this ignorance of consent. The fact that they use the same marketing techniques used by advertising agencies to sell morals using sex—like everything else in America, sex sells—further trivializes the weight of the matter. Ultimately though, administrations simply fail to address the real root of the problem by letting rapists go. There’s only so much of the culture that can change while assailants still receive few repercussions. Until they actually reflect this in the administrative process, all this sexual assault education has little weight.

This obviously is an increasingly complex issue as we learn what works and what does not in preventing the epidemic of sexual assault cases on college campuses, an epidemic to which Williams is no exception. It’s a culture that must change by critically thinking through what we say around our own campus. Well-intentioned steps need to be taken one step further. The mentality behind the legislation is what needs to change just as much as the actual administrative process.

So please, don’t mindlessly toss around the “consent is sexy” phrase without thinking through why you’re saying it.

“Statistics.” RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2014.

2 thoughts on “Marketing Consent – Brianna Rettig

  1. I’d be curious to see what the source of your claim is that assailants at Williams who can be said to be guilty with a reasonable level of certainty are not punished. According to the article in the WBUR, of the 3 sexual assault complaints of which we were told the outcome, 1 resulted in expulsion and the other two resulted in significant suspensions. It is important to note that in none of these cases do we even know what the student was found guilty of besides “violating the code of conduct.” While people assume that that the students have been found guilty of rape or sexual assault, this claim is only expressed by the victim, and the school is legally unable to correct that statement if it was false.

    You also draw parallels to murder in your article, but you don’t discuss why most policies focused on decreasing murder, and violent crime in general, are more focused on victim-side prevention and high levels of punishment, and less on addressing the criminals themselves. In short, the reason they do this is because focusing on the murderers is fairly ineffective. A basic overview of criminological theory will tell you that even experts in the field don’t know what leads someone to kill (or rape). Sexual and physical abuse, feelings of powerlessness and or victimization, reduced size of crucial brain structures, and frustration based on distorted views on cultural norms have all been implicated in both issues. However, if one thing is for certain, it’s that efforts to curb violent crimes on the the perpetrator side have not been particularly effective. A survey by the Bureau of Justice found the criminal recidivism rate to be about 75% (Cooper et al., 2014). While I am certainly wary of using a national survey of criminal recidivism to inform policy decisions surround sexual assault on college campuses, the point remains the same. Although it would be nice to just be able to stop people from sexually assaulting others, we don’t really know how to do that. The “teach consent” method has not been empirically supported, especially considering how difficult it would be to distinguish drops in assault rates from increased victim empowerment resulting from the same programming. We would also love to be able to hold the Williams community to a higher standard, but I don’t hesitate to say that the respectability of the Williams community is not the same 8 shots in. So, while we do want to spend time exploring ways to prevent rapists from becoming rapists, we shouldn’t let go of the fact that teaching someone how to stay safe will do more to keep them safe than telling a perpetrator not to perpetrate, nor should we forget that we don’t have to pick one or the other.

  2. First off, thank you for engaging in this discussion. I would agree with you that this is an oversimplified argument yet it’s intent was to acknowledge that the language we use on campus reflects a greater issue of not taking consent seriously enough. When alluding to the fact that most assailants are not punished, I had the intent of illuminating the whole country’s negligence to prosecution, not just Williams, and this is reflected in our language by our trivialization of consent.

    I find what you said about criminal legislation very interesting and something I had not thought of. I greatly agree that we should not pick one or the other in regards to educating prevention and protection; I believe they are both important. I do believe, however, as students we have the power to change our language and how we discuss the matter to prevent a culture that is conducive to sexual assault. That power is in our hands. I believe phrases like “consent is sexy” only superficially address the problem in consent education. But that is not to say ending that phrase is the end all of changing our discourse and our campus culture.

    As for administrative reactions to sexual assault, I find it very hard to suggest an alternative to what they are already doing. I do not have the right answer to that question nor would I ever claim I do seeing that there are a lot of different things to account for that are beyond my knowledge.

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