March 9, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Consent Isn’t Optional

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As Cornell students, we hear the word “consent” thrown around quite a bit. Most of us understand that sexual assault and the ambiguity of what constitutes “consent” is an issue, if not an epidemic, on our campus, yet disturbing statistics and headlines continue to loom over our heads. A study by the Association of American Universities in 2015 reported that 23 percent of female college students experienced unwanted sexual contact during their undergraduate years. This week, Cornell made national headlines for the second time this semester as a freshman basketball player was arrested on sexual assault charges. So yes, we, as students, can agree that sexual assault is a problem. We can even agree that it’s something we need to change. However, in order for these statistics to drop, in order for Cornell to once again be known nationally for its outstanding scholarship rather than sexual misconduct, a massive change needs to come from within.

As the Vice President of Public Relations for Cornell Consent Ed, I serve as a peer facilitator, fostering frank discussions about sex, consent and the ambiguous consequences of alcohol. Legally, a person under the influence of alcohol in any capacity is unable to give consent, thus making any drunken sexual encounter illegal. However, as students, we understand that this definition is incredibly difficult to work with. College students, even those under the age of 21, often drink. They may get drunk, and they may have sex. They may even regret the sex they had the night before. However, this does not necessarily indicate any sort of sexual assault or misconduct — it may be nothing more than two people making an entirely consensual choice to sleep together under circumstances they normally wouldn’t. However, situations such as this can easily take a turn for the worse when regret turns to panic. If someone has drank too much, can barely support themselves let alone make informed decisions about their endgame for a night and doesn’t have any idea who they are speaking to, it is likely the best idea — out of respect for both yourselves and them — to put them to bed rather than escalate any sort of sexual activity. Chances are, if something is meant to happen between the two of you, it will on a different night. If not, you’ve aided someone in their time of need.

As a female undergraduate at Cornell, I have found that too few people respect their sexual partners. Some men, particularly in groups, have a tendency to commoditize women, keeping checklists of all the women they have slept with from a particular sorority or “passing someone around” for their own amusement and then degrading them. Even if a woman practices safe, consensual sex, she is liable to be judged by both her female and male peers for the number of partners she has had in a way that most young men have never experienced. Therefore, those who identify as women are encouraged to keep their sexual experiences to themselves, even if something disturbing or unsettling occurred, for fear of being labelled “sluts.” I personally applaud all those who have spoken up, forced perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions and further pushed the importance of consent in public discourse.

So, as Cornellians of all genders, what can we do about this problem, this epidemic? In my opinion, the solution has to come with a fundamental shift in perspective on our part as students. We must change the way that we see each other, viewing our fellow students as “conquests” rather than living, breathing people with hopes, dreams, and fears. We have to communicate clearly with each other. Before going out for the night, consult with friends to ensure that a group understands, sober, what each person wants going into a night, thus empowering them to be active bystanders. Furthermore, we must communicate, honestly and openly, drunk and sober, with sexual partners. Whether you’ve been in a relationship for years or are getting to know each other for the first time, you will never regret asking someone for consent. It may seem awkward at first, but this is the best way to ensure that both partners are getting what they want out of the experience rather than what they think they should do based on societal pressures or the actions of their peers. Only then will we be able to make a measurable impact on frightening statistics, to remove the taboos surrounding the discussion of sexual assault and ensure that everybody at Cornell is able to have fulfilling, consensual sex.

Andrea Osborne is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.