Sexual Consent on Campus – Protecting Boys Too

Group Of Teenagers Drinking Alcohol In BedroomI have a 12-year old boy who will reach puberty soon and is already giggling over dirty jokes with his seventh grade friends. He will grow up faster than I would like and then almost certainly will head to college. And at some point he will have sex with a girl on campus….and I’m afraid.

I’m not afraid about the concept of him having sex (well, a little!), but about the confusing and, frankly, unrealistic standards for sexual consent being established on university campuses these days, that could put a caring and well-meaning boy at risk of an unjust rape accusation. What worries me – as outlined in a recent New York Times opinion piece (“Mishandling Rape”) is that colleges are declaring that “intercourse with someone under the influence of alcohol is always rape”. Seriously??

So, if my son and a girl he likes (who hopefully likes him in return) have a couple of beers at a campus party (it happens!) – and decide that the time is right (together and with overtly and clearly communicated consent on the part of the girl – under no coercion or pressure….) – then my son is a rapist?? And if he and the girl have a falling out, he could be accused of rape, subjected to a trial, and possibly kicked out of school? As pointed out by the author of the Mishandling Rape article, Jed Rubenfeld (a Yale law professor), this definition of consent is in conflict with the law – that uses the standard of “incapacitation” to negate consent. Basically, if a girl is too drunk to know what is going on around her – or happening to her – she cannot give consent. That makes sense to me. A reasonable boy should be able to tell when a girl is falling-down drunk – and, hopefully, should not want to have sex under those circumstances anyway, despite raging hormones.

Under this emerging definition of consent – with any alcohol making consent impossible – I am struck by the challenges facing young men trying to navigate this terrain. Do we counsel our sons to administer a breathalyzer test to a girl they would like to have sex with? Or have the girl sign a consent form stating she is not under the influence – maybe in front of a witness? But seriously, how do we help prepare our sons for this new sexual landscape? I for one am reaching out to my son’s Wellness teacher to learn more about the sex education curriculum they are using – to find out how (or even if) they are explaining the concept of consent to the kids. I had already been feeling that the campus sexual assault debate seemed too focused on what we need to tell the girls about keeping safe – and not enough on what we need to teach the boys about acting responsibly and putting themselves in the girl’s shoes. Now I also feel we need to do more to help our boys keep themselves safe.

Now for a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, I am Canadian by birth and I also lived for many years in Britain; both countries where drinking is legal by college-age – so the idea of university students drinking seems normal to me. I do agree and know from my own college experience that drinking – especially to the excess seen on many campuses – is dangerous and fuels a lot of bad decisions and behavior. Nevertheless, it happens, even here in America.

Secondly, I am fully supportive of the moves by the government and universities to come to terms with the sexual assault problem faced by young women far too often on campuses. And I know, also from personal experience, that this issue is not just about the guy who jumps out from behind a bush to attack a co-ed – but also about the ones who pressure and demean young women into having sex. Been there. But it feels to me that this definition of consent is a pendulum swung too far in the other direction – and that it also demeans women by eliminating our personal responsibility. I know that this situation is partly an outcome of an awakening (a welcome one!) by universities to the scale of the sexual assault problem, and at least changes are being made. But I think that parents of both girls – and boys – need to keep informed about these developments and make sure we are all appropriately counseling and preparing our kids for healthy and safe sexual experiences when they leave home.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


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