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CCF’s Online Symposium, Defining Consent, takes an unflinching look at the thorny question, what should count as consent to sexual activity – and what should not? In the process, scholars document how to hard it is to define consent or even sexual activity in a college setting. Symposium editors, historian Stephanie Coontz and sociologist Paula England, counter cartoonish media portrayals of both victims and offenders with a wake-up call: We have to deal with the complicated realities of sex on campus. There are no easy answers. But new research explores new strategies for reducing harm on college campuses, including options such as restorative justice, bystander interventions, and public health campaigns.

Scholars focus on campus sexual assault in Defining Consent, an online symposium released from the Council on Contemporary Families.

The “college experience,” glorified by homecoming and other campus celebrations, is revered for its promise to improve people’s lives. This series centers on ways that the college experience is at risk of harming people’s lives—both men’s and women’s. Rape, sexual assault, unwanted sex, and even sexual misunderstandings are addressed in seven related papers in Defining Consent, edited by historian and CCF research director Stephanie Coontz and New York University sociologist Paula England.

Range of scenarios. A symposium paper from University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and her colleagues examines policies from 381 American universities that relate to sexual conduct and consent, finding that at best the definitions are vague, and at worst, consent is not even mentioned. Another study from Columbia University researcher Jessie Ford coins the  term “consensualish” to describe the surprisingly common circumstance of women (and sometimes men) “going along” with sex they do not want for fear of offending or being accused of being a tease. Another issue is that students often drink to reduce their inhibitions about having sex, not anticipating that this may sometimes make them incapable of saying – or perhaps even understanding – no. The wide range of perspectives and clashing motivations for sex is part of what worries Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode, who discusses the problem of constructing fair ways to respond such a wide range of consensual—and non-consensual practices.

Symposium co-editor Coontz notes that, “All contributors agree there are sexual predators, on and off campus, who should be punished. But this series reminds us that are so many different situations that we can’t solve the problem just by sending everyone who causes harm to jail or expelling them from campus. We need to develop a better toolkit to reduce the different kinds of sexual harm on campus”

Uncertainty about baseline rates. You may ask, how often are students raped or assaulted on campuses? Estimates range from one in five to one in three women, and one in six men. (A detailed survey of sexual assault and misconduct on 33 campuses was released last week from the American Association of Universities.) You may wonder, how often are these cases prosecuted by university panels or other systems? One study cited in the series shows this happens two percent of the time. Along with those cases, Defining Consent centers on the matter of unwanted sex.

Another way to help. “We wanted to focus on what is really going on with sex on campuses–not on cartoons about nervous parents talking about ‘kids today’,” explains symposium co-editor England, whose Online College Social Life Survey has been used in many studies of the college “hookup” scene. She continues: “Defining consent has been central to debates of how to help, so we asked experts to tell us how students think about consent, and how universities have defined it in their policies.”

More highlights. Rape isn’t a new problem, it is an old one. Coontz and England caution against using the term epidemic, which “implies an intensifying and growing problem. Sexual coercion may be endemic in America, but most evidence suggests it was far more common — and generally far more tolerated — in the past than it is today.” In What’s New About Consent, historian Rebecca Davis (University of Delaware) points out that in the mid-20th century, men were encouraged NOT to take no for an answer – and women were often blamed for provoking sex attacks. Yet more recent cultural norms, Davis suggests, may be less progressive than is sometimes claimed:

“From horror films that portray the brutal murders of unmarried young women who had enthusiastic sex a few scenes before, to dating guides like The Rules that implore women to see sexual refusal as seductive, to popular songs about ‘blurred lines’ of consent, American youth continue to receive mixed messages about the differences between desire, consent, and predation,” she writes.

But, due process…. Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode reviews the past two decades of sexual assault activism on campuses, noting the special complications associated with the drinking and party culture, and suggesting that there is no one-size-fits all solution. She concludes, “If we have learned anything from the last two decades of campus assault initiatives, it is this: When it comes to sex, talk is cheap but cultural change is not.” She sees promise, though, in bystander intervention programs.

Restorative justice (RJ) is one of the latest tactics for making the cultural change Rhode calls for. Explains University of San Diego Leadership Professor David Karp, “As an alternative to punishment in some cases, many survivors are now asking for a process that provides accountability through acknowledgment of harm and pathways to prevention.” The restorative justice stance is a response to some hard questions: “Is it possible to create conditions where a student who has caused sexual harm can admit fault and take responsibility for it?” How “can someone be held accountable for crossing an unacceptable line without paying a permanent price in social exclusion?” Karp discusses how a voluntary pilot program of RJ intervention works.

A public health approach focuses less on predators or procedures after the problem occurred, and more one the environmental changes we need to make to produce responsible Sexual Citizens, as profiled in research and forthcoming book from Columbia’s Jennifer Hirsch (Public Health) and Shamus Khan (Sociology). “A phenomenon that happens as frequently as campus sexual assault cannot just be the product of individual bad actors or poor choices,” they observe. With this frame, they conducted an 18-month multi-method study, the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), to discover “what makes assaults a predictable regularity of campus life.” Among other things, they discovered a huge gap between the formal requirements of consent rules and the way that students actually go about engaging in sex. They also recommended changing some of the physical spaces in campus to provide more places where students can socialize without being thrust into ambiguous setting such as a small dorm room with only a bed to sit on. They also note that even before students arrive on campus, they must have access to comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education. Such education, they say, “must be grounded in respect for young people’s right to sexual self-determination. Part of teaching young people to listen when someone else says no, or to feel confident about saying no, or even to know internally whether they want to have sex at all, is acknowledging their right to say yes.”


CCF Defining Consent Online Symposium in a single .pdf:

Individual articles:

Executive Summary:

Coontz and England:



Armstrong et al.:



Hirsch and Khan: