Defining Consent

Summary: This lesson is designed to let students create their own standards for their community and for their personal lives with regard to sexual assault.  This is the first step towards empowerment, which allows them to see themselves as agents of change, as people who can conduct their sex lives differently and shape the rhetoric surrounding sex in their communities.  By building a set of guidelines as a class, instructors have a chance to expand student’s conceptions of sexual assault—beyond physical force and sex to touching, coercion, alcohol and inter-relationship violence. Students submitted their individual guidelines a few days before the actual class discussion so that instructors have a chance to tailor discussion questions to the gaps in student guidelines.  For example, if none of the student guidelines submitted include a discussion of coercion, include discussion questions that provoke student thought on that topic. The educators at RVAP (the Rape Victims Advocacy Program) and WRAC (Women’s Resource & Advocacy Center) can give instructors specific support on how to guide those conversations that will be specific to each section. They can also help you if, for example, a student misunderstands the assignment above and instead writes guidelines on what people should to do make sure they don’t get assaulted.  We have designed the questions below in an attempt to predict what gaps students might leave in their guidelines against sexual assault, but each instructor is encouraged to tailor these questions in response to their students’ “Protecting Choice” assignments.  Furthermore, we know that some students might balk when they learn that most definitions of consent include a stipulation that a person incapacitated by alcohol cannot legally consent. Tell students that you will discuss alcohol and consent in depth in the next lesson.


Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will analyze the models they are given for healthy sex lives in film.
  2. Students will create a set of guidelines for respectful approaches to sex in their communities and their own lives.
  3. Students will learn what consent is and build a broad definition of it with the help of their instructor.


Teaching Materials:

  1. Discussion questions on a handout or projections
  2. Video to analyze (there are lots of possibilities, and you should choose one that you think your class will respond well to, a couple common ones include the scene from Titanic and from Atonement)
  3. 2-Week Curriculum: assignment sheet for Consent and Alcohol printed or projected


Student Assignments:

  1. Due: Recognizing Choice short writing assignment (also at the bottom of this post) 
  2. 2-Week Curriculum: assign for next lesson with TRIGGER WARNING: Read _Frank_ Transcript, or have your students watch a video of the reenactment by following this link (note that the interview contains graphic content)
  3. 2-Week Curriculum: assign for next lesson: Consent and Alcohol short written response 


Outline for Class Activity:


  • Introduction (2 min): Introduce the goal for the day: the students creating the guidelines that they would like to see used on their campus to assure everyone is able to choose what sexual activities they want to engage in.  


We’ve talked about some of the rhetoric that’s out there about sex and sexual assault, and if those messages aren’t what we want, we have to decide what messages we want to encounter.  The goal of these discussions is for you all to think about what type of campus environment and college experience you want to have, and then figure out what you can do to make that happen.  This past week you all tried to come up with a set of guidelines that you would like people to follow in order to keep everyone safe. Today we’ll work on combining those guidelines, discussing them, debating them, in order to come up with a set of group guidelines showing what sort of campus we want.  


  • Small Group Discussion (5 – 10 min): It is alright if all groups do not complete all the questions.  
    1. How do people in the scene communicate what they want and don’t want? Pay attention to what people say, what gestures they make, facial expressions, leaning in or away, personal space, shoulders (hunched or open).  What messages is each person sending with their body? Confidence? Hesitancy? Interest? Disinterest? Others? How clear are the different messages?
    2. What effects might these assumptions have on how people try to lead healthy sex lives?  What potential problems arise if people are basing their interactions on these assumptions?
    3. The strange thing about film is that the camera claims to show us an objective picture of what happened.  The story is not told from someone’s perspective. Instead we seem to see exactly what happened. With that in mind, consider the possible rhetorical effects of making a movie that portrays sexual encounters this way.  What conclusions might people draw (without even knowing it) about the outcome of sexual encounters that happen this way?
    4. In your opinion, how common are these assumptions in media portrayals of sex and intimacy? Do you see similar messages elsewhere? To what extent do you think these messages affect how people approach sexual encounters in real life?
    5. A lot of portrayals of sex rely on subtext and body language.  Why do you think this is true? Why don’t people in movies (and possibly real life) talk more explicitly about what they want or don’t want?


  • Large Group Discussion (10 – 15 min): Work through the questions, making sure that all groups get a chance to respond and that their responses are noted on the the board.  As you go, help students rephrase their responses into questions to type at the bottom of their class guidelines (like notes for revision).  For example, say a student responds to the second question by saying: “One problem is that you can’t always know what a person wants just from body language.”  Then you might help them phrase it into a question like, “What guideline would make sure that everyone involved in a sexual encounter knows what other people want and are comfortable with?” or “How should we use body language to help us navigate sexual encounters?” Below are some important ideas to lead students toward.
    1. Body language is a useful tool but not always a clear or dependable one when making sure that a person is consenting to a sexual encounter or a particular activity.
    2. The fact that flirting relies heavily on subtext rather than explicit conversation can lead to misunderstanding.  It’s okay to be explicit.
    3. Film portrayals of sex scenes like this show us that sex that happens this way turns out alright.  It presents itself as an objective example of how things are, but that isn’t actually (or necessarily) true.


Okay, so if this is an example of consent as it is portrayed in the media, it is time to think about what our own messages would be.  In our last Campus Culture Project lesson we defined sexual assault as a sexual experience that denied or ignored someone’s write to make choices for themselves.  To craft our own messages, we’re going to talk about the ways in which that right to choose can be taken away.


  • Small Group Discussion (10 min):  Divide students into groups of 3-4.  Using their written responses that they made during the week, they should complete the tasks below.  While they do so, make sure to circulate around the room to check on groups, as some of the conversations might get heated.  You should dispel any tension, refocus the discussions on ideas rather than on attacking individuals. You should also reinvigorate conversations that are slowing down or aren’t going deep enough.  
    1. Using Questions 1 and 2 of the short writing assignment you did for today, make a list of the factors that take away someone’s ability to choose what sexual activities they engage in.  Discuss any differences between your lists and explain to each other why you chose to include or not include the things you did. Decide which elements to include on our group list.
    2. Using Questions 3 and 4 of your assignment, make a set of group guidelines.  How do you want people on our campus to approach and engage in sexual activity to make sure that everyone is respected and free to make their own choices?
    3. While creating your group guidelines, some group members might disagree with others.  Record the things that you disagree about as well as the reasoning from both sides and we will discuss those with the class.


  • Large Group Discussion (15 minutes): First go around to each group and record their responses to Task A.  Ask each group to discuss any differences or discussions they had while creating the list.  Don’t worry about adding to the list at this point if it seems incomplete to you. That will come a little later.  


Okay, so these are the things that take away someone’s control over what sexual activities they engage in.  Now taking this first list as a starting point, we’re going to write the guidelines that ensure people always have the power to say yes or no to sexual activity.  Writing these guidelines, as you might have found in your groups, can be a little complicated.


Next go around the class and ask them to report out on the guidelines they created and record their responses.  It is best if you do this by typing into a projected word document rather than writing directly on the board, because it will allow you to edit the guidelines as you go along, save them and send them to students and use in subsequent lessons.  Once you have recorded student responses, ask them what disagreements they had in their groups and discuss those. Once you’ve reached a general consensus on those issues look at the guidelines the class has created. As a class compare the guidelines and the list from Task A.  Does the second fully address the first? If the guidelines are lacking in any of the areas below, ask students what they think about these issues:

    1. Consent and open conversation (even if the class guidelines include a note about verbal conversation already, explain to students what consent is, for example, “You guys say in your guidelines that it is important for someone to say that they want to do a certain activity.  The term for that sort of dialogue, legally at least, is consent.”)
    2. A delineation of what behaviors or activities “count” as sexual assault (touching, oral, anal, vaginal sex, heavy petting, etc.)
    3. Coercion (guilt trips, “If you loved me you’d have sex with me,” threats, “I’ll break up with you if we don’t sleep together,” wearing someone down by asking over and over again, intimidating them by acting violently or angrily)
    4. Date rape drugs i.e. any drugs used to facilitate sexual assault
    5. Existing power structure (between a child and an adult, a boss and a low level employee) that complicates the participants’ ability to say yes or no freely
    6. Alcohol (Introduce this last if students do not address it on their own, that way you can assure students who protest against phrases like “too incapacitated to give consent” that you will discuss this more in depth next week.  Or if students do bring it up in class and the conversation seems like it might get heated, cut off the conversation and assure students that it is a tough topic that deserves its own discussion. You will explore that issue more in depth next week).  


  • Conclusion (3 min): Prep students for the next discussion by introducing the reading and writing assignment for the following week and telling students that you will zero in on alcohol, which many assailants use to make their victims more vulnerable and less able to resist the assailants’ advances.  


So we’ve spent today talking about consent and coming up with a series of guidelines that can empower people to choose what sexual activity they are getting involved in, in other words making sure that all people have the power to give consent or not.  Next week we are going to talk about consent and alcohol. Many states and universities (including Iowa and the University of Iowa) have codes saying that a person cannot legally consent if they are significantly intoxicated. In our next discussion we are going to try to understand those guidelines, or at least understand some of the debate surrounding those guidelines.  Can someone who is very drunk, or black-out drunk, have the power to make the choice they want? How drunk is too drunk? How can we tell? What happens if both people are drunk or even don’t remember what happened? To help us think about those questions we are going to read (or watch) a transcript of a real interview with a college student. In 2002 a psychology professor named David Lisak surveyed 1,882 men about their lifestyle and habits.  Embedded in the survey were questions about their romantic and sexual relationships. The survey had questions like: “Have you ever had sex with someone who didn’t want to?” Many of the men answered “yes.” Lisak went on to interview 120 of those men and this is a transcript of one of the interviews, a college student named Frank who used alcohol to assault a young woman at a party. Because this is the perspective of a sexual assailant describing the night of the assault, this material is uncomfortable and can be troubling to read.  Come talk to me if you feel the reading will be too troubling, or skim the last page, which is where the assault actually occurs. You will consider some questions related to the reading this week, and then we will discuss them as a class.



Recognizing Choice




This week we talked about the relationship between sexual assault and power, more specifically we defined sexual assault as any situation in which one person cuts off another’s ability to choose what sexual activities s/he engages in.  How do we make sure that everyone can make these decisions for themselves? In this short writing response you will write some guidelines that you and members of our campus community could follow to make sure their partners always get to choose what activities they engage in.  The following questions are designed to help you brainstorm.


  1. Perhaps it will be easier to write guidelines that protect choice if we first think about the tactics people use to take power away from others: Think about a time when you felt powerless or like you didn’t have a choice, or maybe a time when you felt pressured to do something.  What factors kept you from feeling like you had a choice? What sorts of things did the person (or people) say or do to pressure you?
  2. When thinking about choice, you might also consider the fact that some groups of people might be more vulnerable than others (for instance, differently abled individuals, people who are sick, the very old and the very young.  How do we make sure people in those groups have the power to choose what sexual activities they engage in? Can you think of any other vulnerable groups that might need protection?
  3. What are some positive guidelines (things you think people should do) to make sure that partners, friends, and acquaintances can always make choices for themselves?  What guidelines and precautions can we agree on to make sure no takes away our right to choose? To be more specific, what does a respectful sexual encounter look like?
  4. What are some negative guidelines (things people should not do) to make sure that partners can always choose for themselves?  You might respond directly to some of you answers to the first two questions. What are actions or situations people can avoid to make sure they aren’t hurting others or taking advantage of someone?


You do not have to answer the questions directly, but should use them to write your guidelines (200-250 words).  Try to be thorough and imagine multiple possibilities and scenarios to cover many of the ways in which we can protect choice. You might imagine that you are writing a law that tries to prevent people from being hurt in the ways that we talked about last week.  You should bring a copy of this assignment to class on DATE.