Consent isn’t a gray area


Take Back the Night banners at Phillips Hall Auditorium on Thursday, April 24, 2014. Due to rain the event was moved from the Pentacreast to Phillips Hall. (The Daily Iowan/ Tyler Finchum)

Joe Lane
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Last week, the sexual assault trial against 19-year-old Owen Labrie came to its conclusion. Labrie was an 18-year-old senior at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, a selective

and prestigious college prep school, at the time of the incident. He was accused of raping a then 15-year-old fellow student as part of the disturbing custom known as the “senior salute.”

The “salute,” according to the New York Times, is an occurrence, “in which older students at St. Paul’s propositioned younger classmates for a last-chance encounter before graduation.”

As many reports following the trial will explain, the case largely became a poster child for many of the issues surrounding sexual assault among high school and college students around the country. Particularly, the issue of consent played a big role in this case and in the deliberations of the jury.

Since I have begun my college career, sexual assault has been one of the more prominent issues in our culture, especially the matter of consent. Fairly regularly, it seems, the discussion of sexual assault begins on a college campus or in another education setting. And the shocking and horrifying stories seem more prevalent than ever.

The reality is, however, that according to the most recent data from the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, sexual assaults have fallen 49 percent in recent years. But despite this decrease, sexual assault is still a major issue. But on college campuses where a “hook up” culture of one-night stands and inebriation has become prevalent, the issue of consent becomes the biggest point of discussion. Just about any sexual encounter runs the risk of leading to a sexual assault without the correct precautions.

In the Labrie case, about the only thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that on May 30, 2014, the pair had an intimate meeting. From there, 17 witnesses — 16 called by the state and one by the defense (Labrie himself) — tried to piece together the events of that night, according to the Times. The major dividing factor between the various accounts was the subject of consent. Was it given? When was it given? And most importantly of all, when was it taken away?

If there is one thing I was taught about consent when entering college it’s that sober consent is needed at every stage of a sexual interaction. If one individual would like the interaction to stop, then that’s it. It’s over.

But how do we protect potential sexual assault victims and, more controversially, how do we protect individuals that may be wrongfully accused of sexual assault?

The perfect answer to this question has not yet been established, but it undoubtedly lies in education. Education is critical, not only for potential victims, but for anyone. Anyone can find himself or herself in a scenario in which consent has been revoked. And like math, science, and social studies, these values of how to handle these scenarios must be taught to students early on.

Of course, most college campuses today have courses (like the required “College Expectations” at the University of Iowa) that focus on sexual assault, but this isn’t the perfect solution. After all, my first experience with a college course was defined by videos of a muscular guy with slicked back hair naïvely failing to understand sexual assault.

If the goal is to eliminate sexual assault across the country and especially on college campuses, we have to eliminate the stereotypes of the individuals perpetrating the crime. But most of all, this begins with the elimination of the idea that consent is a gray area; it just isn’t.

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