Section: Opinion

We need to talk about consent without making a joke

Despite the “consent is sexy” pins that you might have received at any number of events at Kenyon, consent isn’t sexy… It is mandatory. In fact, sex without consent isn’t sex, it is rape. Given that in 2019, the Association of American Universities found on average 26.4% of women, 23.1% of transgender, genderqueer and nonconforming people and 6% of men are sexually assaulted in college, one might expect the topic of consent to not only be explicitly and repeatedly discussed, but also to be taken seriously. Yet, the pressing question Kenyon has posed to students through the creation of custom stickers around campus is “Owl you doin? Give a HOOT about consent.” Kenyon has once again failed to take students’ well-being and complaints seriously enough to create real change; instead they opted for a ridiculous sticker campaign. Although Kenyon has a habit of correctly identifying problems but failing to amend them properly (see the continued over-enrollment of students while building a new admissions office), trivializing assault and consent to the tune of an owl pun seems a new low. However, while Kenyon should be critiqued for these stickers, they are merely a symptom of a broader trend. Administrators and students alike are engaging in efforts to avoid difficult conversations more and more often, instead opting for fun events. 

The use of catchy marketing for consent such as the “consent is sexy” pins given at many sexual wellness events is riddled with troublesome connotations. First, it avoids mentioning that not getting consent is also illegal and inhumane. Furthermore, describing consent as sexy plays into the notion that men — on college campuses nearly 99% of perpetrators are male — in particular need to be motivated by sex rather than human decency. Finally, the phrase is generally wrong. Consent is often clunky, sweaty and nervous, and that’s okay. There is nothing “sexy” about sex in a twin XL bed, or the inevitable hallway conversations you can hear from almost anywhere on campus, yet these are still parts of sex. 

While simply blaming Kenyon would be easier and make for a more succinct piece, I believe this opinion would be shallow without noting the broader current Kenyon is caught in. Over the last decade there has been a sharp rise in the policing of “triggering” language. The 2021 New Yorker article “What if trigger warnings don’t work” outlines the fact that although more and more words are being added to a list requiring a “trigger warning” before use, these warnings are doing little to actually help trauma survivors. In fact, the article points to evidence that instead of protecting students, policing language largely results in increased anxiety for survivors. Avoiding difficult topics, such as sexual assault, also denies all students the ability to interrogate their own experiences and perceptions through open dialogue. 

The trajectory of Kenyon’s now-discontinued Take Back the Night (TBTN) campaign was a worrisome example of Kenyon students and administrators choosing to move away from difficult conversations. According to a 2012 Collegian article, TBTN was an optional “week-long student-run program that strives to open dialogue and bring awareness to community members about sexual assault.” A notable event in TBTN was the “Speak Out” portion, during which students could share their own experiences of sexual assault or misconduct. Despite students and faculty advocating for the benefits of these events, the campaign was discontinued in 2016 due to some survivors describing the event as triggering. The discontinuation of TBTN represents a turning point at which the substance and significance of discussions became less relevant than the emotional response difficult topics elicit. Engaging in serious conversations about consent and sexual assault used to be a standard at Kenyon, and as a community we are worse off without these conversations. 

“Give a HOOT about consent” did not arise from nothing. As a school and community, we have moved too far from difficult conversations, choosing catchy phrases over meaningful discussions. Conversations around sex and healthy sexual relations should be fostered and encouraged. However, the way to make people comfortable with talking about sex is to engage in conversation rather than avoid conversation. Through attempts to shelter the student body, Kenyon has risked the physical safety of students by trivializing consent, the most fundamental and serious part of sex, in favor of providing a linguistically safe college experience. It is the responsibility of every Kenyon student and administrator alike to not shy away from difficult conversations, but to instead advocate for discussions as the necessity they are. 

Hannah Sussman ’25 is the opinions editor at the Collegian. She is a sociology major from Glencoe, Ill. She can be reached at sussman3@kenyon.edu.

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