50 Shades of Consent

Don’t worry—this isn’t another blog post about 50 Shades of Grey (although I definitely recommend keeping up with the current conversation regarding the movie). This post is about the many many shades of grey that come with a seemingly simple idea: consent.

The definition of consent with regards to sex seems pretty straightforward in theory: consent means giving permission for someone to engage in a sexual act with you. In actual practice, however, consent can get complicated. What if one or both people have been drinking? What if someone doesn’t verbally say no? What if it’s a couple that has been dating for years? What if the couple is MARRIED? These are incredibly important questions that don’t necessarily have clear answers—but let’s give it a try.

Consent: The Basics

True consent is required to engage in any healthy sexual activity. Anyone who has had any sort of sexual education class understands the basic concept (despite the lack of comprehensive sex ed programs in high schools). The generally accepted definition for consent is a clear, sober and preferably  enthusiastic “yes.” However, there are certain real life conditions that make the concept of consent very grey. 

The Problem(s)

One of the more unclear aspects of consent is alcohol. Alcohol inhibits one’s decision-making ability, and therefore negates consent. But where should you draw the line with alcohol? If you have one beer and feel fine, can you not give consent? If you drunkenly have sex with your boyfriend and you feel fine about it, does that mean it wasn’t consensual?

Another aspect that can get confusing is how people say yes and no in the moment. It can seem like an uncomfortable subject to broach with a significant other. If someone isn’t explicitly saying no, does that mean that they are consenting? Are there nonverbal ways to say no?


Essentially, consent is really messy and there’s no one streamlined way to define it. So where does that leave us? The solution starts with critical thinking, conversation, and education. Simply being cognizant of consent and brainstorming different ways to give/receive it is a huge step in the right direction. If you are aware that consent is complicated, you can mitigate the problem by talking to your partner about what you are most comfortable with.

Conversations are key. To even begin to create a widely accepted definition, we must continue to discuss consent–with our roommates, friends, significant others, and anyone that will listen. The conversations that stem from thinking critically about the issue of consent will be informed and progressive, and it is the only way to come up with a solution.

Finally, systematic consent education must be implemented, both on a high school and collegiate level (and beyond!). Targeting young people when they first learn about sex will not only create a unified understanding of consent, it will also help people learn how to ask for it first.

Consent isn’t easy. There are 50+ definitions and even more caveats to those definitions. But through education and conversation, you can come up with a comfortable definition for yourself as well as continue the national conversation.

CARE poster pictured here!

For more information on consent, check out Campus Assault Response’s campaign posters around campus! Additionally, feel free to stop by CARE meetings on Mondays at 8pm. Join the conversation and define consent for yourself!

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