Creating a Culture of Consent // Anna Bartko

With the increasing rate of widely publicized sexual assault cases and increasing awareness of sexual violence, we must examine how to start breaking this cycle. While writing my current dissertation on sexual assault on college campuses, I noticed that the literature mostly focuses on survivors. This focus is not only problematic, but reiterates and plays into the culture of victim blaming (as indirect and positive the literature intends to be). By constantly researching the survivors around reporting, why they did and did not use certain services, who they talked to first, and so on, and so forth, the spotlight remains on them.

There is research that has “flipped” the focus and discusses interviewing and surveying the perpetrators and the police on subjects such as rape myths and the boundaries of physical contact. Consequently, this is where I’ve found my interest to be. By moving the conversation to authority and the perpetrators (and quite frankly, the oppressors) the subject becomes them and not what the survivor could have and should have done.

When I reflect about what creates the culture of victim blaming, I think of the myths, sexist stereotypes, objectification of women, and communication around sex. I could focus on any one of these for pages on end, so I’ll focus on communication, and more importantly, consent within communication. Affirmative consent, also phrased as “yes means yes”, is a shift in communication about sexual contact that would provide a positive reframe. If we bring this into our sexual education systems the basis for what is okay and what isn’t okay becomes more natural in our conversations about sex. Implementing affirmative consent can and should go back to middle school, where our society “formally” begins to address sex and sexuality. 

When thinking about where affirmative consent has been widely used and respected, I can’t help but think of the communication within the subculture of BDSM (bondage and discipline/dominance and submission/ sadism and masochism). Researcher Kathryn Klement, a co-author of a newly published study, focuses on how the subculture of BDSM can contribute to affirmative consent. (Klement, Sagarin, & Lee, 2016) They examined college students, BDSM practitioners, and participants from Amazon on various measures including victim blaming, sexual aggression, rape myth acceptance, and hostile sexism. (2016) It was found that BDSM practitioners reported significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, victim blaming, and acceptance of rape myths than the other populations. (2016)

Since many BDSM practitioners follow a “yes means yes” guide with their partners, the mainstream community may benefit from using this mentality. Communication is key when engaging in BDSM practices and it is a hard belief that consent can also be withdrawn at any time. These are important roots to establish around sex so that people can gain a better understanding of handling sexual situations. When people stop assuming and ask a person if sexual contact is okay it creates a positive line of communication that allows each party to express their needs.

Ultimately, I realize that the issue of sexual assault and sexual violence is a complex and multi-faceted area that should be dealt within sexual education programs, police forces, college and university systems, and our criminal justice system. However, beginning with teaching and providing workshops around sexual communication and affirmative consent as early as middle school can help lay the foundation of transforming rape culture into a culture of consent.

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Written by: Anna Bartko

References & Resources:

Klement, K.R., Sagarin, B.J., & Lee, E.M. (2016) Participating in a Culture of Consent May Be Associated with Lower Rape-Supportive Beliefs. The Journal of Sex Research (1-5).

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