Sharpening the Focus of Sexual Consent

Two Texas Tech University professors have developed a student-driven campaign designed to erase the confusion and lack of communication regarding sexual consent.

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The Define Your Line campaign encourages students to feel more comfortable communicating with their sexual partner.

It sounds so simple and unambiguous. No means no. Yes means yes. Pretty straightforward answers when it comes to sexual consent between two partners.

Yet now, as much as ever, it seems, the lines between what is and is not consent to sex seem blurred. What exactly is your sexual partner comfortable with? How do you give or receive consent outside of clinical, sterile terms?

More importantly, what are the questions on the minds of college students when it comes to sexual consent, how it is given or received and what can be done to sharpen that line of distinction between yes and no?

That is the drive behind a campaign started by a pair of Texas Tech University professors in the College of Media & Communication. Rebecca Ortiz and Autumn Shafer, along with others in the Texas Tech community, including staff and students, are behind the Define Your Line movement aimed at helping students feel more comfortable about being open and communicating with their sexual partner.

“We've surveyed the thoughts of Texas Tech students multiple times on these issues and issues related to sexual assault,” Shafer said. “What we've found is they would like to not have these confusions and misunderstandings. We define this campaign as ‘sex positive' where we're not against sex and we're not really for sex. We're not getting into personal decisions about sexual activity. What we're doing is, hopefully, helping them feel more comfortable communicating about what they feel comfortable with.”

Defining Your Line

The foundation for this campaign goes back to when Ortiz and Shafer were doctoral students at the University of North Carolina. It was there, studying issues related to sexual health, the discussion began regarding student issues with sexual health, in particular sexual assault.

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Ortiz and Shafer plan to frequently set up tables around campus where students can fill out the survey cards or receive information on the campaign.

A discussion began about making an impact on that issue, especially regarding bystander intervention, where one witnesses an uncomfortable sexual situation happening, such as a person being too intoxicated to know what is happening, and steps in to prevent it. Once they arrived at Texas Tech, Ortiz and Shafer had discussions with associate vice provost for student affairs Cathy Duran and dean of students Amy Murphy on the subject.

But Duran and Murphy told Ortiz and Shafer another aspect of the issue with college students is sexual consent and just exactly what that means.

“So we talked about doing a campaign with students to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and focus on consent and trying to unblur the line of consent,” Ortiz said. “A lot of students have heard the very clinical terms or the very legal terms, so what we're trying to do is make it a more relatable, useful definition of that, something we can relate to and understand in the context of sexual interaction.”

The key was getting students involved on a subject that, traditionally, seems taboo. However, Ortiz and Shafer discovered through surveys and discussions with students there is a great deal of interest in defining sexual consent.

To that end, they created a student advisory board of about 20 students who not only gave their opinion on the topic but helped drive the campaign through talking to other students and campus organizations such as fraternities and sororities.

Survey cards were also developed and displayed at tables around campus where students could stop and fill them out. The cards allowed not only for questions between male and female, but allowed students to ask others of the same sex how they would react in certain situations or how consent was approached between members of the same sex.

Ortiz and Shafer said the response has been tremendous, and the aggregation of all the data received has gone into developing the Define Your Line website.

“People recognize it's needed, everyone we've talked to, and we've talked to a lot of people,” Shafer said. “Our hope is to be able to package this and bring it to other universities.”

Student Driven

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject – or maybe because of it – the level of student involvement in the campaign has led to its success so far.

Katelyn McCall, a freshman from Frisco, said she got involved with Define Your Line because one of her sorority sisters found herself in a bad situation where she could have been taken advantage of, and as a result became reluctant to go out with friends after mixers.

“I'm concerned that people are not communicating about consent before engaging in sex because they are afraid of killing the mood,” McCall said. “If people are not on the same page, this could lead to issues.”

McCall said that students initially seem shocked and uncomfortable when talking about Define Your Line and sexual consent. Once that awkwardness diminishes, however, she said positive feedback eventually comes through.

“I hope that because the campaign is student-driven, other students take it seriously,” McCall said.

Chris Mitchell, a sophomore from Dallas, is in a fraternity and wanted to get involved because of some of the negative publicity fraternities on campus have received recently regarding the issue.

“As a fraternity member, I wanted to show the true ideals and character of the Greek community,” Mitchell said. “One of the biggest concerns I have about sexual consent is that, although people make it out to be black and white, yes or no, oftentimes trying to decipher yes and no is incredibly confusing. It's critical that people, especially college students, have the tools available to not be afraid to ask the right questions or take the right actions.”

Mitchell is confident now that the campaign is live online, reception from students still hesitant to discuss the subject will improve and that it will grow beyond Texas Tech.

“I feel that once we expose our campaign, the students will love it and participate fully,” Mitchell said. “With great faculty and administration backing this campaign, I have very high hopes. I also believe that if we take root at Texas Tech, other campuses will begin implementing similar resources.”

Getting the Message Out

In addition to the website, Ortiz and Shafer also plan to use social media to drive the discussion. The campaign is live on Twitter (@defineyourline) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/defineyourline) where discussion could be driven by something as simple as a question of the week to elicit responses from students.

The campaign also has received support from the athletic department where there could be some advertisements on video boards at various sporting events.

Now that the website has launched, Ortiz and Shafer are planning on setting up tables at least three times per week at various sites around campus where students can fill out the survey cards or receive information on the campaign.

Given the response so far, this could just be the beginning to something that could finally sharpen the line of sexual consent once and for all.

“I think we should be able to see changes attributed to what consent really is and what ways we should be interacting,” Ortiz said. “Actual behavior change is hard to pinpoint, but there could possibly be an attitude change that getting consent is important.

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College of Media & Communication

College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech offers undergraduate degrees in various communications-related disciplines including:

The College also offers graduate degrees in communications to prepare students for careers in the communications industry, communications research and academia.

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