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Iremember walking into New Student Orientation feeling confident in my knowledge of how to transition into college well – I had already made one friend and my all-girl high school experience left me feeling empowered, capable and assured of my decisions as a young woman. The mandatory “My Student Body” online activity, which all first-year students were required to complete before move-in day, felt silly and insignificant. However, upon arriving to campus, I was proven wrong. There were many large group discussions connecting consent to campus party culture. The emphasis on sober sex and verbal confirmation between two parties was something I hadn’t thought about before.
I had never seen a woman explicitly saying, “yes, I want to do [this sexual activity]” in a movie or TV show, so how would I know anything different?
During a large mandatory session for all first-years to attend, our Director of Wellness and Prevention showed a visual statistic for my college’s student body: 9 out of 10 students wanted to have sober sex but thought that only 5 out of 10 students did. That was astounding to me. I remember sitting with my hall advisor with the rest of my floor to candidly discuss sexual respect after the large group session. The silence was deafening. The discomfort and flitting eyes across the room made the space an uncomfortable place to talk openly. However, the word active bystander was introduced to my vocabulary and I did not realize how pertinent it would be to my college experience.
As a member of an athletic team, I was lucky enough to hear this information more than once during my first year (in fact, I have heard it at least once each year since I have arrived on campus). Being an active bystander – someone who notices a situation that has the potential to be uncomfortable for a peer and takes action – takes work and practice. It takes commitment for it to be a cultural norm. My large sports team of forty other women held me accountable. The upperclassmen actively practiced these skills to normalize sexual safety and respect. I began to recognize how valuable peer support was when moving to a new place. Without my sports team, I would not have been prepared for what I would encounter outside of New Student Orientation during the academic year.
It was a month into school, and I had been talking to a boy. I felt seen and heard and I desperately craved a relationship. He seemed to be able to offer what I wanted, so I ignored all the red flags and the signs because he was nice to me. It didn’t matter that he was rude to others because I thought his kind gestures for me were genuine. But the night my newfound friends and I walked home from an on-campus concert, I wished someone stood up to be an active bystander. I left my group to watch TV alone in his empty dorm room. Everything was fine until he kissed me; what started as consensual slowly became less so. I left his room that night feeling confused. It wasn’t until I had not heard from him for a week and had a friend relay the vulgar language which he used to describe my body did I realize that I was used for his own sexual satisfaction. All the knowledge I had learned from New Student Orientation was not implemented nor did it seem to matter. Three years later, I still feel disgusted that I was so enraptured by his charm and wit that I willingly ignored his arrogant self-righteous attitude.
This experience made me realize the value of consent and the important work my college was attempting to do during my first week on campus.
During my second and third year, as a member of the residence life staff, I reflected on the failings of the sexual respect conversation I had my first year. When I was in charge of leading the conversation, I attempted to make it more inclusive, productive, and resourceful for the new students who felt the same way I had only a short time ago. I encouraged vocal participation and made sure to note that conversations around sexual health and respect were meant to bring everyone to the same baseline understanding of why consent is important. However successful the conversation went, my personal experience in a committed loving relationship illuminated the importance of consent for me more so than anything else.
Apprehensive after my encounter first year, I had walls built up to prevent feeling hurt. I was fortunate enough to later have a teammate and friend turn into something more. Our relationship was slow but comfortable. He never pressured me into anything and, in fact, always waited for me to ask to try something new. His soft-spoken and genuine consideration for my own happiness acknowledged our growing bond. We built trust – his regard for our comfort did not hinder the mood but in fact enhanced it. Because of our commitment to vocalizing what we wanted out of a sexual encounter we were able to create moments of sincerity and authenticity. I knew I could tell him what I liked and what I didn’t without feeling any shame. My partner’s continuous attention to my needs and my ability to ask him what he likes and doesn’t like makes heated moments more pleasurable for the both of us. Two years later, we are still together, and consent remains a very normalized and active part of our relationship.
By working to build a comfortable space, sexual encounters become much more than just the physicality of the act you participate in. They become intimate, personal, and build a connection between you and your partner.
Personally, I feel closer to my partner when we talk about our sexual preferences because I’m assured in his pleasure as well as confident in my own. Asking questions and obtaining affirmative consent is a wonderful gateway into practicing active consent. Proposing an activity allows you or your partner to agree or disagree in participating, therefore granting space for thoughtfulness, respect, and reflection.
I am grateful for my college’s foundational skills and information about the importance of consent. However, it was my personal experiences and community interactions that truly transformed my thoughts around this topic. I encourage any women who read this to practice being an active bystander in your community and normalize sexual health, safety, and respect. Be vocal about your wants and desires; if you are not getting the pleasure that you want, let your partner know. For anyone engaging in an intimate manner, be sure to ASK for consent and receive a clear, verbal and continuous YES. You are not taking away from the heat of the moment, I promise. You will instead create an environment of trust and respect. Your partner will appreciate your attentive manner to their needs as well as your own.
Anna Billy is a contributing writer at Coven and a graduating senior from Grinnell College with a degree in English and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. Her passion for pop culture and feminism frequently intersect in her writing. Outside of writing, Anna enjoys warm hot chocolate, playing with dogs, curating playlists to fit her mood, and trying out new cooking recipes.
Thumbnail image: Karoline Kuchli (@karolinekuchli)