College Students Don't Agree on What 'Yes Means Yes' Means


A new poll from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that while college students understand that getting consent before having sex with someone is important, they don’t necessarily agree on what consent means. This is progress! Of a sort!

This is the same Post-Kaiser poll that confirmed that one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, as well as 1 in 20 men. The same 1,053 college students were polled on the meaning of “yes means yes”—specifically, asked to determine whether several different scenarios constituted consent for sex: undressing, getting a condom, or nodding. In each of those scenarios, 40 percent of students said that was consent, while another 40 percent said it wasn’t.

While that’s certainly a sharp divide—and while even older adults might differ on a few of those—the full results, which begin on page 12 of the poll, are pretty encouraging. Male students, for example, demonstrated a pretty sharp understanding on the “not having sex with passed-out people” front, as well as not assuming consent just because someone didn’t say no. From the Post:

Ninety-five percent of current and recent male students said sexual activity when one person is incapacitated or passed out is tantamount to sexual assault. Seventy-five percent said it does not indicate consent when the other person has not said no. And 66 percent said that sexual foreplay, such as kissing or touching, does not indicate consent.

(Female students also understood this principle—97 percent of them, which is perhaps less surprising.)

The majority of both male and female students were unclear on whether sexual activity could be consensual when both people were under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The majority of both sexes thought foreplay like kissing or touching indicated consent. And 65 percent of men and 72 percent of women thought that “yes means yes” was a “realistic” standard to use when determining if someone wants to have sex with you.

It’s important to remember that the standard of affirmative, enthusiastic consent for sex is new for most people. Only California has a “yes means yes” law, and even ten years ago, when I was entering college in the hippie-dippiest part of California imaginable, it wasn’t widely discussed. What these poll results mean, most conclusively, is that it’s possible to change sexual attitudes. Next up: reassuring students repeatedly that the affirmative consent standard is not going to ruin your sex life. Seriously, it’s not.

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An apropos sign from an anti-rape protest in Budapest, Hungary, November 2014. Image via Getty.

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