Practicing consent can be simultaneously easy, mandatory, difficult, and radical. At Swarthmore, we exist in a culture in which a drunken hookup is a clear violation of the sexual misconduct policy, yet still very typical and normalized. It can be challenging to navigate a space in which our ideals and cultural norms clash. So how do we practice what we preach and transfer our ideals to our cultural norms?
Recognize that not everyone is “doing it.” Even though it may seem as though everyone is having drunken hookups at parties, that’s not the case. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 40 percent of college hookups are completely sober. And hookups themselves are less common than you might think — only 15 percent of college students hookup more than twice a year. About two years ago, I decided to completely abstain from drunken sexual encounters and have not found the choice to be particularly difficult or even limiting. I’ve felt empowered and safer by setting a clear boundary for myself and I feel I’ve become a better partner by making consent my foremost goal. I also know I’m not the only person at Swarthmore who has made that choice.
Acknowledge the gravity of the situation. The risk you take when you choose to participate in a sexual encounter with a drunk person is serious. Your partner is not capable of giving consent. You don’t know if what you’re doing is something that they’re okay with or not. You won’t know that until they sober up. Furthermore, if you are intoxicated, you both limit your ability to interpret very important verbal and non-verbal cues from your partner and have reduced response inhibition. This means that it becomes easier for you to ignore what your partner is trying to communicate and to justify ignoring your partner’s wishes. Drunken hookups can have serious consequences.
Stop engaging in “all or nothing” thinking. Forgoing intoxication when hooking up doesn’t mean you are required to live an entirely sober life. First, it’s important to remember that there is a difference between having had a drink or two and being piss-drunk. For most people, having a drink or two doesn’t shut off their ability to make decisions but still gives them the euphoria that makes drinking fun. Second, you can still go to parties and get really drunk if you want. You can still meet people at those parties. You can be flirtatious. You can get someone’s number. You can set up dates. You’ll just wait to hookup until you have you both have your wits about you.
Practice saying “yes.” For many people, especially women, it can feel embarrassing and shameful to acknowledge their own sexual desires. Thus, instead of using alcohol to take advantage of another person, they may use alcohol in order to feel courageous enough to say “yes.” Just as it’s important to practice saying “no,” it’s also important to practice saying “yes.” It can feel so empowering to be able to own what you want and how you want it. It can also be scary because the risk of shame and rejection is real in our culture is real. Practice saying “yes” when you’re sober. Remind yourself that you’re allowed to have desire and that expressing that is healthy. It can be tough, but it gets easier each time you do it.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Every time you practice consent, you are reducing the power and pervasiveness of rape culture. In order to change norms, individuals need to make the choice to change their behaviors. By choosing to stop having drunken hookups, your are pushing back against a powerful facet of rape culture that says sex is better when when you or your partner isn’t in a state of mind to make the decision to participate. Your choices matter.
Some people will inevitably reach the end of this piece and think, “This is so unrealistic and ridiculous!” But to me, that is just a further indication of how entrenched each and every one of us is in a rape culture. It also clearly illustrates how powerful and radical even a single decision that defies those norms can be.