Yes Doesn't Always Mean Yes

There’s a new sexual assault educator on campus at the University of Maryland this year, and he’s far from the typical, clinical presenter. The “Consent Bro” is conversing with fraternities in their own homes to break down what constitutes rape—bro to bro.

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The primary policy that the Consent Bro preaches to brothers throughout Fraternity Row is “yes means yes.” This simplistic phrase is intended to encompass the idea that sex is only consensual if both partners give a clear yes.

But as reflected by participants’ questions about how many drinks constitute drunkenness and if a slightly intoxicated yes means consent, it seems that “yes means yes” doesn't account for all the potential complexities of college sexual interaction.

“I do find it important for people to expand on the slogan ‘yes means yes’ because people could interpret it as ‘yes means yes’ anytime and anywhere,” says University of Maryland senior Lisa Driscoll. “Oftentimes a girl may say yes but it is really the alcohol speaking.”

Catchall phrases like “yes means yes” may leave many scenarios ambiguous, but Rachel DiBella, Assistant Director of the Boston College Women’s Center, urges students to always err on the side on caution when discerning consent. She stresses, “For Boston College, there are no ‘hazy lines’ between sexual assault and consent.”

Another criticism of the Consent Bro’s attempt to educate the brothers is that he presents his lessons in a way that aims to prevent the brothers from inadvertently assaulting women. In reality, fewer than 6% of men ever commit sexual assault. Most assaults are premeditated and are committed by repeat offenders.

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So while one in five women are sexually assaulted in the time at college, it is highly unlikely that 1 in 5 college boys have assaulted women. For this reason, DiBella says, “we [at the Women’s Center] focus our prevention efforts on increasing safety by empowering students to watch out for problematic behavior… rather than treating all men as potential perpetrators.”

This focus on training active and protective bystanders who will readily intervene in dangerous situations is a trademark of BC’s Bystander Intervention Education Program. In the past 4 years, over 4,000 community members have engaged in the program and 900 have participated so far this year.

DiBella believes that the Bystander Intervention Program takes a powerful preventative stance on sexual assault, but she says “we won’t proclaim [the program] to be completely successful until we have ended sexual assault at BC.”

For this reason, the Women’s Center also funnels many of its resources into survivor support programs like the Sexual Assault Network (SANet). Posters for the program can be found all over campus, most prominently in the dorm bathrooms. They urge survivors seeking support to contact their highly trained and empathetic staff without fear of forceful or unwanted guidance.

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While figures like the Consent Bro certainly cater to universities with Greek life, BC’s lack of fraternities should not give the community a false sense of security. “Knowing that sexual assaults are occurring on our campus, and within peer groups,” says DiBella, “indicates to us that the risk is real, regardless of what form those peer groups take.”

In this way, it is the responsibility of courageous individuals within their own peer groups to step up and intervene in potentially risky situations. The Consent Bro may be notorious, but he can only do so much to prevent sexual assault.