Nothing to Celebrate: Consent Posters Do More Harm Than Good

Anne Buckwalter, Contributing Writer

During a recent visit to Student Health Services, I noticed something I did not like at all emblazoned on one of the stock posters in the exam room. While I’m sure that many of these posters could be considered problematic due to racism, male supremacy and other fatal flaws, the one I noticed was about consent. It read, “83 percent of college men respect their partner’s wishes about sexual activity.” I’m almost impressed that such triggering, heterosexist and poorly planned content could all be contained in one poster.

The poster was created by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network in a campaign to involve men in the prevention of sexual assault. The RAINN poster seems to suggest that 83 percent represents a sufficient number of dudes getting consent. Wow, good job, college men! Eightythree percent of you bother to practice a basic skill? A skill that helps the sex you are having be legal and not violate essential human rights? You are doing so great. (End sarcasm.)

We should not be proud of 83 percent. Advertising that fairly high percentage promotes complacency. It suggests that no more work needs to be done because 83 percent of college men are already doing the good work. The poster may intend to peer pressure the remaining 17 percent of college men into practicing consent, suggesting that since 83 percent of their friends are doing it, they should too. Yet such peer pressure is unlikely to override the other messages college men receive through peer pressure to act in the opposite way. Whose cajoling would you succumb to, that of a poster or that of your friends?

Another major issue with this poster is its potential to be triggering. In an exam room, there are many opportunities for survivors of sexual assault to be triggered. The premise of someone you don’t know well touching your body may be enough anywhere, let alone in the context of reproductive health exams. Survivors don’t need any more triggers, especially from something as replaceable as a poster. Celebrating the fact that 83 percent of college men practice consent silences discussion of the other 17 percent, allowing those men to exist unchallenged. That 17 percent is the quiet elephant in the room, taking up too much space but remaining unaddressed. Pretending as though sexual assault doesn’t happen is a historically employed method of silencing survivors, and this poster plays into that practice.

Finally, the language in this poster reinforces heterosexism with the use of the word “partner’s.” Cultural precedent suggests that when men and their one partner are discussed, people are talking about heterosexual individuals. The fact that I can draw this conclusion reveals the heterosexism employed in the use of language, and this poster is no different. What about sexual assault among gays, lesbians, polyamorous folks or any other combination aside from one man and one woman? This poster reaffirms the idea that two-partner sex is the only type of sex and that it occurs between a man and a woman. I believe in folks’ ability to be more sensitive in their use of language than this poster.

While the intention of promoting consent was valid, the execution of this poster leaves a lot to be desired. It’s time to shift the conversation: We must talk about the 17 percent. Including men in the conversation about preventing sexual assault won’t happen by encouraging complacency. Peer pressure is not the way to convince college men to practice consent — education is. Consent may or may not be sexy, but it is always necessary. When that 17 percent reaches zero percent, then we can make a poster to celebrate it. In the meantime, Student Health should not display posters that interfere with students’ health.