Sex and consent: Guidelines for life on campus

Friday, August 9, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 32
By Kathleen Carlson

Parents of incoming college freshmen: It’s never too late to start talking about sex and consent with your sons and daughters and explain what’s behind ‘No means no.’

Examples of the dangers abound, from the high-profile prosecutions of college athletes to cases involving too much alcohol and sex to reports of wrongly accused sexual assault suspects suing their colleges for defamation.

“The problem is that the consequences of a mistake have never been as intense historically as they are now,” says Nadine Pierre-Louis, a marriage and family therapist who is also the founder and CEO of Doc and Jock LLC, which focuses on men and communication skills.

As children approach college age, parents’ responsibility has been to teach them values and appropriate behavior. The school educates students on its code of conduct and the local laws on sexual consent, she says.

State laws vary in defining consent. Courts in some states say that as long as a person is not unconscious, he or she can consent, but in other states it’s not enough to simply be conscious. Colleges and universities can set their own, stricter rules in their own codes of conduct, she adds.

A student might act in a way that is legal under state law on consent, she says, but the action “might still get you expelled from school if a person is inebriated and cannot verbally consent.”

Consent, the agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity, was at issue in the 2013 sexual assault case in which an unconscious female was gang-raped in a dorm room at Vanderbilt University. Videos and photographs of the event were shown at trial, drawing national attention to the debate over consent and sex on college campuses.

Three male students were convicted and sentenced to prison while another received 10-years of probation in a plea deal.

Consent in Tennessee

Those final weeks before heading to college is probably a prime time for a conversation, since many students are moving away from home to live on their own, says Kathleen Brien Douthat, a college counselor for the past 13 years at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville.

Douthat speaks throughout the year at new-student orientations, covering such issues as domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in a 30-minute presentation.

Incoming students must attend orientation. Students also must complete an online sexual assault education training course before they start their first semester. Parents may attend orientation with their sons and daughters, she says.

“I have heard from some students that their parents (one or both) have been with the student as he/she completes this training,” she says.

Kathy Douthat, Licensed Counselor at Pellissippi State Community College, speaks to new students at orientation along with a campus police officer about sexual assault and consent.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

“I feel personally that parents have an obligation to go through the student’s school’s code of conduct beforehand, to make sure the student knows the behavior that violates the code,” Pierre-Louis adds.

There are several components to Tennessee’s law on consent to sexual activities, says Nashville criminal defense attorney Jim Todd, who was a prosecutor in Davidson County before he entered private practice. Under state law, he says, no one under age 13 can consent to sex, period. Having sex with someone under 13 is a Class A felony.

A person over 13 but not legally an adult (age 18) can consent to sex. Whether the sex is a crime depends on the difference in age between the perpetrator and the victim. In many cases it would be a crime, statutory rape, depending on the age of the perpetrator, he says.

When you start looking at rape crimes, no means no, regardless of the situation, Todd adds. Two people may be “making out,” with some clothing off, and if one person says no, the activity must stop.

More prevalent with college students are situations in which one person is physically helpless, he continues. The Tennessee Code Annotated and Tennessee pattern jury instructions – the language a judge reads to a jury before they deliberate on a case – say a person is physically helpless when unconscious, asleep, or for any other reason is physically or verbally unable to communicate unwillingness to do an act.

Nonconsensual “penetration of anything by anything is rape,” Todd says. On the other hand, college students also need to know that penetration isn’t required to prove a felony sex crime other than rape. “Sex crimes also cover touching,” he notes. Touching an intimate part of a physically helpless person’s body would be felony sexual battery.

“The physical helplessness definition, I think, encompasses what can legally get you in trouble,” he adds. “I don’t think the law (in Tennessee) requires verbal consent – yes, let’s do this.”

A police officer investigating a sexual assault case will probably ask the person making the complaint, “Did you say no?” If the person says, “No, I didn’t,” the officer will ask whether the person could have. If the person says, “Yes, I could have,” then there probably hasn’t been a crime under Tennessee law, Todd says.

Colleges help parents out

Middle Tennessee State University has developed a homework assignment for parents of incoming students.

“This is a compilation of all of the information we share with parents during various CUSTOMS [new student orientation] presentations, and we simply put it in writing so parents have the resource when they leave campus and can refer back to if need be,” MTSU spokesman Jimmy W. Hart says. A link to the homework document is available at

The handout suggests that families talk about campus support systems, not only for items like registering for courses and financial aid, but also for counseling, housing concerns and dealing with medical needs. New college students are part of a larger community where security hinges on their telling faculty, university police or other staff if they are “aware of a situation that causes them concern for their own safety or the safety of others,” the handout says.

Kathy Douthat

Hart says awareness of sexual misconduct and consent has increased at MTSU over the years, as documented in the school’s National College Health Assessment surveys, conducted every three years. This year, 75.8% of MTSU survey participants said they had received information from the university on sexual assault/relationship violence prevention, compared with 41 percent in 2010, he adds.

MTSU urges families to “talk to your student about making responsible choices and decisions when it comes to sexual activity. Make sure they know the meaning of consent and talk about bystander intervention.”

An active bystander

Bystander intervention is a key part of Douthat’s presentation at Pellissippi State.
“We teach students that they have the ability to intervene if it’s safe to do so,” she explains. “… If you get the idea that something bad is happening, it’s our duty to do something about it and not just walk away.” A bystander can be a friend who attends a party with others and sees a friend in a situation who looks uncomfortable – or inebriated.

Bystanders can intervene directly or indirectly if it is safe for them to do so, Douthat says. They can cause a distraction or creating a scene – dropping food or a beverage and making a lot of noise, for example. The distraction can create an opportunity for a friend in distress to get away.

“We teach students they can call or text campus police,” she continues. Students can also work as a group to look out for one another at a party, she adds, and have a plan to work as a team. If a sketchy situation arises, one group member might create a distraction, while another might talk to the person who is in distress to see if they’re OK or to steer them away from the situation.

Bystander intervention “is the low-hanging fruit of prevention where everyone can play a role,” Sharon Travis, outreach and advocacy specialist at Nashville’s Sexual Assault Center, says.

“Making a decision to be an active bystander who will do what they can when they see (something) amiss is the beginning. We teach about the 5D’s of bystander intervention – distract, delay, direct, delegate and document.

“As a bystander, your personal safety is first and when you can safely intervene, do what you can,” she continues. “You don’t have to be a hero; just do whatever small thing you need to do to stop, interrupt, disrupt or provide assistance when necessary. Just simply reframing rape culture to one of compassion and care rather than power and control” can be helpful, she wrote.

Douthat says students seem to understand what it means to consent to sex, but many sexual assault victims find fault with themselves rather than with what the other person did. Those who say they were assaulted have said things such as “I shouldn’t have gone with him, I shouldn’t have had so much to drink,” for example.

“I do think there are more reports (of sexual assault) in the past few years than we have seen previously,” she said in a recent phone interview and in email responses to questions. “I think that students have been hearing us discuss how much this is taken seriously and seen and heard so much in the media about this as well.

“I believe that this age group is more willing to report a sexual assault than other generations because of the conversation that has been going on about this. I also see more news about what colleges and universities are doing to protect their students and these are all positive steps forward.”

Travis of the Sexual Abuse Center says conversations about sex and consent take place throughout a person’s lifetime and overlap with attitudes about respect and valuing others.

“… Sexual assault is about power and control, domination and manipulation. Bias and beliefs that make one person feel that they should exploit that power over another should be addressed.” Parents need to communicate values of respect, such as keeping your hands to yourself, having respect for your body and others’ bodies, using proper names for body parts and making it clear that it’s not acceptable to belittle, bully or joke about groups of people or individuals considered less powerful or different.

“These are the values that should be reinforced,” she says. “Parents should focus their conversations on the values and not so much the technical and mechanical aspects of sexuality. Information is readily available but the values attached to the information are too often left up for interpretation and if parents are not providing the interpretation, someone or something else is.”