Understanding and improving consent issues on college campuses

Rebecca Ortiz

Assistant Professor,


The initial part of my research was to understand how college students define, understand, and enact sexual consent in their own lives (using focus groups and surveys). Based upon these findings, my colleague and I then designed and evaluated a multi-component, peer-to-peer campaign to improve college students’ understanding of sexual consent (measured using three online survey questionnaires distributed to the university’s undergraduate student population before, during and after the campaign’s implementation over two academic semesters).


The goal of the campaign, “Define Your Line,” was to promote open and clear sexual communication between sexual and romantic partners and to “unblur” college students’ understanding of sexual consent by addressing the contextual nuances of sexual interactions, such as how gender and sexual stereotypes can play a role in how college students’ interpret their partners’ verbal and/or nonverbal cues. Particular focus was on promoting messages that would resonate and be relevant to all college students, including historically hard-to-read students, such as college men and students in social fraternities and sororities. Therefore, we were careful not to promote any messages that insinuated negative sexual stereotypes about a group of people, such as implying that only men can be perpetrators or that women should not wear certain clothing to avoid victimization. The campaign’s strategy was to generate a “campus conversation” about the topic of sexual communication by gathering and displaying feedback from students about questions and thoughts they have related to sexual consent and sexual assault. Trained undergraduate students were the visible face of the campaign, such that they were the ones gathering the feedback from other students on campus and making presentations, under the guidance of relevant faculty and staff.


Focus Group Results:

College students often had a hard time defining sexual consent; they regularly articulated that they knew consent “when they saw it,” but the examples they described were typically the most extreme, such as individuals being so intoxicated they cannot stand or when someone clearly and consistently says “no.” They felt that many of the sexual assault prevention campaigns and messages they encountered were not relatable or useful in helping to clear up their confusion, especially regarding situations where sexual consent was less obvious (e.g., when sexual partners are drinking or have had sex before). College men also indicated that they often did not engage with sexual assault prevention campaigns because they assumed the primary motive was to berate males for being perpetrators of sexual assault.

Survey Results:

The more college students defined sexual consent based upon the parameters of affirmative consent, such that the consent must be explicit, conscious, voluntary, and be given by all parties involved, the more likely they were to accurately identify sexual consent (and sexual assault) in a variety of scenarios and intend to engage in sexual consent in the future.

The more college men reported comfort in verbally communicating consent and desire in sexual encounters in an assertive (but not aggressive) style and the less they reported belief in common rape myths (e.g., agreeing with statements such as “it shouldn’t be considered rape if a guy is drunk and didn’t realize what he was doing”), the more likely they were to also have positive attitudes and intentions about sexual consent and accurately identify sexual consent (and sexual assault) in a variety of scenarios.

The more potential new sorority women (i.e., college women interested in joining a sorority) reported believing in common rape myths, the less they felt comfortable intervening in a potential sexual assault and engaging in verbal sexual consent communication.

Campaign Evaluation Results:

Sexual consent understanding, beliefs, and intentions improved over the course of the campaign. College men and members of university-affiliated social sororities or fraternities resulted in the greatest improvement, compared to their respective counterparts (i.e., college women, non-members).


Sexual consent education campaigns for college students that are student-driven and address relevant sociocultural factors (e.g., gender stereotypes, rape myths) while authentically interacting with students can improve students’ sexual consent understanding, beliefs, and intentions. These type of campaigns also have the opportunity to reach historically hard-to-reach audiences, such as college men and students in social sororities and fraternities. College men must be as much a part of the conversations and educational efforts on college campuses to reduce sexual assault incidence as college women. Programs should therefore consider messaging that addresses the relevant concerns and needs of all their students, avoids alienating certain audiences, and encourages assertive, verbal communication.


Ortiz, R.R., & Shafer, A. (2017). “Unblurring the lines of sexual consent with a college student-driven sexual consent education intervention.” Presented at the 2017 International Communication Association annual conference, San Diego, CA.

Ortiz, R.R., & Shafer, A. (2016). “Engaging college students in a campus-wide sexual consent education campaign using digital communication tactics.” Presented at the annual Society for Research on Adolescence conference as part of the panel titled, “Sexual health in the digital world: Developing and evaluating eHealth and media-based interventions for youth,” Baltimore, MD.

Ortiz, R.R., Shafer, A., Murphy, A. (2015). “Define Your Line: A case study on student-driven sexual consent education campaign.” Journal of Campus Title IX Compliance and Best Practices, 1, 16-20.

Ortiz, R.R. & Thompson, B.A. (2017). “Risky recruitment: How the rape myth acceptance of potential new sorority members is related to their efficacy to prevent sexual assault and perceptions of university sexual assault reporting.” Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors.

Ortiz, R.R., & Shafer, A. (2018). “Unblurring the lines of sexual consent with a college student-driven sexual consent education intervention.” Journal of American College Health. 

Shafer, A., Ortiz, R.R., Thompson, B., Huemmer, J. (2018). “The role of hypermasculinity, token resistance, rape myth, and assertive sexual consent communication among college men.” Journal of Adolescent Health.