Politics 101: the “blurred line” between consent and sexual assault


Fatima Olumee hashes out society’s revised definition of sexual consent in response to rising reports of sexual assault and harassment.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we seem to be entering a new era of holding perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment accountable for their wrongdoings. Generations of victim-blaming, rape culture and turning a blind eye to the genuine issue at hand finally seem to be catching up to something resembling progress. But how did the floodgates of victims speaking their truth burst open?


Credit: CCASA, 2014 https://bit.ly/2qLGhZf

Credit: CCASA, 2014 https://bit.ly/2qLGhZf

A little bit of background...

You may be under the impression that the #MeToo movement began in 2017 with actress Alyssa Milano’s iconic tweet rallying victims into action. Believe it or not, the origins of the movement started over a decade before the fact. According to Chicago Tribune, Tarana Burke coined the term “Me Too” in 2006 as a means for helping women, particularly those of colour like herself, survive the trauma of sexual violence.

Flash forward to eleven years later, in October 2017, allegations of sexual abuse against media-tycoon Harvey Weinstein emerged, with actresses and ex-employees like Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd and Emily Nestor coming out and telling their traumatic stories. Soon, it wasn’t just Weinstein under the interrogation lamp. Allegations of sexual abuse and/or misconduct against Kevin Spacey, Roy Price and Matt Lauer also hit the news. These stories were followed by many more, uncovering the seedy underbelly of Hollywood. Soon, it became apparent that this issue wasn’t just rife in the entertainment industry. Disturbing tales of Republican Senate nominee, Roy Moore, who allegedly preyed on underage girls, came to light.  A team doctor for an Olympic Gymnast team, Lawrence G Nassar, was also imprisoned for sexually assaulting his patients. Evidently, this issue is a worldwide concern across every industry known to man.

What is sexual consent anyway?

Credit: Safeground UK, 2015 https://bit.ly/2Hf8vFZ

Credit: Safeground UK, 2015 https://bit.ly/2Hf8vFZ

Reading through all these horrific stories, one cannot help but wonder what connects all these incidents together. And it’s the lack of consent given in all these situations. In many ways, the concept of consent has either been oversimplified or not fully understood by many people.

Gone are the days where a mere “yes” was recognised as the green-light for sex. If you’re looking for a simplified explanation of consent, check out Blue Seat studio’s ‘Consent Tea’ video.

According to Director of Equity and Diversity UTS, Tracie Conroy, sexual consent,  “relies on both verbal and non-verbal” communication. Ms. Conroy says that during a sexual encounter, if “your body and your language aren’t matching, it’s really up to the other person to check and double-check.”

It’s all about shifting the responsibility onto each and every one of us to make sure our sexual partner is willing. Ms. Conroy agrees that gaining one’s consent can sometimes be difficult when one is “in the heat of the moment.” However, she feels that “it really takes 15 seconds to gain assurance that the other person is okay with what you’re about to do.”

Rachel Bussel, in Friedman and Valenti’s Yes means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape (an excellent anthology of essays that I encourage everyone to read), argues that consent goes beyond the traditional “yes” or “no.” It also means sexual partners honestly communicating what they like or dislike, leading to mutual satisfaction. It’s the ‘mutual’ aspect that is a core part of ethical, consensual sex.

This new definition of consent dismantles many traditional ideas such as:

  • Someone cannot be raped by a person they are in a relationship with.

  • A person who gives legal consent cannot later change their mind.

  • Someone who gives verbal consent (“yes”) but is exhibiting signs of discomfort through their body language has given consent.

Sexual Consent-training in Universities:

Credit: Commonspace, 2017 https://bit.ly/2HfIbvi

Credit: Commonspace, 2017 https://bit.ly/2HfIbvi

It’s not often that our society is actively encouraged to have these conversations about sex both with our sexual partners and in environments such as schools and universities. This cone of silence essentially facilitates rape culture and a lack of discussion surrounding what it means to give consent.

Ms. Conroy feels that high school and tertiary sex education is in need of an overhaul. “Our schools are letting [students] down by only addressing the plumbing [of sex].”

The 2017 National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is what made this issue that much more difficult to ignore. Of the people who took the survey nationally, 51% were harassed in 2016 (on and off campus), while 26% were harassed on campus. Similarly, 6.9% of respondents were sexually assaulted in 2015-16, with 1.6% assaulted on campus. This study, followed by reports of hazing and sexual assault that was slid under the rug by the University of Sydney, subsequently ignited anger among students and the general public.

It became clear that Australian Universities needed to take action in the way of educating students on ethical sex and sexual consent. Universities began scrambling to protect their reputations by implementing online sexual consent training modules. The University of Sydney targeted their online modules towards first-years only and was widely criticised for putting a band-aid over a bigger issue. The University of Wollongong and UTS have collaborated with AHRC on a “Respect. Now. Always.” campaign designed to raise awareness on sexual assault on-campus.

UTS has also been taking action. In conjunction with UTS Counselling, it has been running the Sex and Ethics training for all the residential networkers in UTS Housing since 2011. They are also planning to launch an hour-long mandatory consent training module for all students. Ms. Conroy says this will be just the beginning of the necessary awareness programs that will be implemented.

Ms. Conroy feels that through “anger and action”, “the challenging of...inappropriate behaviours of sexual misconduct towards women and men… has [marked] a very pivotal time going forward.”


This article was brought to you by Fatima Olumee, a second-year Journalism student. Besides being an absolute bookworm and obsessed Potterhead (not to be confused with Pothead), her passions include yoga, horse-riding, and Bollywood movies. This girl is a big bag of weird… the good kind, she hopes.

If there are any current political topics that you would like Fatima to break down, please email publications@utsoc.com.au.