You asked us some important questions relating to sexual health, relationships, sexual assault, and communication, and we found the sexual literacy experts to answer them. What’s sexual literacy, you may ask? It’s the ability to communicate, gather information, and make decisions about your sexual health and well-being, and it’s a fundamental step toward empowering yourself and your community. Scroll down to the questions below to find out what our experts have to say.
Ramsey Champagne, MA
Ramsey is the community advocate at a New England university’s sexual assault prevention and response office and a former educator, administrator of nonprofits, and yoga teacher. In the past, she worked at Casa Myrna, Boston’s largest domestic violence shelter and support organization, where she provided counseling to people impacted by interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. As community advocate, she has the opportunity to sit with people as they unpack their belief systems in service of reducing the likelihood of causing identity-based harm.
Amanda Ayers, MPH
Amanda is the health educator at a New England University in the health promotion office. She received her Master of Public Health degree from Boston University in 2013. She has been working in higher education for over six years and has a passion for working with emerging adults around sexual health education. Amanda is a certified Koru Mindfulness teacher and enjoys spreading skills and knowledge of mindfulness and meditation across her university campus.
Ariana is a fourth-year college student studying the history of science and women and gender studies. She loves learning about sexual health and thinking about the intersections between sexuality education and sexual assault prevention. Originally from Juneau, Alaska, she also loves hiking and other outdoor activities.
“Have campuses become safer for students regarding sexual assault over the past decade, and how can safety be improved?”
—Third-year student, Portland State University
This is a really important and nuanced question. It’s hard to answer whether or not campuses have become safer over the past decade because we have a limited data set and sexual assaults tend to be significantly underreported (this Atlantic article explains why in more detail).
The Association of American Universities (AAU) started tracking incidences of sexual violence in 2015. This is a more thorough survey than those that were used in the past, but we only have very recent data from it. Because the language used in these surveys has shifted pretty significantly in the past eight years, it’s difficult to make comparisons over time. Additionally, as RC said, it’s hard for campuses to recognize the full scope of what’s happening because sexual violence is underreported, especially among populations at the margins (e.g., LGBTQ+, people of color, undocumented students).
Here’s what recent studies have told us:
- Nearly 12 percent of all student respondents reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation during their university experience. Rates were highest among female undergraduates and transgender, gender non-conforming, and questioning students (AAU, 2015).
- The US Department of Justice (DOJ) released a 2013 report indicating that the rates of rape and sexual assault among 18- to 24-year-olds did not significantly change between 1997 and 2013.
- One in five women and one in sixteen men were targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while on college campuses (DOJ, 2007).
Change will happen when people—students, faculty, and administrators—come together and actively work to make our campuses safer and more supportive to survivors. This takes effort and sometimes requires reframing the way we think about our communities and their cultures, but it is possible. We can start by becoming aware of and acknowledging the reality of sexual assault on college campuses, talking about it more openly, and strategically advocating.
“When I think about the most effective way to reduce incidents of sexual assault on campuses, so much of it is about communication.” —AG
Having conversations with your peers about the structures and mentalities that allow sexual assault to exist is a great starting place. Build a stronger community by reminding each other about the importance of communicating during hook-ups and continuing to hold yourselves accountable.
I love thinking about the variety of ways we can contribute to creating a community that is more accessible for all people. It helps me to use the Social Ecological Model (SEM), which shows how individuals and their well-being are impacted by the various spheres through which they move (including their relationships with themselves and with others, communities, and society) and how, in turn, they impact the well-being of those spheres. It can be hard to know how our behavior may have affected someone. Because of this, I find it helpful to consistently practice checking in with those around me.
Good communication can build shared understanding and more respectful relationships, making it less likely that we’ll experience harm
The more you try to check in with the people you’re interacting with, the easier it becomes. Eventually, it starts feeling less forced or awkward. Checking in, and checking in regularly, can give you a better sense of how your actions and words impact those around you. This can be as easy as using language like: “I want to make sure we’re on the same page…” or “How do you feel about…” It’s also important to be intentional about the language we use when interacting with our peers.
A key piece of relationship building is taking ownership when you realize that something you did hurt someone else, whether you meant it to or not.
If you found out that you hurt someone, it’s important to validate their feelings, even if at first you don’t know why your actions would have had the effect that they did. Then you can try to understand their experience and take ownership. Once you have a better sense of how something was interpreted, you can start working to make amends and incorporate their feedback. Bringing this back to sexual assault, it means acknowledging when or if you are in a position that allows you to exercise power over another person, and thinking about the ways this can affect the dynamic or the other person’s sense of comfort. Our hope is that people strive to consistently negotiate consent without expecting or demanding a particular response.
Accountability, your influence, and group expectations
Some other ways to help change campus culture include:
- Participating in conversations where you have social influence and access
- Modeling positive behavior for others (e.g., leading by example)
- Using your influence to help facilitate more equitable and comfortable environments for everyone
For example, if you’re a leader in a social group or for a project at work, you may be able to help set group expectations about what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. This may look different for each group, but some examples include a zero-tolerance policy for rape jokes or for language that demeans others.
When thinking about the relationships and communities we’re involved in, reducing harm often involves creating systems of accountability and intentional group norms. For example, in your social spheres, think about the following:
- How do people hold each other accountable when someone does something that doesn’t align with group values?
- How supportive are others in the group when that happens?
- What are the group understandings (explicit and implicit) about what is and isn’t acceptable?
By starting with the little things we talked about earlier—like checking in and taking ownership—it becomes easier to have these conversations. Often, a clear discussion is great at setting norms and helping people feel empowered to carry them out.
This process can sound daunting, but by practicing clear and mutual communication, we each become more equipped to receive feedback, validate other people’s experience, take ownership for our part, and learn. All of this goes a surprisingly long way.
“What are key components of learning to discuss sex and sexuality with your partner in a way that is healthy and nonjudgmental?”
—Fourth-year student, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
It’s important for us all to learn a way in which we can discuss these topics with our partner(s) without bringing judgment into the conversation. I want to begin by saying that each person comes to a relationship with their own preferences regarding sex, sexuality, and pleasure, and it’s important to keep this in mind when entering a conversation with a current or potential partner.
It can make us feel vulnerable to start discussing these things. Trying to set up an honest and open space, whenever these conversations occur, is essential. Just acknowledging how awkward or uncomfortable talking about these topics can feel can also take some of the pressure off.
One way to begin the conversation is to use the language “checking in” rather than “we need to talk.” Doing so may help ease into the discussion without making it feel too heavy.
Determining wants, needs, and non-negotiables
Before starting these conversations with a partner, it’s good to take some time to reflect about what exactly your own wants, needs, and non-negotiables are—in any kind of relationship. These will differ for each person, but I once heard them described using a cake analogy: Wants are the icing that makes the cake tasty; needs are things like sugar, flavoring, etc. that make the cake a cake rather than some other form of baked good; non-negotiables are the essential ingredients that allow the cake to exist at all, such as eggs, flour, and milk. We all have our own preferences, and it’s important to be aware of them in yourself so you can then articulate them to your partner(s).
If you and a partner have already engaged in a sexual encounter, or if you’re in the middle of one, it’s also important to find ways to ask for feedback. How you and a partner do this will look different depending on your relationship and the situation. Some language that I have heard is helpful includes: “How does this feel? Do you like it when I…? I noticed you just moved—were you not into what I just did?” Doing so will better facilitate communication and help you understand some of your partner’s wants, needs, and non-negotiables. A key part of asking for feedback is then learning how to best incorporate that into the relationship. This is called closing the feedback loop.
For example, if your partner mentions they want to try something new sexually, it’s nice to begin by just validating their vulnerability in asking for it. This can be as simple as saying something like, “Thanks for letting me know what you want to try. I know that can be hard.” Then you can check in with yourself to see if it’s something you’d also be excited about trying. If it is, then you both can explore how to work it in next time. The more you can try to normalize communication and feedback during sexual encounters, the less awkward it will feel. This doesn’t have to be forced; it can be a fun and continual process of learning from each other.
To understand your own wants, needs, and non-negotiables, it’s helpful to know what certain words mean, including but not limited to transgender, polyamorous, bisexual, gender non-binary, monogamous, hookup, etc. Understanding these words and what they mean to you and a partner can help reduce confusion regarding what you each want and need from the relationship.
“It is my understanding that the government changed the definition of rape in recent years. What is rape? As a male, I am confused by the word as well as “sexual assault.” They seem to be used interchangeably.”
—Fourth-year student, San Diego State University
Thanks so much for asking! First, I want to note that none of us are trained in the law, so we can’t give legal advice or counsel, but to my understanding, yes. In 2012, the DOJ updated its definition of forcible rape (which hadn’t changed since 1927 and was incredibly limited and heteronormative) to: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” That said, each state has its own legislation and unique language about what constitutes rape.
Title IX is the 1972 legislation that strives to ensure all students have equal access to education-related opportunities, regardless of their sex. Title IX is used by schools to guide how they deal with sexual assault and misconduct allegations on their campus. That legislation’s scope has been clarified and changed a number of times over the years and continues to be.
It’s also important to remember that each individual campus interprets Title IX differently and writes its own unique sexual assault policies and procedures. It can be worth spending some time familiarizing yourself with your school’s Title IX policy. It’s totally fair to be confused by the distinction between rape and sexual assault. Typically, sexual assault is used as more of an umbrella term such that all rapes can be defined as a type of sexual assault but that not all sexual assaults are rape.
The DOJ defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” As AG said, rape is therefore a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults can be understood as rape.
This, though, does get complicated in our larger cultural context; often, the two terms are blurred, as you have noted. When talking about these topics on campus, students tend not to distinguish between the two categories.
I think, at the end of the day, the takeaway for me is that any type of sexual or physical interaction—or any interaction at all—should involve an ongoing negotiation of wantedness and consent.
“What are the top pieces of advice you can give to a young adult who is currently sexually active but not in a monogamous relationship?”
—Third-year graduate student, Uniformed Services University, Maryland
As we mentioned above, the most important thing is to understand your own boundaries, wants, needs, and non-negotiables in sexual encounters. This will help you have the most healthy and pleasurable sexual experience possible.
Discussing these things with a casual partner may not always seem like the easiest thing to do, but it will ultimately ensure that you’re having the types of sex that you want to be having and that you’re on the same page and approaching the situation with the same expectations. Honesty from the beginning (especially with casual sex) can help mitigate hurt feelings or jealousy in the future.
Another piece of advice to people engaging with different sexual partners is sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention. Communication is important with any type of partner and that applies to discussing STIs. If you are engaging with new partners regularly, it’s best to use safer sex practices and get tested for STIs every six months and/or with every new partner. To get tested, go to a local health clinic, see your health care provider, or visit the student health center. You can also find STI testing recommendations on the CDC website.
Barrier methods such as external and internal condoms can decrease the risk of STIs. Also, if you’re having the type of sex where someone can get pregnant and that isn’t your intention, it’s worth thinking about what type of contraception works best for you and your partner(s).
If you’re interested in learning about different barrier methods and contraceptive options, check out Bedsider. Also, look at your school’s health services website to find out if it offers barrier methods or contraception consultations. Knowing where you can go for information regarding safer sex on your own campus will be key to having and sustaining healthy sexual experiences.
Also, a lot of campuses have specific offices or student organizations that are more knowledgeable about particular groups of people. For example, an LGBTQ+ office or a group like the Queer Students & Allies may have more info about queer sex than the health services website would.
Association of American Universities. (2015, September 3). AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (2015). Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/key-issues/aau-climate-survey-sexual-assault-and-sexual-misconduct-2015
Bedsider Birth Control Support Network. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bedsider.org/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (April 27, 2014). STD & HIV screening recommendations. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/prevention/screeningreccs.htm
Ciolkowski, L. (2016, October 15). Rape culture syllabus. Retrieved from https://www.publicbooks.org/rape-culture-syllabus/
Human Rights Campaign. (n.d.). Glossary of terms. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms
Krebs, C. Lindquist, C., Warner, T., Fisher, B., et al. (2007, December). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Survey. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf
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Sinozich, S. & Langton, L. (2014, December). Rape and sexual assault victimization among college-age females, 1995–2013. US Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsavcaf9513.pdf
United States Department of Education. (2017, September 22). Office for Civil Rights: Sex discrimination, policy guidance. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/frontpage/faq/rr/policyguidance/sex.html
US Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. (2017, June 16). Sexual assault. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/ovw/sexual-assault
US Department of Education. (2015, October 15). Title IX and sex discrimination. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html
Wong, A. (2016, January 26). The problem with data on campus sexual assault. Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/why-the-prevalence-of-campus-sexual-assault-is-so-hard-to-quantify/427002/