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Discussing Consent with Your Student

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT) is committed to a safe environment for all students. While we have a duty to provide education to students, we recognize that as a parent or caregiver, you are and will continue to be the primary influence in your student’s life.

This resource will provide you with tools to help you prepare for an open dialogue with your student about consent. It includes important information on UT policies and procedures, the importance of discussing consent, and how consent is affected by substance use.

College is a time for your student to explore their identity, gain new experiences, build new friendships, and make new memories that will last a lifetime. As you prepare your student for this transition, there are many good reasons to have a conversation about consent.

Why You Need to Have This Conversation

When students arrive at college, they will likely be thinking and making choices about dating, relationships, and sex. These issues can become even more complex when alcohol is involved. Relationships are an important component of college and young adulthood, but the issues of communication and choice can be complicated. Students must be guided to develop skills such as assertive communication and speaking up for their safety, as well as supporting the choices of others.

By following the suggestions provided here, you can help equip your student for the next steps in decision making. The time you spend talking with your student will help strengthen the lines of communication within your family as you prepare for your student’s years at UT and beyond.

Research suggests that approximately 1 in 4 female and 1 in 14 male college students will experience sexual assault during their time in college. More than half of college sexual assaults occur between August and November, and students are at the highest risk of experiencing sexual assault during the first few months of their first and second semesters in college. RAINN.org

Step 1: Plan the Conversation

As you plan a conversation with your student about consent, it is important to incorporate three elements: the definition of consent, how to ask for and give consent, and how alcohol can affect an individual’s ability to gain or give consent. These conversations help students recognize how they may impact others.

Like many universities across the country, UT’s Policy on Sexual Misconduct, Relationship Violence, Stalking, and Retaliation applies to students, faculty and staff. For the purpose of this guide, basic definitions and information from this policy are provided. For full definitions and additional clarification, visit the university’s sexual misconduct and relationship violence website where you can review the policy and related resources.

Important Elements of Conversation

Consent means an active agreement to participate in a romantic or sexual act or acts. Here are some topics to discuss around consent:

  • It includes verbal and non-verbal communication. What does someone look like when they’re interested? How can you tell if a person is “checked out”?
  • Withdrawal of consent at any point is okay!
  • Because alcohol can make consent confusing, you can think about consent like you think about driving. If someone is too intoxicated to operate a car, they are too intoxicated to consent.
  • Healthy relationships have safety, which means being able to be honest. Practicing consent is also practicing safety.

Common Myths

There are some common myths about consent that we recommend you discuss with your student:
MYTH: Once you give consent, you can’t take it away.
FACT: Consent is reversible. People are entitled to change their mind and revoke consent at any time.

MYTH: If someone isn’t saying no, that means yes.
FACT: Consent is a clear, affirmative verbal or non-verbal “yes.” A lack of “no” does not mean someone has consented.

MYTH: Once you give consent for one sexual act/behavior, you give consent for all sexual acts/behaviors.
FACT: Consent is specific. Consent for one behavior is not consent for any and all behaviors.

The consent conversation is about empowering your student to both say what they do or do not want out of their interactions and to ask for consent from others.

Asking for consent can sound like:

  • Do you want to _____?
  • Are you comfortable with _____?
  • Do you want me to _____?
  • Can I kiss you?
  • What do you want to do?

Giving consent can sound and look like:

Verbal

  • Yes!
  • I’m sure!
  • That feels good.
  • I want this.

Non-Verbal

  • Direct eye contact
  • Pulling someone closer
  • Nodding
  • Relaxed facial expression


Understanding how to ask for and give consent can empower your student to speak assertively about what they do or do not want from an interaction.

Because interpreting non-verbal conduct may lead to misunderstanding and a violation of the Policy, UT strongly encourages students to err on the side of caution and not rely solely on the non-verbal communication to determine if they’ve received consent. If they have any doubt, they should consider the answer to the question “Did I get consent?” If they are still unsure, they should consider the answer is no. Ask your student how they might respond if they do not have consent. Consent being an active agreement means it is ongoing, mutual, and can be withdrawn at any time. It’s also important to note that consent to one activity does not mean consent to all activities.

Consent can be complex and hard to communicate, especially when alcohol is involved. The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults reported by college-aged students involve alcohol.

Alcohol can impair your student’s ability to judge whether consent has been gained as well as impair their ability to give consent. According to the UT Policy, individuals cannot consent if they are incapacitated. Incapacitation is not the same as intoxication, but it is important to discuss how alcohol can still impair your student’s ability to give or receive consent.

Incapacitation versus Intoxication

  • Incapacitation means that a person lacks the ability to actively agree to sexual activity because the person is asleep, unconscious, under the influence of alcohol or other drugs such that the person does not have control over their body, is unaware that sexual activity is occurring, or their mental, physical or developmental abilities render them incapable to make rational informed decisions. A person who is incapacitated cannot give consent.
  • Intoxication means that a person’s physical or mental control is markedly diminished due to consuming alcohol or drugs. The legal level of intoxication is a blood alcohol content/concentration (BAC) of 0.08%. While incapacitation is not the same as legal intoxication, we encourage you and your student to think about how intoxication can still impact consent. UT urges students to be cautious before engaging in sexual activity when either person has been consuming alcohol or using other drugs. Alcohol and other drugs impair a person’s ability to give consent and impair a person’s ability to determine whether consent has been given.

Step 2: Start The Conversation

As with anything important, taking some time to set the stage and plan the details of this conversation will help it go more smoothly. Think about when and where you and your student can best talk. This is not a conversation to have over the phone, in a crowded public place, early in the morning, or as your student is heading out the door. You may want to talk at home, or another place where you both can be comfortable having a one-on-one conversation.

With important conversations, sometimes the hardest part can be knowing how to begin. Here are a couple of ideas to help you get started:

“You’ll be leaving for college soon. I’m excited for you, and I also want to prepare you for some critical decision making. I would like to talk to you about consent, and I want to make sure you are aware of your options. I know it might be hard to talk to me about it, but discussing difficult things is important. Would you mind giving me a few minutes to chat?”

“You’ve probably heard about consent from your friends or other people, and I would like to talk with you about it as well. I feel like it’s one of the most important things I can do to prepare you for the choices you may face while at school. Do you mind talking with me for a few minutes about this?”

The consent conversation is not focused solely on empowering your student to say what they do or don’t want; it must also empower them to know how to approach asking for consent.

Helpful Pointers to Consider

  • Ask first: Ask your student about their views on consent.
  • Listen to your student: Listening is the most important part of good communication. Be attentive and try not to be critical of your student.
  • Use a metaphor: Consent is practiced in everyday life! No one thinks it’s okay to take someone’s phone without asking or to pressure them if they say no. Consent applies to everyday life and its application is easily transferable to intimate relationships.
  • Facts and feedback: Give constructive feedback, share the facts, debunk myths, and incorporate the four elements described above into your conversation.
  • Avoid generalizations and scare tactics: Refrain from blanket statements like “Don’t get yourself in a bad situation.” Be wary of using such scare tactics as “If you have sex, then…” to influence your student; this approach may discourage your student from listening and have unintended consequences.
  • Help plan: Collaborate with your student about ways they can articulate their boundaries. Empowering your student to state what they do and do not want can play a critical role in their safety.

Step 3: Keep the Conversation Going

After the initial conversation, continue to talk with your student about consent. It is common for conversations about sex and relationships to happen more than once, and for the depth of the conversation to evolve over time. Keeping the communication lines open can let your student know that you are there to discuss their safety and that you’ll continue to support them in making informed choices at UT.

Ways to Stay Connected

Give your student a call frequently during their first few weeks away. Pay special attention to experiences and activities during the first four months of school. It is during this critical period that students are most at-risk for experiencing sexual assault.
Send a text to wish your student good luck on a test or ask how things are going. It’s an easy, nonintrusive way to show that you are thinking about your student, and it gives them an easy way to respond.
If you do not live too far away from campus, plan a lunch or shopping date with your student. Attend Family Weekend and other campus events that are open to parents. While you are there, consider revisiting the consent conversation.

Encourage Involvement

UT is actively working to keep students safe, healthy, and informed about consent, as well as other sexual violence prevention topics and strategies. Encourage your student to learn about and take advantage of the following events and programs.

Students can request any of our educational programs for a student group, residence hall floor, or other student gathering. Encourage your student to talk to their resident assistant, student organization leader, or instructor about requesting one of our programs for their group. Visit our Request a Program page to learn more about the Interpersonal Wellness and Sexual Health programs we offer, including:

  • Vols ACT: Bystander Intervention for Sexual Misconduct Prevention
  • Consent
  • Healthy Relationships
  • It’s Not Taboo (Sexual Health)

Students are also welcome to directly contact and meet with the Interpersonal Wellness and Sexual Health Coordinator, Dr. Kayley McMahan (kdmcmahan@utk.edu), to ask questions and learn about consent, healthy relationships, sexual health, and bystander intervention. 

More information coming soon!
More information coming soon!
More information coming soon!
Encourage your student to follow us on Instagram, @utkwellness. We post educational information and event announcements.

Step 4: Review these Resources

Campus Resources

Office of Title IX
Center for Health Education and Wellness
Student Counseling Center

Online Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Love is Respect
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN)
National Domestic Violence Hotline