It's not so much as literally saying "yes" — because the terms of it can be so fluid. 

Throughout college, a good majority of students take part in the drunken one night stand, barely remembering most of it the next morning and almost always regretting at least parts of it — thanking every god they can when the condom wrapper is spotted on the floor. These nights happen almost as a right of passage, and for most everyone, they remain as cautionary tales to not ever get that drunk again, go home with a stranger who could just as easily be Ted Bundy reincarnate, or forget to pack spare sandals so it doesn't come to stumbling towards the Uber in 6 inch stilettos.

On a darker note, some wake up pondering more than small pangs of regret, disturbed with sinking feelings that they were forced, coerced, convinced, or taken advantage of. Rape is one of the most controversial issues gripping social media arguments right now. It headlines news stories almost daily, hitting the hardest on our own college campuses around the nation. Weeks ago, another CU Boulder student was arrested on sexual assault chargers. Alcohol, level of sobriety and consent reportedly played a major part.

But what even is "consent"?

We consent to things every day:

“Yes I’d like cheese on that.”
“Yes I’d like to see ‘Sisters’ tonight.”
“Yes I’ll walk your dog but I’m not picking up his shit. Okay fine. I will.”

However, when substances are involved, consent gets blurry. Maybe we need to change the way we see it. It’s not so much as saying "yes" when the terms of it can be so fluid. For example: We may be more likely to say yes to a bacon wrapped hotdog topped with macaroni and cheese after we've had 5 drinks even though we’re a lactose intolerant vegetarian. We’re also more likely to engage in risky behavior. The less sober you are, the more likely you are to have sex with someone you don’t want to have sex with. So how many drinks until there is no form of consent? As much as we want a black and white, there isn’t one.

Teresea Wroe, the Director of Education and Prevention for the Office of Victim Assistance at CU Boulder, explains, “When alcohol or other drugs get mixed in with sexual activity, non-verbal cues can be less reliable and it’s best to establish consent verbally. Being drunk doesn’t automatically mean that someone is unable to consent. Where the line gets drawn is when someone is incapacitated. Incapacitation from alcohol or other drugs, illness, disability, or other reasons means that someone is unable to consent. Incapacitation is when someone is unable to understand the nature of what’s being agreed to, so they are lacking the ability to understand the who, what, when, where or why of sexual activity. When people are stumbling, or unable to perform fine motor skills, unable to know what they are agreeing to, unconscious or asleep, a person is unable to consent to sexual activity.”

When it all boils down, both parties (or however many are involved, really) need to be perfectly clear on what the others want out of it. 

Al Vernacchio, a prominent sex educator, gave a TED talk encouraging people to adopt a new metaphor for sex. Instead of baseball, which, Vernacchio argues encourages competition, order, and a clear cut winner and loser, we should try to see consent to sexual activity as something we all love: pizza. Ordering and eating a pizza involves conversation between the person you choose to eat pizza with. You talk about toppings, size, what place you’re getting it from tonight. You can change it up and throw some jalapenos on it for a little spice. Maybe your partner is super into pineapple and sausage all of a sudden but they can get that on their half.  Pizza is enjoyed together. Baseball is a mad dash to home base.

It’s hard to have that talk with someone you just met at a bar you find sexually attractive and want to take home to do dirty things to. How is one supposed to say: “What are your thoughts on ass play?” while still retaining an air of sexiness and mystery. As a female, how do you say: “I just want to cuddle and make out tonight” without sounding immature or without the other person thinking you’re just being coy.

Ms. Wroe offers a few tips. “… when alcohol is involved, non-verbal cues can be unreliable. It’s important to not make assumptions about someone’s sexual intent based on the fact that they are drinking. When someone has been drinking, more communication and verbal clarification is best.”

She also offers up that consent is not a passive action. Which would seem obvious, right? When you’re about to get down to business, both parties are usually excited. There’s a give and take. “Active consent looks enthusiastic. If someone is too drunk to be enthusiastic or if someone isn’t physically reciprocating, that is a sign that consent has not been established.” Eagerness seems to be an obvious thing to look for, however, it can be harder and harder to gauge the level of enthusiasm as the night goes on and sobriety dwindles.

At the end of the day, sexual safety is as ambiguous as ever. It’s up to each individual to know their limits and to express their intentions. This in no way, shape, or form, is saying that people bring rape on themselves by how much they drink, how they dress, or insert any other ridiculous argument here. It may sound like it’s coming from a Planned Parenthood pamphlet, but the term consent should be in our sexual tool box. Condoms, check. Astroglide, check. Consent, check. Let’s turn our disastrous campus statistics around.

photo credit: Tom Merton/Caiaimage/Getty Images