Understanding consent

  • Published
  • By Jennifer McCabe
  • Offutt Sexual Assault Response and Coordination Office
Jim was your typical first-term military member. After three years on active duty he was used to the idea of being out on his own, deploying to support his service and making the most of his off-duty time. One Friday night, Jim was invited to a party. While there, he met up with Jane, a co-worker whom he found interesting. At the party, Jim and Jane consumed quite a bit of alcohol and enjoyed conversation. It was pretty clear both of them were attracted to each other.

Jim and Jane's conversation quickly turned intimate. They found a secluded place at the party and started kissing. Jane told Jim she was okay with "hooking up," but Jim noticed that Jane appeared very intoxicated. As they continued kissing and touching one another, Jane became less and less responsive. Soon it was clear to Jim that Jane was pretty out of it. However, Jane had told him she was "okay" with "hooking up." Jim was pretty worked up at this point, but knew he wasn't thinking clearly due to a combination of alcohol and hormones. Given the situation what should Jim do?

· Continue making out with Jane and let things proceed to sex?
· Continue making out with Jane, but don't go any farther than that?
· Stop all intimate contact with Jane until they both sober up?
· Get a friend to help him get Jane home safely?

While there are a number of things that might concern you about this story, this article is offered to help clarify the meaning of consent in terms of sexual assault. Most people understand that a sexual assault occurs when one person forces sex upon another person. However, Jim and Jane appeared to be mutually involved with each other, at least initially. There was no physical force involved. Under military law however, force may not be necessary when alcohol is involved, because a person who is incapacitated cannot give consent. In other words, Jim is unsure if Jane is too drunk to give consent.

The best course of action is for Jim to stop and wait until Jane is sober. Another fact to consider is what Jim and Jane mutually agreed to do together. The story indicates that they both agreed to "hook up." If both were asked what that term meant exactly, they might come up with different meanings. For instance, Jane might have said that hooking up is kissing and touching on top of the clothes. Jim's definition of hooking up might include kissing, touching above and under the clothes and some kind of sexual intercourse. If Jim presses on with what he thinks is okay with a "hook up," and Jane either disagrees or isn't sober enough to agree with what Jim wants to do, then Jim may be sexually assaulting her.

Again, because they have not talked about the meaning of "hooking up" and could have very different definitions of what that means, the safest thing for Jim to do is to stop all intimate activity with Jane. If Jim were to press on with sexual activity, he could face criminal punishment under military law. As a military member and a gentleman, Jim should not leave Jane in a secluded place at a party, because it might put her in jeopardy of being sexually assaulted by someone else. In fact, Jim should see if someone is available to get them both home safely.

Each of us might have opinions about what should or should not have happened in this story. However, having sex with someone who cannot consent is a crime. If you see someone about to make a bad decision, step in and say something. If you're not sure you can handle the situation by yourself, get help. Your intervention could keep others from making mistakes with very serious consequences.