Sexual consent is legally defined as the voluntary agreement to engage in a sexual activity. There is no vagueness or gray areas in this definition. If you or your partner do not give consent, it’s considered sexual assault or rape. If you are drunk, high, asleep or are otherwise rendered unable to make conscious judgments about sex, you cannot give consent.
Even with a definition that simple, some people do not get the idea. Often, when a woman is sexually assaulted or raped, they are blamed for the incident. It could be the way they were dressed, or where and when they were at the time.
The Little Black Dress Doesn’t Mean Yes event in the Student Union Den on Feb. 4 was meant to defy this principle.
“The reason that we picked this event is because we really want to counteract the cultural narrative that if somebody dresses provocatively, or if somebody’s drunk, sexual assault becomes okay or something that we would expect,” Johanna Richter, a student who organized the event alongside UAA Student Health and Counseling Center, said. “And I think that it’s really particularly important to me because of the people that I know that have been sexually assaulted. A lot of them felt like they couldn’t report because the felt like, ‘well, I was drinking, so it’s my fault.’”
The reason for the encouraged attire was simple — it’s often seen as a provocative dress. A common misconception is that a small dress implies consent, when it really doesn’t.
“For a woman’s wardrobe, it’s really basic,” Jacob Shercliffe, the public relations manager for USUAA, said. “It works for everything. You can dress it up, you can dress it down, you can wear it at night, you can just wear it wherever. Unfortunately what that means is that it’s very much cocktail attire, in many ways, and that’s the situation where we’re most in fear of people who are going to be either sexual assaulted or can lead to very bad situations. So the biggest conversation is what affirmative consent means, how that’s going to help people. We want to stop the symbol that wearing a little black dress just means that they want to have sex with you.”
According to Richter, the idea for the event came when Student Health and Counseling brainstormed ideas for bringing the topic up on campus. In addition to kicking off Healthy Sexuality Week, which begins Feb. 9, the event also advertises resources that students and victims can utilize if they’re assaulted or abused.
They weren’t alone. Student Health and Counseling Center had help from many organizations, ranging from on-campus organizations like Student Activities and Student Clubs and Greek Life, all the way to other organizations like Sadler’s Home Furnishings or Nilda’s Party Creations, who donated gift bags, cake and other goodies.
“We’ve had a lot of great support for the event,” said Richter. “USUAA did all of the posters, they were really helpful in making sure that this event happened.”
The event is a departure from previous attempts from UAA to convey the meaning of consent. Many students saw the event as a more successful way to present that information, being more fun and inviting than more typical presentations.
“Just the diversity of ways that you can communicate something really starts to appeal to different people, said Shercliffe. “So I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with having pamphlets and Powerpoint presentations but you only get a very select group of people to go to those events. When you have something more broadly appealing like a mixer where you can meet people and interact, you can have a little bit more fun, and we think that we get a lot more outreach to different types of students.”
It is important to reach out to as many people as possible, because men and women alike aren’t aware of the resources available to contact in case of an assault or rape. Resources like Student Health and Counseling Center on campus, or Standing Together Against Rape (S.T.A.R.) will always be available to those affected.
“Standing against rape and the idea of this ‘yes culture’ and this hyper-sexualized world, it’s important to take a step back and realize we’re all human and we’re all people and our bodies need to be respected, no matter who you are, male or female,” Rebecca Thomas, an Early Childhood Education student at UAA who attended the event, said. “[Little Black Dress] is a good event to open that kind of conversation on campus.”
That was the goal for the event. The organizers realized that this was a multidimensional issue that needed to be presented in a unique and interesting way. In many ways, they succeeded. Many students attended, and it was a fun night full of music, socializing and lots of cake. Most importantly, it got the word out about important resources which will be available whenever people need them most.