Understanding Consent is a multi-part series exploring consent, sexual assault, and the conversation our nation is having around women.

Understanding Consent Series

Yes Is the Only Word That Validates Consent: The Role of Silence in Rape Culture
Non-Sexual Touch Should Still Require Consent, Regardless of Age

The Role of Silence in Rape Culture

I became a statistic on October 28, 2017. Just an innocent sophomore in college, who did not ask to be sexually assaulted. Believe it or not, but my assault happened at a public music festival.

I was in a crowd of people and next to my college roommate/best friend. The assault could have been stopped at any point, but they were silent. I do not blame anyone. It was not their fault that I was assaulted.

The only person to blame is the man himself. A complete stranger. I am not sure what I did to let him think that it was okay to assault me? I did not say no. I did not say yes. I was silent.

YES Is the Only Word That Validates Consent

I am a collegiate swimmer at a small university. Part of my responsibility and every other athlete at my school is to attend a talk on sexual assault and go through an informative course on how to intervene if someone looks at risk for being sexually assaulted.

I have had to do these trainings twice a year for the past three years. The main point these talks, and courses stress is that YES IS THE ONLY WORD THAT VALIDATES CONSENT.

Yes, means yes! No, obviously means no. And most importantly, silence does not mean consent.

As I have had to go through countless sexual assault trainings, I know what constitutes as consent. Sometimes I have to remind myself that other people may not have had access to the same resources that I have and may not know this information.

“Consent is not interpreting no as yes. Consent is not taking silence as unlimited access to a person’s body.”

So, what is considered to be consent? Planned Parenthood gives 5 simple terms that very clearly define how to give consent: it is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific.

Another source clearly states that consent is not “silence, passivity, lack of resistance, or immobility”. These descriptions leave no room for a person to interpret consent as silence. Communication is key when trying to obtain consent.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), positive consent can take many forms.

  • Is this okay?
  • Can I take off your clothes?
  • Yes.
  • I’m open to trying…

Consent is not interpreting no as yes. Consent is not taking silence as unlimited access to a person’s body. This leads me to the thought that I have had in my head since the night of October 28th, why do people interpret silence as consent?

Why Do People Equate Silence with Consent in Sexual Situations?

Most research regarding silence has been relatively positive. Counselors and therapists use silence to help their clients dive deeper into beneficial reflections.

Silence can be used as a defense mechanism in which a person “shields themselves” from negativity, aka “the silent treatment”. It has become a tradition to take a moment of silence to honor people that have died or to honor tragic events.

Yet there is little to no research regarding why people equate silence with consent in sexual situations. One main reason may be because people misinterpret what silence represents. Silence can be ambiguous.

However, silence is not a yes and silence is not a no. Silence is nothing. “He misread her signals” or “she didn’t say no” are common phrases tied to rape culture. Every sexual encounter or sexual act requires consent for it not to be considered sexual assault.

Just because a person is being flirty does not mean that they consent. Consent comes from the physical and verbal act of saying, “yes, I want this to happen”.                                   

Silence IS NOT consent.

Silence After the Assault – The Difficult Choice to Report or Not Report an Assault

Each year, 321,000 American women are sexually assaulted. In 85% of sexual assaults, the offender was not under the influence of drugs of alcohol.

According to The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sixty-three percent of sexual assaults will never be reported to the police. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults that are eventually reported, only 4.6 rapists with be incarcerated.

Silence is not only relevant in consent, but also for reporting incidents. Many cases of sexual assault go unreported because the survivor knew their attacker. Many times survivors may not want to relive their assault.

I did not report my assault. About three weeks following my assault I went to my university’s health and wellness center after having a panic attack at swim practice. The nurses suggested that I give counseling a shot so that I could work through my pent-up emotions.

My counselor saved my life sophomore year. Not only did she empathize with me, but she empowered me to gain my emotional and mental strength back. She gave me the option to make a Title IX claim that the incident occurred, but I did not see any use in reporting the situation.

My assault happened in an outdoor venue, by a stranger I did not know the name of, in a territory where my university had no jurisdiction. I felt that no good would have come from me reporting the incident. I was silent.

“Silence is not consent!”

Sexual Assault, the College Years, and My Experience as a Student-Athlete

I know I am not alone. Women ages 18-24 are in a period of elevated risk of experiencing sexual violence. One in five young women on college campuses are survivors of sexual assault.

College-aged victims often do not report the incidents to law enforcement. My two college best friends also experienced a form of sexual assault. Out of the three of us, two of us remained silent.

“Bonding” over my sexual assault with others who shared similar experiences is not something I ever could have imagined myself doing. Talking with other survivors made me feel more human, but it is heartbreaking that sexual assault was a commonality that we shared.

I cannot say whether or not I would have reported my assault had I know the perpetrator. Nor do I regret staying silent about my attack. I would like to think that I would have reported it.

After attending counseling for months and taking a year to work on myself, I am finally ready to share my story. It is time for me to break the silence. Every survivor has their own journey, and they have every right to remain silent.

However, I believe that as a society if we want to work on combatting the tragedy that is sexual assault, we need to break the silence. Yes, means yes! No, means no! SILENCE IS NOT CONSENT!

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINNEnd Rape on CampusKnow Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Written By: Megan Delgado

Megan is a rising senior at Queens University in Charlotte, where she’s a member of the 5-time NCAA Division 2 Champion Women’s Swim Team.

Originally from Southern California, she’s the biggest Disney nerd ever and dreams of raising a corgi.

Megan is majoring in psychology, minoring in human services, and has wanted to be a writer her entire life!


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