Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

First, they called consent sexy. Then, they suggested it’s smart (and sexy). But as the small changes in the slogan develop, it’s clear UC Santa Cruz administrators can’t grasp that consent is mandatory above all else.

In response to Senate Bill 967, which defines and requires affirmative consent, it’s the university’s responsibility to create educational campaigns and programs. UCSC launched its “Consent is Sexy” campaign last fall, which sexualized consent and belittled its complexities, and is seeking to fix its mistake. But this “fix” is still lacking.

After similar feedback from the Coordinated Community Review Team for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Misconduct (CCRT), a subcommittee of about 15 undergraduate and graduate students, administrators presented a disappointing solution. While the new slogan presented, “Consent is Smart (and sexy),”  is a suggestion and will not be printed, it has the same issues as the last one — again implying that to have sex without consent isn’t illegal, just not smart, and not sexy.

While the acknowledgment and willingness to change the campaign is a step forward, it’s not enough. When asked about the sexual assault campaign in a Q&A with UCSC Student Media organizations, Chancellor George Blumenthal said “…I think the goal of [“Consent is Sexy”] was to get people’s attention to the issue, and I suspect, for better or for worse, whether you like it or not, it has garnered attention.”

Garnering attention “for better or worse” is an inappropriate justification of a campaign aimed at educating students about sexual consent. This change shows administrators are listening to students’ concerns, but not understanding their message. The single additional word does little — if anything at all — to strengthen the educational aspect of the campaign.

The CCRT committee suggested at least 40 examples of key messages the campaign needs to convey based on campaigns from other universities. UC Los Angeles’ “7,000 in Solidarity” states “there are no blurred lines when it comes to consent,” and University of Oregon’s campaigns that “Consent is not only sexy, it’s the law” were among those referenced.

According to the new UC-wide sexual harassment and assault policy, every UC campus must have a public awareness prevention campaign. Students met with the Title IX office multiple times fall and winter quarter to address concerns about the “Consent is Sexy” campaign and offer suggestions. With hope that the campaign materials would be revised, these suggestions were then submitted to University Relations. Unfortunately, what students got back didn’t come close to their expectations.

Administrators need to properly address student feedback to create an effective campaign. It’s irresponsible of the university to continue perpetuating harmful ideas about consent, when rape and sexual assault is a widespread issue everywhere, beyond college campuses and beyond this university. UCSC has missed the point twice now, and students need to have control of this campaign to make it educational and effective.

Part of the CCRT feedback included the ideas of two campaigns, “one on policy and affirmative consent, and one on culture.” The ideas that students are generating in response to UCSC’s campaigns are more innovative and compelling than anything presented by administrators.

Students need to recognize that consent is mandatory, but also identify systemic enforcement of any reasoning to the contrary. This campaign, while well-intentioned, continues to perpetuate faulty notions of consent and the boundaries of sexual assault.

The language of affirmative consent isn’t difficult, it’s straightforward. Consent is mandatory, not sexy, not smart. Mandatory. It’s this gray area that spurs confusion and mixed messages that further perpetuate rationalizations that lead to rape and sexual assault.

Any sexual activity without consent, is rape. Rape, aside from being illegal, is not something students should prevent because it’s “smart to do so.” How can students hope to get educated and supported on these issues when the very people they are looking up to either just don’t understand, or chose to ignore them?