How not to be “that guy”: consent and dialogue

By now, you’ve probably had some pretty serious blinders on to be unaware of the issue of sexual violence on campus. Talk of “rape culture” and other buzzwords saturate the media and university landscapes. When faced with such a distressing topic, it is not unnatural for us to shut down or otherwise avoid the issue.

This can take the form of defensiveness (“That’s not me, why make all guys out to be rapists?”) and/or denial (“It can’t be that bad” or “Is it always really rape?”). Others might try to use humour to deflect the issue. Many young men may find themselves feeling guilty or ashamed about their own sexual behaviours or experiences, which leads to further disengagement from the issue.

These responses, although not always intentional, often have this effect of minimizing the experiences of people impacted by sexual violence. It is perfectly normal human behaviour to want to avoid distressing topics, but we need to be braver and stronger than this.

All that being said, it is encouraging to know that there is actually a lot you can do about sexual violence. First and foremost, you can endeavour to have healthy, respectful sexual relationships. This means learning more about consent – what it looks like and how to know you have it.

It also means knowing what the absence of consent is, especially given the fact that people can have all kinds of weird reactions when it comes to sex. You might not be able to tell from a person’s behaviour or look whether or not they are uncomfortable.

Talking about what is happening for them is the best way to get a clearer picture. And it is worth mentioning that conversations about consent do not have to feel awkward or ruin the mood – you can ask about consent in a sexy way (“What do you want me to do to you?”; “Does that feel good?”; “What do you want to do to me?”, etc.). If the answer is silence, “I don’t know” or anything but enthusiasm, it’s time to back off.

Alcohol consumption is one of the highest contributing factors to sexual assault on campus, so keep the drinks/drugs to a minimum if you are hoping to hook up. Remember, if your potential partner is visibly intoxicated, they are not able to give consent (and, if you’re drunk, neither are you, so you are putting them in a pretty unfair position, too).

Save sex for a time when you are both better able to enjoy it. Try to keep in mind that someone saying “no” to an offer of intimacy, although it can feel rejecting, does not mean there’s something wrong with you or that your “game” isn’t good enough – it really is about the other person and the place that they are at in the moment. If, for whatever reason, you find that you are having a hard time following these “rules of engagement,” it is time to seek out some help.

Find someone who has expertise and experience in the field of sexual health and consent, such as a therapist, counsellor or sexual health resource. In my practice as a social worker, I have worked with many young men who have been sexually violent. I know they are not like the villains we see on TV, but regular guys making really bad decisions. I also know that specialized therapy is effective in helping these guys have healthy, respectful sexual futures.

Apart from your own approach to sex, you can also do a lot to impact other guys’ behaviours. Speak up when you hear people demeaning women or joking about sexual violence. If you are part of a sports team, fraternity or other association, make fighting sexual violence a cause you champion together.

If you notice someone making advances on a person who is too drunk to consent, check in with them, say something. Advocate with your administration to establish evidence-based sexual violence prevention programs on campus.

Sexual violence is a disturbing topic and one that can be hard to think about. But it feels a lot more approachable if we commit to having pleasurable, healthy and respectful sexual experiences where everyone involved is an enthusiastic participant. How can you argue with that?

Graham Watson, MSW, RSW is a social worker in private practice in Peterborough, Ontario. Learn more at