Why is there still confusion about consensual sex?


By Fleming Smith


“It seems like certain people on campus want it (casual sex and making claims of sexual assault) both ways. As you say, the boys certainly are getting mixed signals.”

This comment, made by a male alumnus, appeared after The Purple posted an advice column, “Well, since you asked,” by Briana Wheeler (C’20). One advice seeker, “Anxious,” asked Wheeler the best way to see a boy casually and communicate that she wanted sex, not a relationship. Wheeler wisely urged honest communication and respect.

Judging by the comments made on Facebook about this article, the message about communication, respect, and consensual sex was not well-received. Apparently, if women want casual sex, they should stop complaining about sexual assault and rape culture. If they want sex anyway, why are they kicking up such a fuss when boys naturally get confused between all this “yes” and “no” business?

Casual sex is just a fact of college life. Frankly, I don’t think my generation invented it, nor should we be blamed based on this idea that promiscuity somehow leads to rape culture. Naturally, you can have your personal opinions on whether casual sex is right for you or not, or even if it’s good for other people—but they’re just that, opinions. By no leap of logic should anyone suggest that casual sex among college students invalidates concerns about sexual assault on college campuses.

Some commenters on this article suggested that “signals will get crossed” if girls are actively seeking casual sex. It seems that the most useful signals, saying “yes” or “no” in a specific situation, didn’t really occur to some people. In essence, if a girl wants sex in one occasion with one person, doesn’t she also want it with everyone everywhere?

The commenter I first quoted also said in his comment that “the girls need to recognize the mixed messages they transmit.” I’m wondering what these “mixed messages” contain. The fact that “Anxious” likes a cute guy and wants to have sex with him without a relationship? Or does it extend to what she’s wearing, if she seems flirty, if she’s been drinking a little or a lot?

Let’s be clear: in my opinion, there are no mixed signals or mixed messages when it comes to a consensual sexual encounter. We need to stop pushing this narrative that if a girl doesn’t appear sufficiently virtuous to you, she probably wanted it no matter what she said.

Many women want casual sex, just as many men want casual sex. If you don’t, that’s fine. Wheeler had the right idea when she gave “Anxious” her advice: start an open dialogue and respect that person’s answer, even if they don’t want what you want.

But this idea that college students wanting to have casual sex means that rape culture is a myth, and that sexual assault on college campuses can’t be a problem if we’re all sex-crazed anyway, absolutely needs to stop.

I kept watching the comments section in this article and hoped that more Sewanee alumni would stand up for us. I hoped that the same alumni who complained last semester that of course they would never make college students uncomfortable and push advances on them would say, “No, these women aren’t sending mixed signals. There’s yes, and there’s no.” And yet, radio silence.

On Saturday, another incident of non-consensual sexual intercourse was reported and communicated to the student body. We are so beyond talking about “mixed signals.”

We are each responsible for how we act towards others. This is true especially when it comes to sex. Calling rape culture and sexual assault issues essentially “fake news” doesn’t make problems go away—it buries them and places the burden on female college students who need your support more than ever.


  1. As the male alumnus who wrote the comments you published here, let me be very clear: there is no confusion on my part about casual sex versus sexual assault. The point I made was that given the constant drumbeat of the allegations of abuse at Sewanee that is now so loud it’s being picked up in mainstream media, it seems more than just a little strange that a letter like the one in question appeared in The Purple. The juxtaposition of the two draws a very strange picture. The mixed messages being sent by at least two separate constituencies are unmistakable (even if some do not recognize them). The rebuttal (almost certainly intentionally) conflates my point with the blatant straw man argument that I somehow suggested rape culture or sexual assault on campus are myths and women should stop complaining about them. What I gather from the above is that any behavior is acceptable provided no one says “no”. As a standard for personal conduct that is a very low bar.

      1. ^^ directed at Loring, not Fleming, who I think makes a great point.

Comments are closed.