Consent on Campus: A Manifesto
By Donna Freitas
New York, NY; Oxford University Press, 2018, 248 pp., $19.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Jordan Allyn
As someone who came of age watching The Hunting Ground in high school and experiencing the #MeToo movement in college, Donna Freitas’ timely book, Consent on Campus: A Manifesto, struck a deep chord. It made me reevaluate the cultural context that shaped my adolescence and think critically about my own romantic expectations. Freitas argues that reducing sexual violence on campus will require universities to treat consent as an ethical question central to their educational mission, as they do with questions of plagiarism, instead of relying on simplistic slogans like "Yes means yes and no means no."
While Freitas' book methodically examines the current sexual environment on US college campuses, she focuses specifically on hookup culture, where sexual encounters have no strings attached, no emotions, and no expectations.
Hookups come in many forms and range from making out to oral sex to intercourse. You can hookup with a stranger at a party and only ever see them again in awkward run-ins at the dining hall. Alternatively, you can have multiple partners who you reach out to individually when you want a hookup pick-me-up. You can even be consistently hooking up with one person exclusively without adding any of the emotional baggage of dating.
At the start of college, I reluctantly assimilated into the established hookup culture, in spite of the fact that I yearned for a passionate and intimate romantic relationship. My peers often framed hooking up as a great heterosexual equalizer— treating sex the way men do—leaving me wondering why I would want to treat men as objects, too. Although my friends participated in the culture, I saw an overwhelming amount of discontent, ranging from emotional disappointment to black-out drunk sex. Now that I am in my first serious relationship, I can really identify how emotionally stifling my past hookup experiences were.
Capturing the culture’s foundational premise, a student tells Freitas that hooking up is "a competition not to care." Another student chimes in, "It’s, like, whoever can care the least about the other person wins."
Consent on Campus: A Manifesto poignantly captures the embarrassment engrained within hookup culture. After assigning Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids to her seminar class, Freitas notices the extent to which the love affair in the book impacted her students. One student asks, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to love someone like that?” Like a good teacher, Freitas turns the question back to the students and asks why they can’t put love at the forefront of their lives. Their answer: love makes you weak. This refusal to embrace vulnerability and experience deep emotions—which predates my generation and is linked in complex ways to superficial ideas of female empowerment—provides the substantial material for a hookup culture to reign.
Of course, this begs the question—if hooking up is so unsatisfying, why is it so common? How can hooking up be associated with liberation if it is extremely emotionally constraining? To reconcile these disparate ideas, Freitas coins the term "hookup in theory," which refers to the idealized vision of sexual liberation onto which advocates cling. The “hookup in theory” consists of unfettered fun, no commitment, and pure physical pleasure conducted by people who know how to get and give what they want sexually. Freitas, however, argues that "hookups in theory" rarely work out in real life. Someone always wants more of an emotional relationship, and the lack of communication often leads to disappointment. The theory requires a level of rationality about sex that underestimates the complexity of human relationships.
Ultimately, Freitas uses the manifesto to call attention to how hookup culture impacts students’ perception of sex, intimacy, and consent. While sitting with a group of students in the Midwest, Freitas carefully takes note of inherited social scripts. The students explain the cold, calculated behavior involved with a hookup and one muses, "Remember when you could just make out on the dance floor?" Students now are often expected to go home together, whether or not that aligns with their own sexual standards.
Since hookups suppress emotions and adhere to rigid scripts, students have little normalized space to express their own apprehensions. Freitas argues that these scripts perpetuate the notion that sex is a mutually selfish act and prevent young people from creating their own set of sexual values. Most importantly, perhaps, the lack of communication tied to hookups distorts the notion of consent. She puts it bluntly: "expressing that you do not care about them and that the other person is worthless is not exactly a recipe for consent." Ignoring a partner’s feelings and repressing one’s own creates little room for communication about comfort and safety. Hookup culture, thus, allows perpetrators of sexual assault to shield their actions—and makes sex without meaningful consent almost inevitable.
Her political analysis was strong, but it was the personal student anecdotes sprinkled throughout that bring Freitas’s book to greater heights. She opens the manifesto with a disturbing story about a college student, Amy, who shares that a man that she hooked up with at a party masturbated inside her mouth while she laid unconscious. Amy doesn’t identify the situation as sexual assault despite being passed out and unable to invite the action, much less consent to it. Freitas is shocked by Amy’s confusion: "How could such a clear-cut case of sexual assault seem to Amy just a hookup gone awry?"
Highlighting Amy’s nonchalant attitude, Freitas insists that the current state of hookup culture on college campuses allows for moments like these to go unrecognized—even by the victims, which refreshingly complicates the (recent) rhetoric of "yes means yes and no means no." Instead of portraying consent as black and white for all parties, she shows its nuances and the difficulty of creating standards for consent within the context of a prevailing hookup culture.
Questions dominate the inner workings of Consent on Campus: A Manifesto. The students’ questions reveal unexpected dissatisfaction. Freitas tries to put herself in the mindset of administrators, faculty, and students by acknowledging her own quandaries about their perspectives. At the end, Freitas lists 49 thought-provoking queries for readers to ponder. While the book suggests specific strategies for dealing with issues of consent on campus (the "manifesto" that Freitas advertises), the power of this work dwells in creating more space for the questions that might, one hopes, lead to a better sexual culture on campus.
Jordan Allyn is a student at Barnard College. She is a regular contributor to Backstage Magazine and the Columbia Daily Spectator.