UC Santa Cruz Rolls Out ‘Consent is Sexy’ Campaign

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Illustration by Owen Thomas

Is consent sexy? It’s a question UC Santa Cruz students may ask after they see posters in dorms and buses with the slogan “Consent is Sexy.”

At the beginning of the school term, UCSC — which is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for its handling of sexual assault cases — kicked off a new sexual assault awareness campaign with the catchphrase “Consent is Sexy.”

The campaign’s print materials were designed by UCSC’s Communication and Marketing team and reviewed by 12 to 15 students in a focus group over the  summer.

“The slogan isn’t OK. It sends a very harmful message about sex,” said second-year HIV Peer Test Counselor Nayoung Kim. “It makes consent sound like something that’s not mandatory. It’s making consent seem like something that’s trendy and sexy.”

In 2014, California’s legislature passed SB 967, known as the Affirmative Consent Law. SB 967 defines sexual consent as an explicit “yes” and asks California colleges to raise awareness about affirmative consent. “Consent is Sexy” is part of UCSC’s answer.

Leading UCSC’s campaign is the college’s Title IX office, which handles sexual assault cases and enforces U.S. law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in federally -funded institutions.

“The biggest impact of the campaign we are hoping for is to get people talking about consent,” said UCSC Title IX Director Tracey Tsugawa in an email. “That is perhaps the most important aspect of this campaign — talking about consent.”

UCSC isn’t the first to run this campaign. ConsentIsSexy.net partnered with over 70 colleges, including schools like Penn State and Wesleyan University, and supplied them with workshops, posters and merchandise.

“We started our version of ‘Consent is Sexy’ in 2009,” said John Walsh, ConsentIsSexy.net Campaign Director in an email. “But the slogan has been around for much longer.”

Although it shares the same tagline, UCSC’s campaign has no ties to the website. Tsugawa and UCSC News and Media Relations Director Scott Hernandez-Jason said they didn’t know about the website when the university’s “Consent is Sexy” tagline was made.

The slogan first appeared on UCSC’s campus in 2014 before the school’s campaign. Last year, UCSC’s Student Health Outreach & Promotion (SHOP) handed out materials with the “Consent is Sexy” slogan, said former Chancellor’s Undergraduate Intern (CUIP) Jacob Davis.

“In years prior ‘Consent is Sexy’ has appeared in [UCSC’s] materials as taglines,” Davis said. “We talked with SHOP to get rid of any [‘Consent is Sexy’] materials coming out of SHOP or UCSC as a whole. And we did. For a year I didn’t see anything coming out of SHOP that had ‘Consent is Sexy’ on it.”

Student volunteers at SHOP raised concerns about the slogan. Davis said he and three other former CUIP interns asked SHOP to ban the slogan from its print materials because they felt the campaign was unproductive and offensive to survivors.

“For a lot of survivors, consent is the difference between reliving a traumatic experience and not,” Davis said. “Consent is a way for you to avoid being overcome with physical or emotional sensations that remind you of your rape, or when you were stalked, or when you were abused by a family member.”

The current organizers of UCSC’s campaign in Title IX and University Relations didn’t know about the student concerns raised at SHOP, but they were aware some students wouldn’t like the campaign, Tsugawa said.

“Some have expressed a desire for the campaign to focus on other messaging about consent,” Tsugawa said. “Such as ‘consent is mandatory’ versus ‘consent is sexy.’”

The current campaign has only started gearing up. “Consent is Sexy” plans to go beyond print materials with social media and “flash mob-type events,” Tsugawa said.

Tsugawa said she can agree with some critics of the campaign, but overall “Consent is Sexy” is an effective way to get students talking more about sexual consent.

For more information about UCSC’s Consent is Sexy Campaign, visit safe@ucsc.edu.