What’s the Threshold of Consent?

[Trigger Warning: This post talks about sexual assault.]

Two weeks ago I was giving a presentation on sexual assault prevention. I had just wrapped up what I thought was a clear explanation of consent (I talked about how consent isn’t a murky concept, but we pretend it is when we pair it with sex). It was time for questions. I braced myself as hands raised, and the questions commenced (I’m paraphrasing here):

“Don’t get me wrong, I like you, but I think feminists give things a bad name. Can’t you call it something else?”

“Who would buy into this idea of talking to kids about sex at early ages?”

Then: “What’s the threshold of consent? Like, how many drinks before it’s bad to have sex with someone?”

I tried not to screw my face up into a look of disgust. Afterall, I was there presenting, and it seemed like a teachable moment. The person asking was one of two white men in the room. “He’s my target audience,” I told myself. He’s the demographic I’m trying to reach, right? It isn’t helpful for me to berate him and tell him that he’s the problem. Besides, I know the guy, and although his relationship to space and obvious privilege irk me, I think he’s genuinely trying to engage with me. And, the whole point of my research is the fact that we don’t teach men about consent, so homeboy probably genuinely doesn’t understand the concept.

I took a deep breath, and I asked him to describe what he meant by “threshold.” I thought I’d give him a chance to see where he missed the mark, but it only became more clear that he  didn’t understand consent. At all. He was genuinely confused, and sincerely wanted to know: how much booze can I feed to a woman I have sex with without being brought up on rape charges?

This is the world we live in, folks. This is rape culture. A grown ass man in a graduate-level program at a private university doesn’t know that it’s unacceptable to liquor up your sexual partners for easy access.

I told him that one drink was too much, because you never know how much is too much for a stranger. I told him to err on the side of extreme caution, because isn’t the point of sex to have it with someone who really wants to fuck you back? (Enthusiastic consent, folks!) I used myself as an example in two ways to disarm the situation: (1) I’m not much of a drinker, and even one drink might convince me to do things I otherwise might not, which isn’t cool, (2) I taught  my little brother pretty early on that if he gave a girl liquor and had sex, it was alcohol assisted sexual assault, and I give that advice to everyone else I meet.

Do I think it was the perfect answer? Nope, but it was a start. Albeit, a late start, a terrifyingly late start, because as I looked at my classmate I wondered: how many date rapes are in his wake, and he doesn’t even know it?


  1. Obviously, using alcohol to get sex is unacceptable. I’m curious what you think about situations where the woman is drinking of her own accord, and then a man approaches her, they flirt, and end up sleeping together. Was it his responsibility to know that she may not be making the best decisions due to alcohol she’d had before they started talking? Where does her responsibility lie in choosing to drink and accept drinks, and the actions she may take as a result? Should women just not drink?

    • Chelsea Kilpack says:

      I don’t think the answer is for women to stop drinking. I think the best thing for anyone trying to have sex with another person is to have an open and honest conversation. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask someone you’re going to sleep with, “How many drinks have you had?” and explain that you don’t feel comfortable sleeping with someone who is intoxicated. I think we’re talking about approaching people who are obviously intoxicated (I may have been a bit hyperbolic in this piece with the ‘one drink’ rule).

      I definitely don’t have all of the answers. What do you think?

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