Columbia Univ. students offended by 'Consent is bae' posters

A university in New York City is facing criticism for promoting affirmative consent with a slogan that has been variously described as both patronizing and racially insensitive.

As part of its “Sexual Violence Response” (SVR) campaign, Columbia University is displaying posters declaring that, “CONSENT IS BAE,” followed by the hashtag “BeforeAnythingElse,” according to a post in the student blog Bwog.

The anonymous tipster who first brought attention to the posters told Bwog some students find the slogan offensive, believing it “both trivializes consent and appropriates African American Vernacular English” by using a slang term that originated in the black community and later became a pop culture phenomenon.

Columbia’s interpretation of the term as an acronym for “before anything else” is widespread on internet forums, but linguist Neal Whitman, who investigated the term’s etymology for the website Visual Thesaurus, finds strong support for the notion that “bae” is in fact a shortening of the word “baby” that was first employed by African Americans.

From there, it was eventually appropriated by the culture at large, in the process taking on an amorphous secondary meaning as a synonym for “good.”

Bwog points out that the “bae” poster is not the first time Columbia has been “criticized for its juvenile concept and disconnect from student experience,” citing last year’s sexual violence response (SVR) campaign, which used the analogy of a traffic light to explain the concept of consent to new students.

“Historically, SVR has approached its consent education campaign from a constructive, encouraging, and fun perspective,” the department said in response to the Bwog post. “This is also consistent with the tone at the national level, most recently with the affirmative consent legislation.”

SVR also claimed that the poster in question “was developed in conjunction with SVR student staff and was specifically created to speak to students in a more conversational tone, rather than a lecture. It was designed to engage students on the topic of consent and drive to SVR social media channels to learn more.”

Along with its response, the department also included a second poster from the campaign, this one declaring “CONSENT IS…VOLUNTARY/POSITIVE/MUTUAL/ENGAGING.”

Both posters also include a text box bearing the phrase “sexual consent is a voluntary active agreement,” which appears to be a concise paraphrasing of the definition of affirmative consent that public universities in New York State are required to adopt under a state law passed this summer.

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