by Darcy Richardson Miller
(noun) permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.
(verb) give permission for something to happen
Pretty basic stuff when we’re just looking at the definition, but when we talk about what consent is in a sexual situation or what it looks like it is sometimes less clear.
If I’ve consented to flirting does that mean I’ve consented to kissing? If we’ve had sex before does that mean my consent is still valid even after that fight? If I’ve had several drinks can I still consent? Is silence consent? If I’ve stopped saying no is that consent?
Obviously I have answers to those, but I would bet that if I presented those scenarios to a group of people a discussion would result without unanimous agreement.
And these examples above are exactly why I support the affirmative defense legislation and “yes means yes” campaign which I discussed in our last post here.
What we need to be focused on when talking about consent is a continuous, enthusiastic agreement to the activity proposed. If I’m flirting, that may be all I’m consenting to. I’m out to have fun and that’s it. I may be wearing this dress because I love how the color brings out my complexion and I feel confident, not because I’m looking to score. Consent may occur only to a certain level and that is ok. That is something that should be discussed.
It’s also not a zero sum game. If I’ve agreed to what we’ve done so far it does not mean that I’ve relinquished all rights to say no after. If we’ve had sex before, that does not mean consent is forever. Makes sense right? But how do we know that? Well, there can be subtleties, tension, pushing away, but what we need to work on is both an awareness of signals, but also to encourage clear communication. “Is this ok?” Again, that’s why I like the focus on only yes means yes because it forces me to ask how you feel about this.
What about alcohol? Well, we know that alcohol is used in 50% of rape cases on either the victims or the predator or both sides. (A caveat that every time we’re dealing with rape and sexual assault statistics that these crimes are under-reported and therefore so are the stats.) In terms of alcohol we know that alcohol impairs cognition skills. There’s a reason you can’t sign your mortgage or make a plea agreement in court if you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Get it? Because alcohol takes away your ability to consent to those things. Same with sexual contact.
Now what about the case of silence or if one person finally stops saying no? Is that consent? No, it’s not. Part of the problem is that we’ve raised generations of men and women to believe that women must say no and men must push until it happens. We’ve made it so a woman who enthusiastically consents is a whore and to protect her purity she has to say no and feign objection. We’ve made it so men think they have to push to prove their manhood and that a no is just the opening to negotiations and not an actual objection.
This hurts both men and women.
By making it so only “bad girls” consent, an objection means nothing. By making it a game we force our men to push and disregard a woman’s feelings.
A no must be respected. But a yes must be sought! Without a sober yes, there is no consent.
Talking about sex can be hard, but we have to do it. Clear communication, and a respect of that communication, can reduce the number of assaults that happen. Most of the time it’s not the stranger in the alley and we need to acknowledge this by empowering both men and women to have the ability to consent and the ability to say no, but most importantly the knowledge that consent is something that needs to be granted, not something assumed.
This is a great article on a sexual consent class in Oxford that I would love to see more of.
Until next time. Take care!