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Valid consent is, in theory, really simple:
- Consent must be explicitly given — “yes”— or refused — “no.”
- Consent cannot be assumed.
- Silence or inability to prevent sexual contact is not consent.
- Previous sexual contact isn’t a lifetime membership to consent.
- Consent cannot be coerced or forced through intimidation or physical force.
A recent viral video that compares consent to tea makes it seem so obvious, but I don’t think it is as simple as offering a person tea. I picture sex as more like sharing a cup of tea. Together, we would need to decide on when to have tea, what type of tea to have and whether we want milk or sugar or both. But then if that person is asleep, do I get to still have tea? What if I put sugar in the tea and they don’t want it but drink still it anyway because it’s not that bad? How do I know when or how to negotiate our tea time when I only ever see people drinking tea, not actually talking about it?
The standards for consent are clear, but sex and the conditions surrounding it give rise to a certain insecurity about how to actually apply the concept. There are numerous grey areas that, due to a blackout of the topic of consent in proper education and media sources, we aren’t taught how to navigate. Part of the issue is that we’re taught such conflicting ideas about sex and consent. So the conditions for consent are clearly laid out, but our sexual education is limited by what is taught in schools and in popular culture.
More than half of the states in this country still employ abstinence-only sex education. Abstinence-only education emphasizes not having sex until marriage, and this unrealistic education method fails to provide students with a foundational understanding of safe sex, should they choose to engage in sexual activity. Since educators are assuming (or hoping, really) that students aren’t having sex, they don’t teach about consent. Only last year did California and New York become the first states to mandate education on consent.
Affirmative Consent refers to legislative proposals that have been suggested and adopted in a number of states (including CA and NY) requiring college students to obtain verbal agreement to engage in sexual activity. The theory behind it is that if you don’t ask, you can’t truly know. Many criticize this effort as restrictive and unrealistic, and I can sympathize with that view because explicit consent is not incorporated into our cultural playbook of how sex occurs.
However, if we don’t teach clear lines between consent and sexual assault, we are not properly informing, guiding and protecting young adults from undesirable situations that have harmful results. Education starts early, and conversations about these issues should be had long before a person is sexually active.
I received the bulk of my sex education from books, movies and television shows, and I do not recall any portrayals of valid consent. For the most part, scenes depicting romance and — when one thing leads to another — sex imply that consent has already been given. Either the characters are already in a romantic relationship, or things are just so hot and heavy that it would make the vibe lukewarm if one party were to stop and ask, “Is this alright with you?”
Consent isn’t “sexy” at all…at least that’s the message we get from pop culture. Robin Thicke’s hit song “Blurred Lines” champions a practice of violating unclear boundaries in the interest of pleasing himself. His lyrics send the message that it is acceptable to assume that a person wants sex, even when it isn’t clear at all. Men in films who don’t “go for it” when a girl is too drunk to consent are viewed as weak or less masculine, such as Heath Ledger’s character Patrick in “10 Things I Hate About You.”
Pornography is also a vastly abundant and widely used platform for “learning” about sex. However, no porn director will want to lose viewership by incorporating consent into their production (though the actors do sign agreements of consent prior to filming). Now, I’m not slamming porn as promoting rape culture; I’m merely positing that porn neglects an aspect of sex — consent — that should be as equally as important as pleasure. On the literary end of things, 50 Shades of Grey received inflamed criticism for associating violence with sex while failing to incorporate valid consent. It completely missed the mark of BDSM standards which rely heavily on trust, communication and oh, right, that thing we call consent!
The problem is not only that popular culture is hush-hush about consent, but that it also goes beyond that and undermines consent and its importance.
What these portrayals of sexual contact in the media disseminate is a message that consent rarely matters. And this is harmful. It is teaching all the wrong things.
I would also not be true to myself if I didn’t give my two cents about the gendered standards for consent. At first glance in our brazenly heteronormative culture, men want to have sex, and women have to be convinced to give it to them. This narrative is damaging for a number of reasons:
- Women are taught that sex is something that they are just a part of, not something that they have the agency to want. This is just one way women are deprived of the ability to define their own sexual preferences.
- Men are assumed to already be consenting, when this is often not the case. There is nothing about consent that is either male or female, but given that we construct masculinity to be raging with testosterone and an insatiable sex drive, it is easy to forget that male consent must be respected as well.
- Since women have to be convinced, we assume that their initial “no” isn’t a good enough answer. This is alarmingly apparent here at CU. The recently released results of the 2015 sexual misconduct survey revealed that the most common tactic used in sexual assaults against undergraduate women was the ignoring of verbal or other efforts to get the assailant to stop. The word “no” should only be followed by “Okay” or “Absolutely,” not “You know you want it” or “C’mon, don’t tease me like that.” How are women supposed to react to this dismissal? “You’re right, I didn’t mean no, you probably know better…?”
The media, education, and social interactions shape our ideas of what human behavior is appropriate. When explicit or valid consent is not portrayed or taught in these mediums, it isn’t practiced! This is likely where all the confusion lies.
And so around and around we go in the grey area we know as “sex.” Until we redefine sexual culture to involve clear distinctions of consent (and also make consent sexy for once) and formally educate people on the issue at hand, the grey area will stay grey, breeding further misinformed and potentially dangerous practices.