If the last six months has taught me anything, it is that America has a rape problem. But even more than that, it’s a consent problem. While this is far from a new problem, it continues to horrify (but sadly not shock) me on just how deeply unaware people are of how to treat others with basic respect. Consent is easy—we just have to actually practice it.
According to the Bates College Sexual Harassment and Misconduct Policy, “Consent consists of an active, conscious, and voluntary decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity. Consent must exist from the beginning to the end of each sexual activity or each form of sexual contact. An individual who is physically incapacitated by alcohol or other drug consumption (voluntary or involuntary) or is asleep, unconscious, unaware, or otherwise physically helpless is considered unable to give consent.” Further, consent must be informed and reciprocal, freely and actively given, mutually understandable, not indefinite and not unlimited. Yet, despite the definition of what Bates defines as consent, the culture of consent and sex is still deeply flawed. The discussion on campus remains about “no means no” rather than “yes means yes.”
Why do we need affirmative consent (a.k.a, “yes means yes”)? In light of the recent Aziz Ansari case, Time defined affirmative consent to be “the idea that both partners need to consciously and voluntarily agree to participate in any type of sexual act.” This is a change we all need. Fundamentally, affirmative consent moves the bounds of sex from something that is okay until one person explicitly says no (or is incapable of consent) to a point where at least one person just doesn’t want to do something for whatever reason. No matter what that reason is.
Additionally, affirmative consent moves the burden to say no from the person who feels uncomfortable with the situation to both partners to have open communication about their wants, needs, and feelings.
Affirmative consent is harder than “no means no” consent. It requires both partners to be able to communicate their needs. At worst, affirmative consent is no worse than “no means no”. The issue of people who fail to ask for consent from their partners still remains problematic. But the way we talk about sex and consent is still important. The grey area between sex when both partners consented and when one clearly did not remains. This is because communication around sex is difficult and, often, one person may experience pressure to continue with sex despite internal reservations.
In my discussions of sexual assault in the past year, this situation came up again and again—nearly everyone could name a time where they felt the pressure to have sex. Some were able to say no, but most people continued anyway. According to one student, “I had been talking to a guy on Tinder for a little while, and we decided to meet and hook up. When I got to his house, I immediately noticed that he was not what I expected. Although he looked handsome in his pictures, I wasn’t attracted to him in person. I wanted to leave, but I felt bad about being shallow, and I could tell that he was excited to hook up. So I had sex with him anyway. I didn’t enjoy it, but I couldn’t bring myself to let him down.” Yet, even those who say no often experience emotional fall out too. According to another student, “I was with a girl I had just met that night. She was being rather aggressive and I didn’t really want to do anything. I didn’t want to make her feel bad so I never said anything. In the end nothing happened, but she was upset with me and I had no idea what to do.”
This needs to stop. We need to demand more of our sexual partners. We need to stop having sex without everyone involved being a happy and active participant. We need to teach everyone that sex can be good and that it is only good if everyone involved wants to have it. We need affirmative consent—yesterday.