In response to a proposed California bill that would implement an “affirmative consent” standard on college campuses, there’s been a number of misinformed and often straight-up hysterical reactions from folks who think that requiring people to ensure they have, at every point, “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” is absurd and/or impossible.
I think it’s fair to question how useful legislation is for creating a culture of affirmative consent–though, for the record, I agree with Amanda Hess, that as long as they include non-verbal cues, affirmative consent laws are a good idea. What’s absolutely clear is that affirmative consent is the necessary standard, socially if not legally, for a healthy sexual culture. And the fact that many people seem to feel like it marks such a radical departure from our current approach to sex reveals the depths of rape culture more than all the stats on sexual assault, in my opinion.
Over at ThinkProgress, Tara Culp-Ressler has a great rundown of on how affirmative consent actually works.
Affirmative consent isn’t based on the idea that every sexual encounter is a rigid contract between two parties. No one is suggesting that college students need to run through a checklist before unbuttoning each other’s shirts. Instead, it’s more about broadly reorienting about how we approach sex in the first place.
The current societal script on sex assumes that passivity and silence — essentially, the “lack of a no” — means it’s okay to proceed. That’s on top of the fact that male sexuality has been socially defined as aggressive, something that can result in men feeling entitled to sex, while women have been taught that sex is something that simply happens to them rather than something they’re an active participant in. It’s not hard to imagine how couples end up in ambiguous situations where one partner is not exactly comfortable with going forward, but also not exactly comfortable saying no.
Under an affirmative consent standard, on the other hand, both partners are required to pay more attention to whether they’re feeling enthusiastic about the sexual experience they’re having. There aren’t any assumptions about where the sexual encounter is going or whether both people are already on the same page. At its very basic level, this is the opposite of killing the mood — it’s about making sure the person with whom you’re about to have sex is excited about having sex with you.
Making sure someone else is enthusiastic about what you’re doing with them requires you to consider their wants and needs, think about how to bring them pleasure, and ultimately approach sex like a partnership instead of a means to your own end.
Frankly, sometimes I think we should ditch the term “consent” altogether. It feels like a carryover from the old male-aggressor/female-gatekeeper model of (hetero) sex, and, even with the addition of adjectives like “affirmative” or “enthusiastic,” retains this contractual connotation that, I think, detracts from the shift we’re actually trying to make here. The point is that people shouldn’t be “consenting” to sex as if they’re acquiescing to a request to borrow your damn toothbrush. We are talking about sex, for fuck’s sake. Probably the single most universally beloved activity in the world. Of course “consent” should be affirmative; it should be excited, joyful, ecstatic. In a culture that really, truly recognized women as sexual agents with desire of their own, there’d be no question about that.
Because that’s all we are talking about really: mutual desire. Desire that, if you’re doing it right, should be undeniably clear. And if it isn’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s really pretty simple.
“Can we have sex, please?” is Maya‘s go-to line.