With the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the issue of consent has been shoved into the foreground of daily life again.
The conversations around consent on social media, in the mainstream media and on the street highlight to me that few people truly understand the topic and those who do, don’t necessarily believe that people have a right to refuse or withdraw consent.
Consent has always been a bit of a sticky topic.
I’ve spent the past 30 years working with individuals, couples and polyamorous groups to help them sort out relationship issues, fix sexual problems, and create intimate relationships that last. Despite an emphasis on the need for the ‘safe sex’ conversation before having sex since the late 1980’s, an overwhelming majority of couples still skip the conversation and rely on use of barriers (condoms, femidoms, gloves, dental dams). Talking about sex with a lover or potential lover still remains an area that many people find too tough to manage. Because of this, people often don’t get explicit sexual consent.
Thinking back, my first memory about consent though I didn’t realise it at the time was when I was 7 years old. I had an aunt who suffered from schizophrenia. She was always loud, had her lipstick drawn way outside her lips and smelled kind of funny. I can clearly remember being told to go give her a kiss because she would feel bad if I didn’t. Before I could agree to do so, she grabbed me and I remember being held tight and struggling to get free. I have countless friends who tell similar stories and many friends who are parents who admit telling their children to go hug the smelly aunt for the same reason.
The concept of consent has changed a lot in the past 40 years.
When I started dating in the 1970’s, a lot of gaining consent was unspoken. Often a man would touch a woman and see how she reacted in order to see if they had consent. This was the cultural norm at the time. Girls were still taught to ‘play hard to get’ so the only real way guys had of knowing what the girl wanted was to make an advance and see if ‘no’ became ‘yes’. The sexual revolution was in progress so people were given conflicting messages. If women were hip then they were supposed to have lots of sex but if they did decide to have lots of sex, they were branded as sluts. There were girls that you had fun with and girls that you had relationships with. The ones you had relationships with were the ones who played hard to get. I remember being extremely confused. I enjoyed sex but when I was honest about this, I was a slut. I wasn’t ever very good at playing hard to get because I didn’t lie well.
An article published in the Journal of Sexual Violence in November 2017, highlights that college men are really confused about gaining consent for sex. It suggests that men don’t make a distinction between a woman expressing desire and a woman giving consent. Essentially, to these men, an expression of desire equalled a green light to pursue sex.
When I think back to the examples of sexual consent in the media when I was entering the world of relationships, the first that comes to mind is Hans Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars.
He pursues her relentlessly and she refuses constantly. In the end, he pushes her against the wall and kisses her as she is refusing again! She melts and they form a great romance. Harrison Ford goes on to force himself on multiple heroines in Blade Runner and all the Indiana Jones movies. And all of the women melt (including me). Except this isn’t consent, it is coercion.
The message for men is that women are turned on by this caveman approach and that eventually they will consent and melt. This might be true but only when the man is as hot as Harrison Ford and the woman is already attracted to him. And that’s the problem. If Mary has told Art from accounting repeatedly and clearly that she doesn’t want to go out with him and is not interested in him at all sexually, she will not find him pushing her up against the wall and kissing her hot at all. She will see this for what it is, a sexual assault.
It isn’t surprising that men feel the goal posts have moved repeatedly and that women are equally frustrated.
With the recent mounting allegations in so many arenas, the imbalance of power has been highlighted when talking about harassment. If there is an imbalance of power, men are told that any suggestion of sexual activity can be seen as harassment. When President Bill Clinton had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, though both acknowledged that there was a power imbalance, Ms Lewinsky wrote in 2014 ‘Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: It was a consensual relationship.’ How are men supposed to walk through this minefield without getting blown up? If someone takes advantage of you, how can that be consensual? Would it not be more honest for her to say – ‘It was a consensual relationship’. and leave it at that?
People are still more likely to meet sexual and romantic partners in the workplace than anywhere else.
With the increasing confusion around consent, how can you express interest in a colleague without being perceived as harassing? If you are his or her boss, don’t express sexual interest period. The power imbalance makes it very difficult navigate this type of relationship. The person in the junior position will always have some concerns about whether refusing will change the work relationship with the boss and impact upon the job and promotion prospects. You are best off hoping the person who works for you will express their interest and then you can accept their advances. Although even this is not without risk.
If you are an equal or are the subordinate in the relationship, then you can express interest but I would suggest expressing it in as non-sexual a way as possible. Invite the person for a coffee instead of telling the person how sexy you find them.
What constitutes sexual consent?
Consent is when someone says ‘yes’.
This may seem obvious but many people confuse the lack of a ‘no’ for consent. Silence does not mean yes.
You can only get consent from someone who is able to give consent.
People who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol may not be able to give consent. It depends upon how altered their reasoning ability is whilst taking the drugs or alcohol. For example, if a person is so drunk that he cannot stand up and is blacking out, he cannot give consent. However, if a person is able to function and under the influence of alcohol, he can give consent even though he may not make the best decisions and he may regret it the next day.
Jeff and John met through a friend. On their first date, they enjoyed two bottles of wine during dinner. Jeff invited John up to his flat for a nightcap. John said yes and they each had a glass of port. John asked Jeff where the restroom was and when he stood up he said ‘I’m a bit buzzed’ and grinned. When he came back from the restroom, they began kissing again. Things heated up very quickly and Jeff asked John if he would like to have sex with him. John hesitated for a moment and then said ‘I don’t usually do this on a first date. But yes, I would like to have sex with you.’ Many people in Jeff’s position would simply make sure there were condoms and lube handy and then go back to the foreplay. After all, John has consented to sex and Jeff is really attracted to him.
For some people, John being buzzed and also stating that he doesn’t usually have sex on a first date would be enough to make them question whether the consent was valid. Would John feel happy the next day about having gone against his own mores by having sex on the first date? It’s possible that John would feel upset with himself but not with Jeff. Equally, he could feel taken advantage of by Jeff as he could feel that once Jeff realised he was buzzed and he had stated that he doesn’t usually have sex on the first date, Jeff should have suggested that they wait until the next date. To me, this situation is an ethical challenge. Is a person responsible for protecting their potential sexual partner from a potentially bad decision? Perhaps but that also could feel extremely patronising. How does someone know if it is a good or bad decision for another person? Or is it simply the case that when someone is buzzed or drunk and expressing hesitancy about having sex, no sexual activity should be pursued as they are not giving enthusiastic or affirmative consent.
People who are suffering from mental illness may not be able to give consent. This depends upon the person’s ability to comprehend what is being asked of her, her ability to comprehend the consequences of going through with what is being asked of her. If she is not able to understand the potential consequences of having sexual intercourse with a man (like getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted infection), then she cannot give consent.
There is also arousal non-concordance.
Emily Nagoskiwrites about this extensively. Arousal non-concordance is when the body’s signals about the sexual value of something does not agree with the mind or emotion’s feelings about the sexual value of something. For example, a man can have an erection randomly and it does not mean he wants to have sex with the person he is talking to at the time of the erection. A woman can lubricate during a sexual activity and not be enjoying it at all. This happens frequently during sexual assaults and is one of the things that makes victims feel so guilty. They think because there was physical arousal or even orgasm it equals enjoyment. It does not. Equally a woman can be very interested in sex and very turned on but not lubricating for a whole host of reasons. This is why it is essential to listen to someone’s words about what they want rather than thinking that a body is telling the ‘true’ story.
Do you need consent for every single part of a sexual encounter?
Yes. However this does not need to kill the buzz. In my experience, the best way to make this fun is to have a conversation before beginning. Talk about all the things you want to do with each other and get clear consent. Talk about your fantasies and ask your partner what she would like to engage in. Ask your lover about her fantasies and what she would like to do. Consent goes both ways.
Even when you have clear consent as you begin, your lover can still withdraw consent at any time. For example, you talk about anal sex as part of your consent conversation over dinner and both of you agree that the idea is hot and you want to try it tonight. You prepare well and use lots of lubrication but as you begin, your lover says it hurts too badly and asks you to stop. You no longer have consent at this point and need to stop.
Consent is a dynamic process.
Pay attention to what your lover is saying, the emotion being communicated and body language. If any of this seems at all hesitant or confused, check with your lover again. Ask if they like what you are doing and want you to continue. When in doubt, listen to your partner’s words.
I still like the video published by the Thames Valley Police in the UK comparing consent to a cup of tea. However, Cathy Young wrote a great piece that highlights the fact that consent isn’t this simple. She highlights the fact that lots of definitions of assault now suggest that if someone is badgered until they give in and say yes this is still sexual assault. She speaks about the current rape narratives in the media that become ‘I said no but he kept trying until I said yes’. This is coercion.
Please note, I am not suggesting that you keep needling at someone until they finally give in. That is coercion. But if you do that and I say yes, legally I have given consent. The idea that if you have to convince me, I have not given consent is dead wrong. If you convince me to say yes, then I have given consent. I can change my mind and say no in the middle of things and then you have to stop what you are doing. When I say no, I have withdrawn consent. If I say yes because I don’t want to hurt your feelings, that is consent. As long as I am free to refuse without risking some actual harm (like being beaten, killed, losing my job, my family being harmed), it is consent. It’s up to me to gather the strength to refuse.
A good portion of the continued confusion about consent arises because in many places women are still objectified.
Men who objectify women don’t understand appropriate boundaries. They ignore the woman’s role in the workplace and instead see her only or primary role as being a sexual object for a man. When a man views a woman as purely a sexual object, it is not a big step for him to believe that she should be a sexual object for him.
The current narrative in the media seems to suggest that men fall into two categories: abusers or not good enough allies. Few men are depicted as good allies to women. This is a thorny topic and often ends up making men feel that they can do no right. The thing is, we all make mistakes. In my conversation about consent with Kitty Stryker, one of the things she highlighted as being important is there being away for people who have violated consent to apologise and make amends and be accepted back into the community at large. We were talking particularly about the BDSM community, but we also agreed that this applies when talking about sexual harassment as well. Clearly if someone rapes a woman, a simple apology and promise not to do this again will not be enough. If someone harasses a woman in the work place, there ought to be a way back into the workplace community. If we do not start providing ways back in when people make mistakes and we continue to focus on blame, things will remain fractured and the divide between men and women will increase.
How do we begin to repair the divide?
To start, we open the conversation. We admit that all of us fail to get consent at times. Have you ever given someone a hug without asking and felt their discomfort? Did you tell your child to go hug Aunt Jane so she wouldn’t feel hurt? We take responsibility for our part in this dynamic. Have you played hard to get or have you ignored a woman’s ‘no’?
Then, we express a willingness to teach and learn about consent, to look at the concept not only as a means to an end (How do I get her to f**k me?) but also as a part of how we connect with each other, the dynamic between us.
Finally, we work on how to create real tangible ways to heal breaches of consent instead of focusing solely on blame so that our relationships heal and we move forward into positive relationships in the workplace, social spaces and the wider community.