There has been a video going around which talks about the ways consent to sexual intercourse is analogous to consenting to having a cup of tea (https://vimeo.com/126553913). The video is simple and funny and makes a lot of points about good consent which unfortunately our culture needs more of—people can say they want tea and then decide they don’t want tea and it’s not ok to force them to drink tea; people can drink tea with you one day and not want tea the next day and you should still not force them to drink tea; if someone says they want tea and then passes out, do NOT force them to drink tea while they are passed out. I have learned through a variety of outreach experiences that these messages are needed, and I appreciate all efforts to provide them in ways that are easy to imbibe. However, there are a few different ways that this video makes me a little uncomfortable, and I wanted to take a moment to share them.
First of all, the current evidence that we have by David Lisak is that the majority of rapes that take place (approximately 90%) are by serial rapists who resemble other sociopaths in a variety of ways (e.g. childhood trauma, violent behavior, other illegal behaviors). For these serial perpetrators, understanding consent is irrelevant. It would be equally helpful to produce videos about what constitutes grand theft auto and distribute them to a bunch of car-jackers. However, teaching consent in the context of bystander education has been shown to empirically change college student’s attitudes and behaviors in positive ways—by helping people who aren’t rapists (the vast majority of women AND men) learn the spectrum of sexual violence, they can intervene, stand up, and speak out against a range of non-consensual behaviors from butt slapping and cat-calling to rape. Many people may argue that the purpose of the video is not to teach consent at all but rather shed light on how ridiculous it is to not get consent to having sex (or in other words-- to rape).
The problem is that valid consent is a lot murkier than that video makes it out to be. There are women (and men) who pass out due to alcohol, are raped while they are unconscious, and wake up realizing that they have been horrifically violated. There are women (and men) who are in a black out state due to alcohol, actively pursue a sexual encounter with another person who is also very intoxicated, and wake up feeling the exact same way—violated with no memory of the night before. There are men who purposely buy drinks for women in the hope that they will lessen their ability to consent to sex and there are women and men who buy themselves drinks hoping they’ll get laid. There are sexual relationships between gay and straight men and women that occur in the context of complicated power differentials that make consent impossible. Our hook up culture and the way it is inextricably connected to alcohol is complicated. Consent is complicated. If someone is really drunk and they ask for tea and then drink it, they probably won’t have a panoply of complicated feelings about the tea the next day.
As a culture, we are beginning to hash out our expectations of each other (which is GREAT!)—Does “Yes mean Yes” rather than “No mean No”? How much alcohol can you have consumed and still give consent? Is it the same BAC as when you’re allowed to drive? A lot of colleges are doing a better job of defining “affirmative consent” but are still grappling with whether affirmative consent has to be verbal and how alcohol is tied to it. Many colleges draw a distinction between “incapacitated” (meaning slurring speech, stumbling, etc) and intoxicated (your garden variety drunk). While this distinction is a step in the right direction, it still leaves students with a lot of ambiguity when they are not in a prime decision making mode. Certainly one way to reduce ambiguity around consent is to remove alcohol from the equation, but this feels analogous to suggesting that we should all give up our smart phones—the cultural tide is too strong and it feels hard to imagine a movement powerful enough to change it. Where do we as culture want to draw the line? Even the growing phrase “enthusiastic consent” irks me as there are couples trying to conceive who engage in plenty of unenthusiastic, consensual sex. It would be great if every sexual interaction started with “Would you like to have sex with me?” “Yes! Would you like to have sex with me?” “Yes!” (*high five* followed by sex). Perhaps by continuing the conversation about consent we can get there, but for many this feels about as organic as asking a partner to confirm their consent on a phone app (which by the way happens to exist http://time.com/3452223/good2go-sexual-consent-app/).
It’s important for the justice system and college institutions to draw a line for when the unethical crosses into the illegal, but it’s equally important for us to engage in real, tough, perhaps painful conversations about consent, rape and sexual violence with the respect, reverence, and nuance it deserves.