I hate this word. It implies that one person is letting another do something to her or him. It perpetuates the construction of sex as something that women give to men, that girls let boys have.
Don’t get me wrong. The point of consent – that in any sexual encounter between two or more people, it is absolutely vital that, at every moment, everyone involved be perfectly ok with what’s happening – is vital. But the word itself is confusing, particularly to people with limited sexual experience, or with limited capability to empathize with those in a radically different position than they (like, say, hormone-ravaged adolescent males).
Consent is a box that can be checked, a thing that can be given, a thing that can be gotten. Right?
Consent is no defense against accusations of assault, molestation, or rape, because it can be withdrawn at any moment, and it also can easily be coerced.
Thankfully, I’m neither a lawyer nor a university administrator, so I don’t have to worry too much about how to operationalize the really basic point here. But the point is really basic: no one, ever, should do anything sexually with anyone else unless both/all people involved are, at each and every moment, ok with what’s going on. If, for whatever reason, a person can’t say, “please stop,” whether because s/he’s asleep, passed out, incoherent, gagged, scared, or whatever, the only possible universe in which any further sexual contact is ok is if it’s been explicitly discussed and agreed in advance. Safe words and gestures are one way people manage this challenge in non-drunken situations.
Drunken situations are harder, though, because even if people previously agreed on what might/could/should happen, it’s always vital that anyone engaging in sexual activity be perfectly free to stop that sexual activity, instantly, for any reason. And alcohol, in particular, can get in the way – both of meaningfully agreeing to what’s happening, and of communicating disagreement/desire to stop.
I never was a rager. I didn’t have a lot of shitfaced sex, and what shitfaced sex I had was with good friends and ongoing sexual partners, so I have little experience with the challenges presented by the combination of heavy drinking and hook-up culture at many colleges, in many subcultures. I don’t pretend, or imagine, that this stuff is easy to manage in beer-soaked, heavy-lidded, 4 am interactions.
This is a problem with alcohol, and with how we conceive of it. Alcohol fucks up your judgment. But we expect people to be responsible for their actions even when drunk. This seems to me problematic.
The dude driving drunk should have been liable for arrest when he drove to the bar, when he decided to impair his judgment, not when he drove home. Expecting him, once drunk, to perceive his own incapacity is simply blindly naive.
I’m not sure I have a solution to the problem when it comes to drunken adolescent sex. Except this. I think, if someone is drunk, and especially if someone is more inebriated than her/his partner(s), there should be a pretty strong presumption of lack of consent.
I’m not speaking legally – as I said, I’m not a lawyer. But to kids today, this is what I say: if you don’t know, deep in your bones, that the person you’re engaging with sexually is 100 percent enthusiastic about what you’re doing, then STOP. And if you’re not 100 percent enthusiastic about what you’re doing, then STOP. And if you can’t stop, or can’t stop your partner(s), then you should know that you are being assaulted and/or raped.
The more I think about it, the more I think that consent is not the ability to withdraw it by saying no, but the ability to say yes. If there is no certain Yes, then there should be no sex.
This said, I just had part of the talk with one of my kids this morning. Emphasizing on the fact that there is no rush for anything to happen. And that not only should it feel pleasurable when you’re doing it, but that you need to be sure before engaging into a sexual activity that you’re not going to regret it a month later… Along the lines of what you wrote the other day: It sucks to feel bad about a sexual experience, whether on the spot or later on.
I enjoy your musings around these subjects.