Consent isn't Complicated: The Reality About Affirmative Consent

In light of federal investigations of mishandlings of sexual assault allegations on college campuses, as well as a greater awareness of rape culture and victim blaming, its very likely that you’ve heard of “Affirmative consent laws," particularly on college campuses. For those who don’t know, affirmative consent (also known as “yes means yes”) emphasizes that consent isn’t simply the absence of a "no," but rather requires enthusiastic, conscious participation from BOTH parties.

Basically, what this means is that sex should be an activity that people participate in freely, without coercion, and enthusiastically. It means you shouldn’t be having sex with someone incapacitated and unable to say yes. It means that, if engaging in sex, either party can stop at any time if they choose to, and that saying yes to one kind of sexual activity doesn’t mean they want to engage in another. It means that you have to ASK people if they want to have sex. That’s right, ASK.

This is not rocket science. This is not complicated. It takes less than five lines to explain.

So why are there so many articles and Op-Eds from sites like The Atlantic, Bloomberg, and TIME Magazine that are so utterly misinformed about affirmative consent?

I honestly wish I had a dollar for every article that “warned” that affirmative consent laws would “make sex impossible," that “anyone who had sex would be classified as a rapist”, that “people would be too afraid to have sex," and that these laws imply that “the government is monitoring college student’s sex lives." It’s frustrating and infuriating to read how prominent writers with huge online platforms fail to listen to advocates and supporters of affirmative consent laws, and continue to confuse so many readers.

Affirmative consent isn’t about policing student’s sex lives. It isn’t about defining any and all sexual activity as sexual assault. It certainly isn’t about making sex more confusing than it actually is. Rather, affirmative consent is about making sure that people are attentive and considerate when deciding whether or not to have sex.

Lest commentators be afraid that an “epidemic” of sexual assault allegations will run amok, and poor young boys will be unfairly charged by young women after they experience a regretful hook up (sadly, people actually believe this is a thing), rest assured, this probably isn’t going to happen. False allegations are extremely rare, and the process for filing a sexual assault allegation is long and difficult, certainly not a process that people engage in just to “spite” or “punish” someone for not-so-stellar sex.

Affirmative consent isn’t made to induce anxiety when having sex. Policies explicitly indicate that consent can be non-verbal, and, as long as intentions are communicated clearly and both parties are able to express their wishes, there isn’t a problem. As ThinkProgress writer Tara Culp-Ressler from her article “What affirmative consent actually means” noted:

“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.”

This approach allows us to recognize that someone’s safety and comfort is the most important thing when it comes to sex. It’s about encouraging people to be attentive and aware of their partner’s interest, and about establishing communication that allows people to express when they want to continue with sex, and when they want to stop. It’s an approach that emphasizes listening as opposed to assuming, and encourages openness and dialogue during intimacy. I fail to see what’s so complicated about that. 

 

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