How do you explain consent? It starts with a little dose of realism. Over the summer, I had a discussion with my brother about sexual assault and the role that Men For Consent plays on campus. Specifically, we were debating the role of alcohol in consent. In the middle of the debate, he said something to the tune of, “I don’t think someone should be able to drink a lot, or even a little, and then be able to claim sexual assault because they regret it.” So I told him, “Then stop going for drunk girls, and you won’t have to worry about that ever.”
“But I shouldn’t have to worry about that.”
In a way, he’s right. People shouldn’t have to worry about what their partner is really thinking in the bedroom. People shouldn’t have to worry about getting sexually assaulted while blackout drunk, nor should they have to worry about false accusations or finding themselves the perpetrator in a sexual assault case because they got too drunk. In an ideal world, they wouldn’t. But this is the same ideal world in which there is no world hunger and no crime and everyone makes a six-figure salary, and that is not the world we live in.
So when I try to explain the concept of consent to friends back home, I try to take a realistic attitude. Like it or not, sexual assault is still a pressing issue, and one that will not go away for a long time. We as a college campus are (relatively) fortunate enough that most of the sexual assault cases we see aren’t back-alley rape cases, but the incidents that happen on our campus still can have traumatizing and serious consequences for the survivors. The best thing we can do is minimize the number of scenarios in which sexual assault is most likely to occur.
With this in mind, I offer a simple explanation of consent: Consent is effectively communicating that you want to do sexual things with your partner, and receiving a similar message from your partner. If that is too much, I can shorten it even further: Consent is a fancy word for good communication. If you look at consent as communication, you can see where to practice it, how to practice it and how to identify where or when it isn’t there.
I use communication as the focal point because it is something that everyone already has an idea about. You all know how to communicate effectively in at least some parts of your day-to-day lives. I’ve seen students here give math colloquiums to humanities majors so well that the humanities students were able to follow along. I’ve seen pre-med students listen to their buddy’s political science paper and stay awake. Students at the College are generally good communicators. Consent is like that, but instead of explaining how there can be different sizes of infinity, just explain that you want to rub genitals with the other person.
If you communicate well, you will be in tune with what the other person wants – and, hopefully, they will understand what you want, too. It may not be subtle or smooth, but “Do you want to have sex?” sends the message pretty clearly.
In communication, listening to the other person and receiving their ideas is just as important as expressing your own. You wouldn’t take a car off the lot without knowing and agreeing to the terms first. If an executive is looking to make an acquisition, he is going to find out where the goodwill on a company’s balance sheet is coming from. Likewise, why would you engage in sexual activity with someone if you weren’t sure they wanted to do it?
The point of this is that when communication breaks down, it is very difficult to get consent. And breakdowns in communication happen in most, if not all, rape and sexual assault cases. From the most recent Eph Community Attitudes about Sexual Assault survey, 286 respondents said that they were touched inappropriately by being caught off-guard or because their nonverbal cues were ignored, and 175 said they were taken advantage of when drunk, high or asleep. These are situations in which at least one party failed to communicate effectively.
On the bright side, you can identify situations in which communication breaks down or is on the way to breaking down and use that to make your life and your friends’ lives better. If your buddy is so drunk that he or she can’t pronounce “anemone” but is getting cozy with another, equally drunk person at a party – that might be a good time to step in. There’s a good chance that the night will then end without a problem. That being said, communication between those two is going to be sloppy and all over the place – like first-years at the first First Fridays. There’s a good chance that their communication could break down altogether, and nobody wants to be on either side of that breakdown. At the very least, you want to check in on the two to see if things are going well, and be there in case things go sour.
I believe the sexual climate on campus would be 100 times better if everyone stopped drinking and were 100 percent honest with each other. Since that won’t happen, good communication is the best thing we have. We just call it “consent”.
Matt Hayes ’17 is an economics and mathematics double major from Canton, Mass. He lives in Bryant.