Consent as communication

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Everything you say is true. However, there are a lot of situations in which your advice to communicate won’t solve the consent problem. Romantic encounters are not that simple.

    The example of trying to get between your drunk buddy and the equally drunk girl: You’d better be ready to fight him. He’s just as likely to take your interference as officious meddling as he is to say, “Yeah, maybe your right.” Maybe more so.

    There is the problem of a woman withdrawing consent after she has implicitly given it. This is not going to be easy to untangle after the fact because two people in the throes of passion are not necessarily picking up on all the verbal and physical cues that the other one is sending. Should we be willing to call the failure to pick up on these cues “date rape?” Is it date rape if it’s the girl who failed to pick up on the cues that the boy was trying to communicate? If not, why not?

    It might be terribly old fashioned of me to say so, but the only way to avoid these situations is to avoid these situations. Don’t go off alone with another individual unless you are certain of your ability to control the situation, which means that you know your own condition and you know the character of the person you are going off with. And even then, don’t do it.

    1. “There is the problem of a woman withdrawing consent after she has implicitly given it.”

      Any person can withdraw consent at any point of time, even after expressing interest in having sex. Consent is not a contract; it is a continuous action. Just as you can go to your friend’s house telling them you’d like to have dinner, get there, and suddenly not feel hungry anymore and decline to eat. No one has the right to make you eat just because you were willing to before.

      “This is not going to be easy to untangle after the fact because two people in the throes of passion are not necessarily picking up on all the verbal and physical cues that the other one is sending.”

      You should only have sex if you are mature and consciousness enough to have sex with another person. It is not a one-person activity. If a person cannot handle COMMUNICATION (as is the point of this op-ed), they really should not be having sex. That is their own responsibility to know whether or not they can respectfully communicate with someone else in sexual situations.

      Should we be willing to call the failure to pick up on these cues “date rape?”

      I also don’t understand why you’re trying to distinguish “date rape” from rape – perhaps you are trying to say that in these situations, the two individuals involved know each other. However, let’s be clear: unconsensual sex is rape. Date rape is rape.

      “Is it date rape if it’s the girl who failed to pick up on the cues that the boy was trying to communicate? If not, why not?”

      If the boy did not give her consent, then yes, yes it is. Part of the problem with the debate surrounding sexual assault is how gendered it is – if women don’t want to be raped, then don’t get drunk. Guess what? Men get raped and women rape as well. Practicing explicit communication to make sure that your partner wishes to have sex helps EVERYONE.

      1. I appreciate you making the effort to seriously consider the points I made.

        My point about withdrawing consent is not that one can’t legally do it. Of course she can. Rather I’m arguing that it’s often not clear that such a withdrawal of consent is occurring. Sure, if a woman pushes the man off her and says in no uncertain terms, “I’m not having sex with you. Stop it right now or I’ll scream,” she has pretty clearly withdrawn consent. But what if she offers what seems to him like token resistance with a mumbled “Stop” and then seems to relent? I’ll bet the latter scenario describes the majority of cases in which the girl later, regretting what happened, claims that she withdrew consent and has been raped, and that the former one is fairly rare. Maybe there should be a universal safe word that everyone knows means “stop, and I really mean it.”

        You say that if a person cannot handle communication they should not be having sex. I’ll go you one better and say that if a person isn’t in a committed relationship she shouldn’t be having sex. All of this hooking up at drunken parties is so fraught with risk that I’m surprised college women go along with it. They didn’t used to, and consequently they didn’t claim that they were all being raped.

        I’ll believe your position on girls being liable for rape when I start to see prosecutions for it. I’ve seen cases in which girls clearly took advantage of drunken boys and still cried rape when the boys didn’t want to see them again. I’d be happier about some of these charges when a drunken boy and girl are convicted of mutual rape and both given the same punishment after a hearing with an equal burden of proof.

        Why distinguish “date rape” from “rape” full stop? Because so much date rape turns out, when all the evidence is in, not to be rape at all. Sure, some of it is. But look at mattress girl. Look at all the cases of girls who make accusations months if not years after the supposed rape. Look at all the cases of girls who had sex with a boy and then for weeks after kept up a friendly social media relationship, and then much later decided to press charges. Look at the cases where the issue of consent is not only murky to the impartial observer, but was murky to the participants.

        I don’t understand the antipathy that rape activists have toward the notion that women who don’t want to be raped should not put themselves into a risky situation. That is the world’s oldest advice whether it’s about rape, muggings, burglary, auto accidents, you name it. Don’t go looking for trouble. I don’t have sympathy for the rapists, but all of us are potential victims of criminals, and we should have the good sense to minimize our risks.

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