At a debate in London recently, a young woman related the experience of a friend who went off to a bedroom with a young man at a party. After a while, the young man cleared his throat and asked the friend if she was “consenting to sexual activity.” The friend reported that she was immediately “weirded out.” She got up and left.
Two pieces of received wisdom dominate the modern academic discussion about sexual consent. First, consent must be positive and explicit. Second, consent must be taught. According to the champions of the doctrine of “affirmative consent”—lately gaining traction on college campuses in America and Europe—sexual consent isn’t something negotiated between two people or demonstrated by tacit gestures, glances, and movements. Rather, it must be stated explicitly, using specified terms. Consent occurs on terms only a lawyer would appreciate. In some cases, affirmative consent can be verbal: “I consent,” or “Yes, we agree to have sex!” Sometimes there are forms to sign. There is even a smartphone app into which you “say the name of the person with whom you want to have sexual relations.” Add a clear “yes,” and “consent is confirmed.” How romantic!
Affirmative consent provokes a host of strange human behaviors, which is why it needs to be taught in school. In the real world, prospective lovers are capable of communicating consent with their eyes; in the “weirded-out” affirmative-consent world, an imaginary third party needs to hear it spoken out loud.
“We are living in a new sex bureaucracy,” announce two married Harvard law professors in a recent edition of the California Law Review. Jacob and Jennie Suk Gersen lament “the steady expansion of regulatory concepts of sex discrimination and sexual violence to the point that the regulated area comes also to encompass ordinary sex.” Some American universities have moved on, they point out, from merely defining affirmative consent to actually scripting sexual acts, including the words that prospective partners should use and the way that they should say them. The University of Wyoming, for example, states that “anything less than voluntary, sober, enthusiastic, verbal, noncoerced, continual, active, and honest consent is sexual assault.” Rather than using body language, which can be misinterpreted, the university says that consent should come in the form of a verbal “yes,” or possibly, “Yes, Yes, Oh! Yes!” The school suggests some phrases that students could use during a sexual encounter. “What would you like me to do for you?” is among the tamer offerings.
The move toward affirmative consent has transformed normal sexual relations into a kind of abuse. Merely talking to someone in an intimate way is potentially a “blurry situation” in which there could be “problems with consent”; stilted, scripted, and formalized relations are considered safe or sensitive. The consent bureaucracy implies that human relations are unnatural or potential violations of one party by another. The spontaneous, unmediated sex act is deconstructed into taker and taken, abuser and victim. A relationship is seen as a violation of the boundary to the self, the crossing of a line, which must be done only deliberately and in an artificial manner.
The news is not all bad, however. Students at England’s University of York walked out of consent classes that they said were “patronizing.” One young man stood outside the classes distributing flyers, urging other students to follow suit. “There is no correct way to negotiate getting someone into bed with you,” he explained. “In suggesting that there is, consent talks encourage women to interpret sexual experiences that have not been preceded by a lengthy, formal and sober contractual discussion as rape.” Students at Clare College, Cambridge, also boycotted consent classes, and the college’s “women’s officer” was left to post photos of the empty auditorium online.
Sexual assault and rape are crimes that must be punished. They are crimes not because a person didn’t say the right words but because someone was forced to do something against his or her will. But everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, should oppose consent classes and consent forms. Human intimacy must be defended against bloodless but oppressive bureaucratic interventions.
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