by Michael Carey
A number of essayists, at Slate and elsewhere, have criticized the affirmative consent policies that are increasingly being adopted at universities across America. The basic idea underlying these policies is that “s/he didn’t say no” should not be an acceptable excuse for initiating unwanted sexual contact. It raises the bar from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” For sexual conduct to be acceptable, each participant must understand that their partner(s) are actively and continuously agreeing that the experience should continue.
I share some concerns about how these policies are being implemented. In particular, they will remain irrelevant as long as rape investigations are handled by university officials who are biased against admitting that sexual assaults happen on their turf and who lack adequate training to be effective as either investigators or victims’ counselors and advocates, let alone both. However, I do not agree that the affirmative consent standard is the problem. The problem is that it is not universal.
If you observe the way Americans tell stories about sex—in porn, romance novels,popular movies, song lyrics, even in our ineffective abstinence-only sex-ed classes and our schoolyard gossip—it becomes clear that part of our tacit understanding of “good” sex is that it is spontaneous, initiated by a strong male and yielded to by a compliant female. We actively discourage communication. A real man knows intuitively when his woman is ready and how to please her. Asking, or even worse getting told what to do, is a turn off and a threat to his masculine identity. On the flip side, only sluts know so much about sex that they come on to a man, or can describe what they want. These stereotypes set the stage for young people to hurt each other—they’re part of the foundation of what activists describe as rape culture. They must be directly targeted and dismantled.
One advantage of having aberrant desires is that it forces you to learn to articulate what you want, which is a valuable skill for anyone, in or out of the bedroom. Even if your tastes are completely “normal” and you’re looking for a long-term monogamous partner, shedding embarrassment about discussing sex frankly, and conquering fears of rejection, will improve your sexual and romantic life. When you have a new flame, you can find ways to hint at what you want in flirty conversations, or by pointing at examples of pop culture or literature that model what you’re into, or even by sharing porn. You can tell funny stories about past encounters, if you’ve had any. If somebody’s threatened by the idea that you have a sexual past, or thinks it makes you a slut, you’re well rid of them. (If you don’t have a sexual history, you can still share what you’ve learned from exploring your sexuality on your own. And if you haven’t even spent time discovering what you enjoy on your own, then you’re probably not ready to have a partner.) Learning about each other’s histories and fantasies should be a fun way to build intimacy, long before any clothes come off. Once you’re getting hot and heavy, consent can be sexy:
(Playful voice) “I saw that look. Are you thinking about [X]?”
“If you’d like me to [Y], honey, you’re gonna have to beg.”
“Ohhh, you gorgeous thing ... I want you to [Z]!”
The California affirmative consent law explicitly acknowledges that even nonverbal cues—appreciative moaning or physically “leaning in” to a partner’s touch—can constitute affirmative consent. There have been legitimate criticisms of the law—in particular, it may be problematic to create a different standard for campuses than for the rest of the state, and for college students than for everyone else. The larger problem, though, is that we train young people to expect, and act on, the lower standard. ...