Consent comes from the Latin consentire; con means together, and sentire means to feel. At its core, consent is to feel together. In the past 25 years, the cultural definition of consent has expanded, moving toward the essence of consent. While the legal definition of consent in the US, for the most part, is still limited to “no means no,” universities, feminists, and activists have pushed it further, toward affirmative consent and welcomeness.
In 1991, Antioche College implemented the first affirmative consent policy, the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, on their campus. The policy defines consent as “verbally asking and verbally giving or denying consent for all levels of sexual behavior” and for the escalation of any sexual behavior. Two decades later, California and New York signed affirmative consent policies into law to hold colleges and universities to a higher standard for ensuring safety on campus. Also, affirmative consent education is required in California high schools by January, 2018. Affirmative consent is the standard on many campuses nationwide, but that doesn’t mean it’s the standard in many bedrooms yet.
Freely given: It’s not coerced or gotten through persistence or manipulation.
Active: The absence of a “no” does not mean “yes.” Silence and lack of resistance do not mean “yes.”
Clear: If you’re not sure, clarify with your partner(s). “Is ____ okay?”
Sex educator, Corinne Kai, describes what the above adjectives look like in-practice and offers phrases to use and listen for assure a mutually consensual interaction. Also, you can watch this soft-core consent porn.
Currently, the difference between Antioche’s policy and that of many other universities is the inclusion of non-verbal consent. According to SUNY, for example, consent can be given through actions as long as the actions communicate clear willingness to engage in a sexual activity. Corinne also lists possible signs of non-verbal consent and no consent.
It’s redundant but important to state: there is no such thing as implied consent. Certain societal expectations have been normalized. For example, “if you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you,” or if you go home with someone, there’s an assumption you’re going to hook up. Those societal norms do not equate to consent, and can often lead to victim blaming. “What did you expect? You should have known better.” Persistence has also been normalized as “game,” when it’s actually predatory. If someone says no or expresses doubt or disinterest non-verbally or verbally, sexual activity stops and only begins again if all parties express affirmative consent that is freely given, active, enthusiastic, clear, specific, and informed. Of course, consent is reversible and ongoing as well. These normalized behaviors and assumptions are worth naming, examining, and tearing down.
Welcomeness goes one step further than affirmative consent in its emphasis on mutuality and feelings. In practice, each person is simultaneously asking for and receiving consent. The idea of a “giver” and a “receiver” is questioned, and the idea that everyone involved is simultaneously giving and receiving in some way is raised up. Welcomeness also acknowledges how the encounter feels to everyone, emotionally and physically. In other words, Is this action welcomed, or do you welcome this action?
Yes, it can feel vulnerable to be so honest with what you want, especially when you might already be feeling vulnerable. As Brene Brown says, the only way to address deep shame is through vulnerability. The only way we can make ourselves vulnerable is if we feel safe, and that means taking responsibility for unearned privilege. Unearned privilege--through whiteness, cis-maleness, financial wealth etc.--is associated with unearned safety. Those with greater privilege and safety have greater responsibility to address inequitable power dynamics, in and outside the bedroom.
As Emily wrote, “It takes bravery to be radically vulnerable. The reward is to be loved and love in the absence of power,” or to have equitable sex. (Of course, sometimes a power dynamic is part of sexual play, but it’s only consensual if the power dynamic is acknowledged.)
Just like the definition of consent has changed over time, so has the societal definition of assault. Lindy West writes, “sexual norms have changed . . . the line between seduction and coercion has shifted, and shifted quickly, over the past few years (the past few months, even).” This is why some people may read Grace’s reflection on her experience with Aziz as assault and dispute her claim. Sexual assault is sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent, and, culturally, the activities that fall beneath that definition are changing. We can recognize not all forms of sexual misconduct and violence are the same. We can and need to make room to discuss and address all actions that contribute to rape culture.
Behind this changing definition of assault lies fear of broader criminalization. “The insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches,” wrote Bari Weiss in the New York Times. While I didn’t read Grace (or hear anyone else, for that matter) suggest Aziz’s actions be criminalized, we do need to hold individuals accountable. Accountability is not synonymous with criminalization, and that’s where Weiss likely got it wrong. We are so governed by a criminal justice system, we don’t even know how to work outside of that. The criminal system doesn’t lead to healing and this is where we need to step back and ask, “Do we want to be right or do we want to heal?”
At a recent talk with Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, when speaking about prison abolition, she said, “There is another way of being in relationship to one another and there’s another way to deal with harm and conflict. We’re always going to have harm and conflict. How do we decide to deal with it? I feel always most inspired when I think about transformative and restorative justice and a world without policing and prison. . . Prison abolition isn’t about getting rid of something. It’s about imaging something else, and it’s not just about replacing. We want to build something new, sometimes something we’ve seen before and sometimes something we’ve never seen before.”
This is about centering the needs and stories of people who have experienced sexual violence and about building something new, together. One example of this is Corinne Kai’s and Olivia Ahn’s “An Accountability Structures Toolkit.” They created an alternative to the present situation, in which “individuals impacted by harm in their communities are left feeling isolated and overwhelmed to recover by themselves and pressured to seek justice in proscriptive ways.” The toolkit provides communities with a guide to supporting survivors and victims of harm, with the ultimate goal of interpersonal restoration and resilience. They provide guidance on how to choose allies for the person harmed and the person who did harm, how to set goals, how to safety plan, and how to track progress. Corinne and Olivia have generously provided their toolkit here. Incite also has created resources specifically for community accountability for women of color and their work can be found here.
When people are unable to get out of the idea of winners and losers, right and wrong, good and bad it tells me that the commitment to our current system is bigger than our commitment to change. These binaries, however you apply them are a commitment to white supremacy and to the patriarchy. No human is disposable, so how are we going to move forward with each other, in community and in the knowledge that each person has value but that behaviours must change and patterns and beliefs must be unlearned? Our conversation and hopes go way beyond consent. What we want to imagine together is: what does sexual equity look like to you?
We will be hosting a consent workshop for heterosexual, cismen on February 18 in Brooklyn and a dating support group. More details to come.