This concept is giving a lot of people a lot of trouble.
“It goes against human nature,” a man told me while we were having dinner with several others. The new California law requiring affirmative consent on college campuses was being discussed. Just as he said that, a waitress arrived at our table and asked him if he would like a refill on his ice tea. He said yes. She poured the tea.
I stared at him.
“What?” he said.
I asked, “If the waitress had walked away without pouring your tea, how would you feel?”
“I’d be annoyed. I’d be confused.”
“What if you had said no and she poured it anyway?”
“I’d be annoyed. I’d be confused.”
“Yeah, that’s how most of us would feel. It would be annoying because you wanted, or didn’t want, more tea. It would be confusing because it was such an easy transaction, and her disregard for your choice makes no sense.”
Consent is not complicated. The word ‘no’ is one of the first words—one of the first concepts—that humans learn. That happens around age two. We all ask for and receive consent every day in a myriad of ways. Why is it different when it’s about sex?
Human nature? Well, yes. Not asking for consent for sexual activity is a cultural practice, a cultural system that has been instilled into human nature. It is rooted in entitlement: sex with women was the right of men and there was no reason to ask; consent was irrelevant.
We’ve evolved from our prehistoric days in almost every other way, but this one. Who does this benefit? Answer: the sexual predators among us. The belief that someone is owed sex has become ubiquitous and benefits all perpetrators, regardless of gender.
The man I had dinner with does not believe he is entitled to sex with women, but he perceived that this cultural practice benefited him because, as we discovered later in the conversation, he didn’t know how to ask for consent, and he dreaded being told no.
The time has come to connect the dots. No one is entitled to sex with another. Asking for consent is only difficult because we’ve made it difficult. Affirmative consent is redundant and the apparently necessary use of the qualifying adjective in this phrase is a testament to the confusion that surrounds this issue.
What’s the difference between affirmative and negative consent? One means yes and the other means no. It is currently necessary to use the word affirmative in order to counter the standard rapists’ argument that if she didn’t say no, or didn’t say it the right way, then it wasn’t their fault.
This argument has worked effectively for a long time to keep rapists out of jail and most of the rest of us uncertain about what defines sexual assault. Early in my career, I was asked by an administrator to try to do a better job of teaching young women how to say no. This was a well-meaning request based in the belief that the young men committing these assaults just don’t understand and it was the responsibility of the young women to help them understand.
But lack of understanding is not the problem and here’s a simple example to prove it: a sign on a Texas A&M fraternity house last year (a Yale fraternity did it a year before) that read “No means Yes and Yes means Anal”. Of course the fraternity guys did it to be outrageous and this kind of backlash is not surprising. But still, it shows why we need to be very, very clear that yes means yes and everything else means no so the predators and perpetrators among us know that the rest of us aren’t accepting this argument any more.
I hope we are in a cultural transition as we talk about affirmative consent and as we connect the dots between perpetrators and entitlement and the majority of us who just haven’t thought it through. That dinner conversation was a positive sign, as are the jokes in our popular culture about asking for consent for sexual activity, exaggerating how silly and awkward it can be. We’re working through the newness and someday asking for consent for sex will be as easy as asking for more tea.
Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence