With “Take Back the Night” wrapping up, a month to take a stand against rape culture and sexual assault, and in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape case, the issue of sexual assault has definitely been on my mind recently. The idea of consent can definitely be a confusing one, especially with the culture around sex on college campuses today, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts and internal dialogue about this issue with all the lovely HCWC blog followers.
What leads to the confusion around what is sexual assault and consent? In my own attempts to answer this question, I have been thinking about how the casual attitudes about sex that pervade campus today, leading to a lower standard of desire for consensual sexual activity, can contribute to a perceived ambiguity around consent.
For those of you who haven’t heard of the Steubenville rape case, on March 17th, two 16-year old boys were convicted of rape in Steubenville, Ohio. The trial has gotten a lot of press, and has certainly gotten people talking about how rape is treated in our society. Although I can’t even begin to scrape the surface of these issues in this blog post, I would like to share the perspective of Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman in their article in The Nation:
“The defense for two high school football players accused of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl will focus on issues of consent, specifically what “consent” really means. To defense attorney Walter Madison, who is representing one of the accused men, consent is not an affirmative “yes.” He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that what happened wasn’t rape because the young woman ‘didn’t affirmatively say no.’”
The issue of “affirmative consent,” which Valenti and Friedman argue for in their article, has to do with “los[ing] the “ ‘no’ means no” model for understanding sexual assault and focus[ing] on “only ‘yes’ means yes” instead.” According to this model, “The only way to know that sex is consensual is if there’s a freely and clearly given ‘yes.’…most rapists already know they don’t have consent. It’s the rest of us who are confused. Affirmative consent removes this confusion.”
To me, the confusion people feel about the issue of sexual assault is closely connected to the culture around sex on campus today. I saw first-hand how the confusion around consent is sparked in a conversation I had my first year after Sex Signals. In the presentation, a hypothetical story was told about a woman and man who met up to study, and ended up having sex. In the story, the woman had made it clear earlier in the night that she did not want to have sex, and she did not say “yes” to the act. However, when they began having sex, she had not said no. And she had initiated hooking up in the first place. And kept on trying to kiss him. And didn’t try to fight him off once they began having sex.
The presenters explained to us that this was rape—the fact that the woman had not tried to fight the man off was not an indication that she wanted to have sex. As an audience member, this made sense to me. So, after the presentation, I was shocked to talk to a group of people who believed, quite adamantly, that the event described had not necessarily been rape. “I mean, it was confusing, right? She had made the first move! She had invited him to her dorm room! She hadn’t said no or physically stopped him during the act. There was some ambiguity there, right? This ambiguity made it seem like she was okay with having sex when she was in fact not. So, how was he supposed to know?”
The presenters had explained to us that Sex Signals was not an ambiguous situation, but people still saw it as such. So, why was ambiguity seen when there truly was none? Looking at how sex is viewed in hook-up culture has helped me explore how to answer this question. People thought that the situation was confusing because “she seemed okay with having sex.” It seems to me that being “okay with having sex” implies that one is not against having sex. Looking at this idea through the lens of consent, being “okay” with having sex seems to imply that one is not saying an “affirmative no.” On the other hand, “wanting to have sex” implies a specific desire to have sex, and would be more towards the type of “freely and clearly given ‘yes’” that Valenti and Friedman discuss in their article. The ideal is, of course, that everyone having sex would want to have sex and would say so, which would result in a lack of any sort of confusion. However, is that the mindset in today’s hook-up culture?
According to Donna Freitas in her article, “Time to stop hooking up. (You know you want to.)” it is definitely not. Frietas has been studying hookup culture on college campuses for the past 8 years, and she explains that, “Aside from the few students who said hooking up made them happy, the vast majority used less-than-glowing adjectives such as “whatever” and “mostly okay,” or were indifferent about it.” In fact, “fine” was the most common description of people’s hookups.
I suggest that this idea in hook-up culture that being “okay” with having sex is enough of a reason to have it contributes to the confusion around consent. If not particularly “wanting to have sex” has become the normalized model of sex, this model of sex doesn’t necessarily encourage only having sex when the answer is YES. Not “affirmatively saying no” is the standard not only of consent, but also of sexual desire. As long as the answer is not “no,” its yes, might as well.
I certainly do not mean to imply that hook-up culture leads directly to rape culture or acts of sexual assault. Casual sex can absolutely be consensual. However, understanding how popular opinions around sex contribute to the apparent confusion and ambiguity surrounding consent on campus today is an important step towards diffusing this ambiguity. The model of casual sex that is pervasive on college campuses today gives us a big reason to raise the standards of what is consent to avoid what is perceived as ambiguity. Hook-up culture just gives us all the more reason to spell it out.
What do you all think? As Freitas discusses in her article, our views of sex have changed on campus; she describes dressing up as prostitutes for Halloween as an extreme form of “sexual exploration” in High School, and compares it to views of sex today, saying “My little adventure almost two decades ago seems innocent compared with hookup culture — a lifestyle of unemotional, unattached sex — so prevalent on campuses today.” Yes, our treatment of sex on campus has changed—but have our definitions of consent adapted? If the bar for enthusiasm around sex has been lowered, how can we raise the bar for consent?