Complicating consent

Recently, I listened to the first episode of Radiolab’s “In the No” series. It came out last year, so I am a little behind. But it got me thinking a lot about consent and the way it seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. In theory, it is all very simple, but in practice, there is just no way you can reduce something so serious to a simple question of “no means no” or “only an enthusiastic yes.” Consent has to do with paying attention, consent has to do with checking in and consent is for sure not an absence of “no.”

Theoretically, we know all of this. You have probably seen and laughed at the tea video, sat through maybe a million different presentations. This is old news, but I think I have something to add in terms of power dynamics. I was once in a situation where I expected that I should have sex. I did not say no, but I also did not really say yes. I felt societal pressure to conform and have sex with a guy because surely I was a girl and he was a boy and that is how the story is supposed to go. We did not end up having sex because of outside interruptions. But there is a part of me that still feels uncomfortable with the dynamic that went on in that situation. I was just going to let it happen. And he was just going to do it. It has made me think a lot about what consent means.

Men like to throw around how they now feel afraid to do anything towards anyone they perceive as female. There is this idea that it is “no longer safe” to be male and horny. But the thing is: maybe you men out there should be afraid, just a little bit, of any sexual aggression at all. Society makes your pleasure primary and expects all others, especially those who you desire, to please you accordingly. We teach men to prod at sexual boundaries, as “In the No” demonstrates very well. Sex is just a tiny push in a favorable direction. But if you put yourself in the shoes of the marginalized people who are conditioned to please you, do you think it would be as easy as simply saying no? Yes, they can remove themselves, but look what situation you have put them in. People fold for many valid reasons, and you should be aware of that.

You know the best way to establish consent? Stop prioritizing your pleasure for a minute and sit down and talk. With any hookup or relationship or marriage, have a discussion about sex. And yes, be a little scared of infringing. Just stay away from boundaries, let hard and soft lines be drawn without pushing. Because you, as men, hold societal power to convince and you should be very cognizant of that. Consent is never simple. It is always an ongoing conversation that never ends and it will always be a topic worth discussing. Believe survivors, support people who come forward and tear down the stereotypes of the aggressive sexual alpha male. But above all, men, you specifically should be a little afraid. Not so much that you run from every sexual encounter, but enough that you pay more attention to your actions and your partner.

After all, it could have been much worse for me than just a little discomfort and a bad date night. Not everyone feels empowered to say no.