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Though well intentioned, clearer explanations of consent are not the solution. In fact, they might be part of the problem.

How “Guides to Sexual Consent” Hurt the Cause

Though well intentioned, clearer explanations of consent are not the solution. In fact, they might be part of the problem.

By Sofia Rivera, Simmons College


Last night, on the way home from dinner with a friend, I got off the bus, in one hand carrying leftovers and the jacket I brought but didn’t need for the humid night.

I was walking home to my new apartment in an area I don’t yet know very well, and in the other hand I clutched my keys and mini pepper spray, finger poised on the trigger like a Liam Neeson wannabe. Earbuds in to prevent people from talking to me on the bus ride home (pro tip for the antisocial types), but music off so I could hear footsteps behind me, my fingers found the key that would let me into my front door.

Two minutes from my door some guy stepped out of the dark and called out a greeting. Freaked out, I didn’t reply, beelined across the street and booked it home. I ran up three flight of stairs and into my apartment where, heart racing (that basically always happens to me after more than one flight of stairs though), I explained to my roommate why I was breathless and we laughed it off.

“That’s a really un-noteworthy story,” you may be thinking, and you’d be right.

The Problem With Fixating on the Definition of Sexual Consent
Image via mindingthecampus.org

Because literally nothing happened, except I got some unplanned cardio. But the thing is, being a woman can be terrifying, because oftentimes something does happen, and there’s no way of knowing when the situation is docile and when it’s dreadful.

There’s an Oscar de la Renta quote: “Walk like you have three men walking behind you.” I believe Oscar’s intended implication is that you should walk to impress, like the concrete sidewalk is your catwalk. If that’s your first thought when you read this quote, I’d gamble that you’re not a girl. My visceral reaction to this quote is panic. To me, it means walk like you’re being threatened; it means run.

A much-circulated statistic is that one in five college students reports incidents of sexual assault. Sometimes victims’ fears are realized in their own dorm rooms and on their college campuses, sometimes at a party or on the street walking home.

Brock Turner, unfortunately now a nation-wide household name, brought his victim’s worst fears to fruition behind a dumpster. There is much debate over what to call the attack, as technically it is not defined as rape under California state law. But reportedly the two cyclists who reported the crime could not help but cry as they spoke with police, they were so disturbed by what they had witnessed. So semantics are beside the point.

Regardless of the diction used to describe the crime, or any incident of sexual assault, there is one common denominator: A lack of consent.

It is very easy to tell if you have someone’s consent to do something. Being conscious is a great place to start, and saying “yes” is also a positive indicator. To not understand consent you’d have to quite literally be an idiot.

Yet, in the light of Brock’s heinous assault and almost as despicable three month prison sentence (lest a longer stint have too “severe [an] impact” on him), media explanations of consent have been ubiquitous. One video that popped up on my Facebook timeline several times compared consent to having a cup of tea, a British man politely voicing over quaint graphics of stick figures drinking tea. An artist explained seven different consent-related scenarios in comic form, creating metaphors involving weightlifting and borrowing a car. Another headline read, “Consent explained for people who still don’t get it.”

My question is, who the hell are these people?

Judge Aaron Persky might say Brock is one of these confused souls, helpless under the haze of one too many beers, which is such a load of bullshit. No matter his blood alcohol content, he knew he didn’t have consent for two reasons: 1) because he couldn’t ask for it, as his victim was unconscious and 2) because he ran when he was caught, generally a trademark of guilty people.

An understanding of consent is not the issue at stake, and all of these well intentioned “Idiot’’ Guide to Consent” articles and videos are only exacerbating the situation. Their very existence helps forgive rapists for not knowing better and, even worse, creates a loophole for perpetrators to say, “Wait but I didn’t realize I needed consent this time, there wasn’t an animated analogy for this situation.”

Guys claiming they didn’t know if they had consent is like Steve Urkel asking the only question he knows: “Did I do that?” Yes, you did Steve, and you fucking know it.

The Problem With Fixating on the Definition of Sexual Consent
Image via cardstiffstudentmedia.co.uk

Utilizing metaphors protagonized by tea and cars to describe consent also doesn’t do wonders for humanizing the women they are trying to protect. Thinking of women first as objects to understand how not to objectify them is unnecessarily backwards. Consent is about two humans saying “yes” to each other, no simplification required. Though it’s extremely generous of these artists and authors to assume that rapists and assailants simply can’t comprehend consent, that is generally not the case. The people these “Is it ok?” checklists are written for are not idiots, they’re just playing dumb. The problem is a lack of consent, but it is not a lack of knowledge of what consent is.

Of course, the literature that has recently been generated about the C-word (not that one) is not at all the source of the issue. The origin is not even Brock Turner. Turner’s case (and early release) catalyzed the waterfall of these articles, but he is just one of an unknowably large number of guys who chose to ignore the concept of consent. Sexual assault, reported and unreported, occurs on college campuses and beyond across the country (and around the globe).

These frequent offenses aren’t a result of not knowing better; ignorance is not the issue here, action is. And if there really still are people out there who can’t understand that no means no (and silence most definitely means no, Brock), they don’t need an “Idiot’s Guide,” they need to go back to kindergarten.

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