Eleanor Doward

Enthusiastic consent isn’t just ‘sexy’; it’s a fundamental prerequisite of sex

In September last year, Brendan O’Neill released another indignation-fuelled spiel onto the internet, much like a predictable but repugnant burp from a corpulent uncle at Christmas dinner. In this article, written for The Spectator, O’Neill’s issue was with the fairly recent focus on the importance of understanding sexual consent. Young people are now being encouraged to learn about consent, with emphasis being given to the notion that only a clear yes means yes. At universities across the country, consent classes and seminars are available – and in some cases compulsory. O’Neill railed against these classes, believing that students should be left to their own devices to ‘learn on the job’. He rightly recognises that the aim of the classes is to make sex always ‘safe’ and ‘informed’, but laments that, in doing this, they present a barrier to the ‘free-wheelin’ saucy time’ (seriously) which students, he suggests, are owed.

Does this stress on explicit, clear and consistent consent destroy the fun of sex, as O’Neill suggests? I would say no. For a start, O’Neill fails to consider why these classes on consent might actually be necessary. Research by the NUS in 2014 found that more than a third of women students suffered unwanted sexual advances. Statistics such as this give some idea as to why these classes have been set up. Though he might see the focus on educating young people about consent patronising, the fact is that children are rarely taught about consent in sex education classes at a young age in school. Many young people simply do not understand consent quite as well as O’Neill seems to think. I speak partly from my own experience, because I know that I certainly didn’t; as a fresher, I saw the unwelcome advances made toward me as an upsetting but unavoidable part of student life. Yet O’Neill’s opinion is not an unusual one. There are many that agree that the demand for explicit consent can dampen the mood, so to speak; removing important passion and spontaneity from sex. Cathy Young even claimed recently in the Washington Post that what she calls the ‘crusade’ against rape culture with the ‘yes means yes’ approach to sexual consent denies the nuances of relationships and sexual encounters. Sex is too complex, she argues, to allow for this approach, and what results is the conflation of ‘criminal sexual acts’ with ‘bad behaviour’.

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But I would argue that criminal sexual acts – defined by Young as ‘coercion by physical force, threat or incapacitation’ – are already too often conflated with the vaguely-termed ‘bad behaviour’, though not in the way Young suggests. Many girls’ testimonies of their experiences of sexual assault are so often brushed off by authorities and peers alike as something insignificant, something that just happens; men behaving badly, but predictably – not criminally. What is merely ‘bad behaviour’ when it comes to sexual consent? Young claims that ‘feminists’ (all neatly clubbed together in one headline – Young apparently only seems to see nuance and complexity when it suits her) want to define certain experiences she has had in her life as rape, which she does not see them as. I myself haven’t heard a single feminist enforce a definition on another person’s individual experience of assault. For me, feminism has educated and informed me into an understanding of sexual assault and society’s normalization of it. It has allowed me to recognise that experiences that I have had that I had seen as normal and inevitable, should perhaps not be brushed off so easily.

Does a focus on consent take away the passion from sex – is it what Young calls the ‘puritanical streak’ of the new sexual revolution, seeking to control and regulate sexual interactions? Or does it encourage clear and consistent communication in sex and consideration of one’s partner? I’d argue that it doesn’t so much allow for what Young calls ‘any regretted sexual encounter’ to be refigured as a sexual assault (examples of this happening are actually rare) as it does allow encounters that may not have been recognised as sexual assault to be called out for what they are. Young and O’Neill both seem to try to separate sexual assault as a horrific and criminal act from the young male students to whom consent campaigns and classes are largely aimed at; they don’t need the patronising consent classes, or they’re only guilty of bad behaviour. But sexual assault is rarely an isolated incident, committed by the threatening, faceless stranger in the dark alley. A report by the National Institute of Justice showed that in 90% of reported cases of rape on campus, the perpetrator was known by the victim – in many cases a fellow student, often a friend or acquaintance. We simply can’t separate the crime from the young, possibly naïve fellow students who coerce out of what Young calls ‘misunderstanding, pressure or insensitivity’, who, though they might commit rape or assault without considering it to be such, still commit it.

Ultimately, ‘bad sex’ that comes as a result of ‘pressure’ is sexual assault, no matter how much Young’s vague semantics attempt to cloak this. The focus on consistent and assured consent does not aim to create an unattainable utopia which denies the realities of sex, but aims first and foremost to assert the importance of communication and respect which in turn creates situations in which such ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘insensitivity’ might be avoided. Contrary to what O’Neill would have us believe, there are sexy ways of checking in on your partner throughout, and in my experience, communication increases passion, since you’re both clear you’re having a good time. And to be honest, if a greater focus and emphasis on my safety and comfort means a little loss of spontaneity, that’s a risk I’m more than willing to take. Communication makes sex better, and if O’Neill thinks otherwise, I can’t help but think he’s got a lot to learn about sex (beyond, obviously, never again referring to it as a ‘free-wheelin’ saucy time’).

One thought on “Enthusiastic consent isn’t just ‘sexy’; it’s a fundamental prerequisite of sex

  1. Pingback: 'Monstrous' Calgary Teacher Gets 5-year Prison Sentence For Sexual … | Herpes Survival Kit

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