When Consent Isn't Simple

You may have heard people insisting that consent is really very simple. The tea video and Project Consent’s dancing vagina PSA are the most visible examples of people ensuring us that there isn’t anything complicated about consent. And while the highly-shareable videos are a great way to keep consent on people’s minds, it is important to remember that sexual assault is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. So, while the slogan from Project Consent’s video, “If it’s not a Yes, it a No” is a totally accurate statement that I fully endorse, it’s not at the crux of why sexual assault is such a widespread problem.

The danger in a hyper-simplified message is that it leaves out any discussion of context. And I don’t just mean context that might lead someone to conclude that a “no” is a “maybe,” but the context that might pressure someone into saying yes when they don’t really mean it. In both of these situations, unspoken power dynamics add an important layer of nuance.

It’s tempting to say that none of the nuance matters because consent is simple, but with relationships, nuance always matters. For example, you probably learned about consent as a toddler. On the playground, a teacher insisted that you couldn’t take another kid’s food without asking first, that you had to take turns with toys, and that it’s not ok to bite anyone. All of these lessons boil down consent. But think about how an understanding of power crept into these situations. When the bullies wanted another cookie, they weren’t going to try and take it from someone older or bigger than them. They would go after the smaller kids who could be overpowered or tricked.

As children, our teachers were there to watch out for the younger kids and insist that everyone be treated fairly, but as we grew up, it became apparent that the rules didn’t apply to everyone equally. Some people were better at getting away with things than others. Eventually, we learned how money, status, race, and gender played into who the rules actually applied to. As our problems became more complex, the differences between athletes, wealthy kids, conventionally attractive girls, and everyone else became more apparent. In this way, the broader power structures of our culture were written into daily life and became the unspoken rules that guide our lives.

Rules about sex are written into these messages as well. Women are rewards in video games. Movies end with the protagonist “getting the girl.” Wealthy men are sometimes seen with women far more attractive then they are. Access to sex is generally seen as the natural result of accomplishment and status. It plays out in cases like the one against Jameis Winston, where his accuser can’t even get the police to investigate her rape, but also among people with less notoriety and fame. Back in school, many boys learned that the rules of respecting others didn’t always apply to them. When they hit, they heard their parents shrug, “boys will be boys.”

When this entitlement is carried into sexual situations,the problem isn’t a misunderstanding about consent. The problem is that consent implies a relationship among equals and society is set up with clear hierarchies. This is why sexual assault is higher among women of color and in the queer community. These groups experience even greater levels of depersonalization, and therefore more people who see the need to obtain their consent as irrelevant. Consent isn’t so much about teaching people how to recognize a no, but insisting that each no is respected.

An even deeper problem with this dynamic is that people who are on the lower end of the hierarchies can internalize that position and agree that their own consent is irrelevant. One of the trickiest situations are relationships where an abuser will seek out a person who is already vulnerable, tell them that they are worthless, isolate them from their friends, and make them feel as if their own desires are wrong or meaningless. Can a person meaningfully say yes in that situation? If we say “No, they can’t,” are we adding to the problem by taking away their ability to control their own narrative? When people are attracted to their abuser, how can we disentangle the desire from the fear?

That is a somewhat extreme example. There are other questions, like what do you call a situation where someone said yes to get someone else to stop asking? Or they said yes because they are afraid of being seen as a prude? Already, you need to bring in qualifiers about enthusiastic consent, which is given freely. But that still leaves some questions. What about someone who has says yes to certain sex acts they aren’t excited about, but they do it out of a desire to be a generous lover? Obviously, there is a difference between being a generous lover and being manipulated into submission, but in both cases, a person says “yes.”

This is why the simple definition of consent will never be enough. It is a great rallying cry, but the danger is that it will give people a sense that this whole sexual assault mess has been solved. People need to stay engaged to talk about the hard stuff. We need to push for smart policy and comprehensive sex education in schools. We need to be able to talk about the grey area of sexual assault, not in order to minimize survivor’s experiences as not being violent enough, but to have a good vocabulary around abusive power dynamics.

Domination and abuse thrive on silence. When there is a taboo against talking about sex, unequal power relationships become the norm. But right now, people are speaking up. Women, men who have been victimized, and sexual minorities are insisting on their equality. As we all talk about our experiences and share our stories as survivors, it’s important to remember the decades of activism and the very real fight that is going on to maintain this cultural change. We should share videos that define consent, but we can’t see them and stop there. We need to keep working.