Harris: Consent is Complex

Thinking of consent as a simple binary promotes coercive sexual behavior.

by Marshall Harris | 5/24/18 2:15am

In a recent column entitled “Yes Means Yes,” Jillian Freeman ’21 laid out an argument against the phrase “unenthusiastic consent is not consent.” Unfortunately, this argument is disconnected from the power dynamics and pressures regarding sex and consent. All too often, propositions for sexual contact happen under circumstances of coercion, where unenthusiastic consent is often an escape route from a more unsavory outcome. The reality is that men control the power dynamic of potential sexual encounters and can pressure their partners to consent, even implicitly. Clearly, no one would fault the victim of a robbery for consenting to have their wallet stolen when threatened at gunpoint; obviously, their consent in that situation should not be considered valid.

Freeman notes in her article that “after consent is given, one may choose to take it back at any time before or during the sexual encounter,” which is undoubtedly true. However, the act of withdrawing consent can be problematic if it means potentially being subjected to manipulation or even physical violence later. When there are more forces at play then simply desire, consent is a complex calculation of risk, not a simple binary choice. Therefore, it is surely the case that unenthusiastic consent does not always translate to a willful “yes.” Discrediting someone who consented unenthusiastically while under duress is harmful and dangerous in its own right.

Of course, unenthusiastic consent would not be used as evidence in a courtroom, but it is time to stop holding society at large to the same standards and burdens of proof as a courtroom. Clearly, the phrase “unenthusiastic consent is not consent” was not attempting to change the legal definition of consent, but to raise awareness about coercive and aggressive behavior in sexual encounters. No one is arguing that “enthusiastic consent” be used for criminal convictions, because obviously enthusiasm is subjective; but unfortunately, sexual consent is subjective, too. Therefore, there is no reason why enthusiastic consent can’t be the standard for consent in daily society.

If it is clear that someone is not enthusiastic about engaging in sex, it is obviously immoral to continue the sexual encounter, even if it is not technically illegal. Why, then, is it not clear that attempting to get consent from an unenthusiastic partner is outside the realm of good taste? Surely a tepid response of “Sure” or “I guess” would be sufficient to demonstrate that someone is likely not enthusiastic about a sexual encounter, so continuing would be wrong. What Dartmouth students need is not a lecture on the dictionary definition of “yes,” but more awareness in order to identify coercive behavior and recognize when it is acceptable to continue a sexual encounter.

Furthermore, shifting the discussion about consent and sexual violence toward the potential for false accusations, as Freeman does, is unproductive. In reality, false accusations are incredibly rare and are unlikely to increase simply due to a change in public perception regarding consent. In fact, Freeman puts it perfectly when she writes that “society cannot normalize exceptions” — false accusations have been, and always will be, the exception.

Shifting the discussion to the imagined problem of false accusations only perpetuates the shaming of sexual coercion victims. Giving perpetrators of unhealthy sexual practices cover for their actions reinforces the already-rampant rape culture on campus. Rather than focus on what the victim should have done in an unhealthy sexual situation, the focus should be on preventing the situation from occurring at all. Placing the onus of action on the victim is unproductive and does not treat the root of the problem.

Therefore, in order to create more productive campus discussion and to effect positive change regarding sexual violence, consent must be thought of not in legal, but moral, terms. Students shouldn’t have to use an unenthusiastic yes as an escape route; in fact, they shouldn’t have to be placed in such a situation at all. Thus, the phrase “unenthusiastic consent is not consent” is desperately needed to promote awareness about the complexities of consent.

It is immoral to discredit victims of coercive sexual behavior simply because they gave an affirmative answer while under duress. Sexual violence and issues of consent are pernicious and intricate matters, and reducing them to simple binaries is neither useful nor healthy.

Harris is a member of the Class of 2019.

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