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Erasing the Gray Area: Why Enthusiastic Consent Is Essential To Eradicating Sexual Assault

Posted on the 06 June 2014 by Juliez
Erasing the Gray Area: Why Enthusiastic Consent Is Essential To Eradicating Sexual Assault

Yale University

One Friday evening this spring, I stood in the courtyard outside my dorm with a friend. The sun was setting and students were performing their pre-party rituals around us. It was the first temperate day of the semester and a surge of giddiness seemed to have engulfed the campus. Yet I’d spent the last hour and a half consoling my friend, who was grappling with the process of filing a complaint of sexual misconduct against a fellow Yale student.

It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in this situation. In my time at college, I’ve heard many stories, generally from heterosexual women, ranging from hazy one-night-stands that went further than intended, to dance-floor-make-outs that felt pressured, to sexual encounters in which the victim was inebriated past the point of consent. These women have all expressed that something was wrong or displeasurable about their sexual encounter, but few have been entirely confident in placing blame. One thing they all agree on, however, is that they never would have done to someone else what was done to them under those circumstances.

At Yale, freshmen are required to go through sexual consent training based on the concept of “positive, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement.” During these workshops, students explore the concept of non-verbal consent through skits in which they ask each other out for frozen yogurt. The skits involve one person taking on the role of the asker and the other taking on the role of either an enthusiastic or reluctant respondent. The exercise is supposed to demonstrate that even when a person is trying to be polite, and not verbally objecting, it’s easy to tell if that person isn’t interested in participating in an activity. In theory these workshops emphasize the importance of non-verbal cues and empathy, but the “froyo skits” have been the source of much amusement, criticism, and ridicule. This is due not only to bad acting and the somewhat ludicrous substitution of the word “froyo” for sex, but to the idea that something so lighthearted can stand in for every possible violation of sexual misconduct–from sexual pressuring to penetrative rape.

In a recent Time magazine article, Jed Rubenfeld, a professor at Yale’s law school, criticizes Yale’s standard of sexual misconduct for being “overbroad,” and not allowing room for the gray areas that arise within sexual encounters. Rubenfeld writes:

“If two Yale students are kissing and one of them touches the other sexually, that person has apparently committed sexual assault (unless they stopped and negotiated in advance) even if they’ve done it before.”

 At first I was disturbed by Rubenfeld’s assumption that sexual boundaries are irrelevant if the participants have engaged together in sexual contact before. I also took issue with his implication that without verbal consent, it’s impossible to tell whether someone would like to be touched sexually. I believe that humans have the capacity to perceive whether or not others want to do something, and that, accordingly, there should be no “gray area” during a sexual encounter; anything less than enthusiasm should be perceived as an indication of reluctance.

However, after much thought and consideration, I do acknowledge that miscommunications can occur during sexual encounters, due in part to the discomfort many girls have with expressing enthusiasm about sex. In a perfect world, where both girls and boys are raised to be comfortable expressing sexual desire, gray areas would not exist. Unfortunately, many girls are taught that it is shameful to express sexual desire or initiate sexual encounters. When girls don’t speak up about what they want and enjoy, silence sometimes becomes code for “yes.” Many boys may therefore learn from sexual experiences that sometimes even when girls are interested in a sexual activity, they don’t necessarily express their enthusiasm. In the worst-case scenario, social norms blur these lines further by socializing girls to express reluctance about sexual matters, regardless of their desires. Boys are socialized to ignore the cues that girls give, but girls are also socialized to give the wrong cues.

For me this debate is as much about saying “yes” as it is about respecting “no.” It is about not only teaching our sons that sex is not a right to which they are entitled, but teaching our daughters that sex is a desire about which they can and should be vocal. “No” should mean “no,” but its meaning is weakened in a world where “yes” is rarely uttered by women.

The responsibility to encourage women to express and act on sexual desire falls on all of us. It falls on fathers who congratulate their sons for dating many girls at once, but joke that they’ll shoot any boy who comes near their daughters; it falls on peers who respect a boy who is forward in sexual encounters, but ridicule a girl who acts similarly; and it falls on the media to present more examples of heterosexual courtship that reflect female desire.

This is not to say that perpetrators of sexual misconduct should be exempt from punishment, or that girls should be blamed for conditioning boys to interpret silence as consent. In fact, I think that Yale’s “overbroad” definition of sexual misconduct is helpful, even if it does sometimes result in the punishment of men who didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. The campus code can educate people about the complexities of sexual misconduct and may even motivate partners to elicit verbal consent.

The women I know who have been victims of sexual misconduct all agreed that they would never have behaved as their male perpetrators did. They not only couldn’t put themselves in the shoes of these men because these men broke a code of conduct, but also because the entitlement with which most boys are taught to approach sexual encounters is inconceivable to most girls, who are taught to be bashful and passive about sex. Before we can truly move forward on issues of sexual misconduct, we need to eliminate the gray areas, by teaching both that “no” means “no,” and that it’s okay to say “yes.”

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