What the ‘Consent’ Conversation is Missing

Recently, a man complained about being forced to go to ‘consent’ lessons at University. I can see his point. Not only is it a little bit insulting, but it’s probably a little bit late. But what else are Universities supposed to do? When one in seven women in University will experience some form of sexual assault, it’s not surprising they’ve decided to do something about it.
To me, the word ‘consent’ is, in itself, a little misleading. It likens any sexual activity to a transaction; something is offered, and either accepted or refused. If only it were that simple.
Just imagine the scenario:
Man: Would you like a biscuit?
Woman: Ooh, maybe, it does look tasty.
Man: Here you go (offering biscuit).
Woman: Actually, I’m not sure I will.
Man: EAT THE BISCUIT (shoves biscuit in her face).
Reduced to this, any discussion about consent seems pointless. But there are so many other assumptions and social narratives happening, that it isn’t quite as simple as all that.
For starters, I hate the assumption that it’s something that is ‘given’ to a woman. All the words to describe it focus on the action; the poking, if you will, rather than any other element. Even though ‘making love’ might sound a bit cheesy, at least it focuses on the idea that two people are working together, to produce something, as if they’re making biscuits, each one having a go at stirring the bowl, before something delicious comes out of the oven that they can both enjoy (ok, I may have overused the biscuit analogy).
The other massive issue is the pervasive idea that men are the ones that get sexual urges. Look at what happens at puberty; there are tangible (and, quite messy) situations that allow you to pinpoint the moment when things start looking a bit different for boys. I don’t remember anyone telling me about my clitoris, or what it was for. No wonder we’re all a bit lost when we start out. Girls are exactly the same. They get funny feelings they don’t really know what to do with (mine were directed at a teenage Johnny Depp in Cry Baby) and sudden urges to do things they don’t understand. Later in life it persists, this idea that the female who likes and *gasp* wants sex is somehow naughty and wrong (those are the nice words), or that if she does indeed want sex, she’s not going to admit it (thanks Robin Thicke, that really helped us all out).
Male stereotypes don’t help much either. Your typical ‘lad’ is supposed to have sex as his ultimate end goal. He needs to rack up his numbers in some weird ‘competition’ that places sexual knowledge of a woman alongside equalling his mates’ top score on Fifa. If we go along with the idea that only a certain type of female will ‘permit’ sex to happen, then the males are left rather lost. You might be pretending to be a good girl, but actually like it, and because I know you’ve let me kiss you/put my hand up your top/you had sex with my friend, then obviously I am going to assume that on this occasion, your ‘no’ means yes.
Put all of that into a night out, add a few shandies and some questionable ideas about how your mode of dress signals how ‘up for it’ you are, and no wonder things get tricky.
Let’s say a woman goes home with a man. At this point, she is feeling pressured – she’s exhibited the ‘expected’ behaviour for wanting someone to have sex with her. The man is feeling equally pressured – he’s got to follow through and do what he’s supposed to. It’s no use pretending that half-pissed teenagers are going to take this moment to enter into a responsible conversation about how they would like to proceed from this point. Which is where we enter into ‘grey areas.’ Perhaps she decides she doesn’t want to, but feels threatened, or nervous, and decides to shut up and wait until it’s over. The accusation afterwards would be that she didn’t say no. Simplifying it to this one-word refusal is unhelpful, and leads to upsetting accusations levelled at victims. If she freezes up and offers no form of encouragement, I would take that as a no. Let’s remove fixed roles, so women don’t have to feel like victims and men don’t have to feel like they must sexually dominate.
Or he decides that he wants sex, that it’s now unfair for her to withdraw her assumed ‘offer.’ That she’s being a prick tease. We need to get away from the idea that certain behaviours automatically lead to sex, on both sides. Until the answer; “well, we went back to mine but we were a bit drunk so we decided to kiss and have a cuddle and leave it until the morning,” is an acceptable answer to the question; “how did you get on last night?” things are not going to improve.
So yes, until that point, you might have to go to a consent class. And we might have to face up to the fact that the most sexually educated young people go on to experience far less sexual abuse, whether we like the idea of sex being discussed in the classroom or not. Abstinence doesn’t work. Assuming women don’t like sex doesn’t work. If we can’t talk about it in front of each other at school, the danger is that we might not have that conversation at all. Broader ideas about emotions, sexual urges and feeling pressured in the moment need to be included in order to leave everyone feeling as comfortable as possible when they’re faced with the real thing.
Let’s call it making sex. Or creating sexy time. Anything that makes it clear it is a verb, an action entered into enthusiastically by both parties. You bring the butter, I’ll bring the flour. We’ll make some lovely biscuits. Together.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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