One of the standard rationalizations use when claiming sexual consent is unimportant is that it’s impossible to figure out. According to this cliche, you can’t expect men to interpret a woman’s words or gestures correctly, or to comprehend that a woman who slept with them last weekend is telling them no tonight. Figuring out consent is too confusing! Waiting until marriage, by contrast, is a simple, clear rule that protects women much better than consent standards. Decent guys know their girlfriend’s bodies are off-limits, so they don’t even try to make a pass.
Matt Walsh complains even trying to negotiate consent is ridiculous because sex “happens organically and in the moment” and almost never involves one partner giving a spoken yes. Rush Limbaugh claimed horny guys can’t wait for a yes: “in sex men don’t think with their brains. Not the ones in their heads, anyway. It’s just so silly.”
Walsh also argues that consent is unworkable because “nobody can define consent or figure out when it has been properly obtained.” Conservative pundit George Will agrees it’s impossible to figure out consent in “the ambiguities of hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence.” In her book Sex Matters Mona Charen claims that “yes means yes” is unworkable.
These are not new concerns. A 1966 paper on the resistance standard argued there was no way to judge whether no meant no unless the woman tried to fight the man off. And it’s certainly true that cops, juries and judges do find consent a fuzzy standard. There’s a long history of rapists threatening or using violence but getting off because someone in the legal system couldn’t figure out if the woman really didn’t want sex.
Charen, Will, Limbaugh and Walsh, however, aren’t indicting the system’s failures but endorsing them. They’re arguing there’s no way to tell if the woman consents so she shouldn’t have premarital sex at all. Will, in describing one woman’s report — she told her boyfriend no, he kept undressing her, she gave up and stopped protesting — doesn’t find it fuzzy at all: he thinks she consented.
In reality, many men do ask for consent. Some men, though, don’t bother. They’ve bought into the myth no means yes or they simply don’t care. After all, if they paid attention they might not get laid.
Nor is a verbal no the only way to gauge consent. People convey consent or refusal with body language too: moving the mouth into a kissing position, yanking her hand back when he puts it on her dick, moving hands or mouths into desired positions, backing away. I was madly in love with one woman many years ago. As we were walking home from a movie I slid my arm around her. When I felt her tense up I removed it. Quite obviously she wasn’t into it.
Heck, I can read our dogs’ body language and they’re not even the same species. If I encourage Trixie to jump on the couch with me and she doesn’t, it means she wants me sitting in a different position or that her leg isn’t quite up to the jump (that’s when I move the ramp so she can run up). I have no trouble figuring out that when Wisp gives me a threat display she’s ready for me to stop petting her. That said, reading other humans isn’t always easy, particularly when we’re emotionally or sexually invested in their answer. Asking up front for consent can be agonizing and awkward but it isn’t impossible.
Contrary to Will, “she said no, he didn’t stop” is quite unambiguous. It’s clearer and less subjective than older standards about how hard she fought and whether she was chaste. Nor does chastity stop rapists: the Southern Baptist Conference is big on purity culture but that didn’t stop the church’s massive sex abuse problem. Ignoring consent standards does however, make it easier for rapists as many people focus on the woman having had sex rather than being assaulted. Republican politician Tom Smith, for example, claimed a decade ago that rape and an out of wedlock pregnancy were the same thing — because what’s important is that the woman had sex, not whether she consented.
The problem with consent isn’t that it’s hard to understand, it’s that rapists don’t care whether the woman consents or not. It’s not that they didn’t understand a no, it’s that they refused to listen. Consent standards can be truck to work with but the solution isn’t to give up on consent or forge ahead without it, but to keep promoting its importance and work harder to secure it.
I write more about harassment, consent and assault in Undead Sexist Cliches, available as a Amazon paperback, an ebook and from several other retailers. Cover by Kemp Ward, all rights remain with current holder.