Affirmative Consent: Changing Norms
By Gina Lepore, MEd | March 16, 2017
Research Associate, ETR
“Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
This saying is usually credited to Oscar Wilde, probably erroneously, but I love it anyway! It brings home an essential truth. When we talk about norms related to sex and sexual consent, we are often actually talking about norms related to power.
Power to initiate sex. Power to grant access to sex. Power to deny that access.
Note: Gina Lepore is lead author on ETR’s recently released supplement, Teaching Affirmative Consent: Practical Guidelines to Increase Student Understanding. This post is adapted from background material for educators that will be included in the new supplement.
In Western culture (and some others), males have historically been tasked with the role of sexual asserter—the power to initiate. Females have been assigned the role of sexual gatekeeper—the power to grant or deny access. At the intersection of these roles is sexual consent: the act of granting or denying permission to engage in sexual activity.
Starting to Close Some Loopholes
In the past, the outcomes of legal cases involving sexual assault or rape often turned on loopholes where a person charged with rape could be found innocent if the person claiming rape failed to utter a clear, unequivocal No.
This might be so even if the claimant had passed out and could not speak. Or was too incoherent from substance use (voluntary or forced) to say No. Or too frightened. Or too confused or unsure of what they wanted in the first place. Or raised in a culture where saying No is not acceptable, especially for women. Or afraid of hurting the other person’s feelings, or of risking violence if expressing a No.
More recently, legislation has been introduced in some states with the intent of closing these loopholes. Sexual assault prevention policies at institutions of higher education have also expanded to include language on affirmative consent. These changes have catalyzed a shift in norms about sexual consent, particularly on college campuses. Increasingly, active consent given by both parties must occur regardless of the gender, personal history or current relationship of those involved.
Continuing to Promote Positive Norms
Many young people today would challenge the notion that the conventional gender roles mentioned above—sexual asserter, sexual gatekeeper—still apply. Among their peers, it is often quite acceptable for females to initiate sex, and for males to decline. Increased acceptance and representation of LGBTQ individuals and experiences have also revised conventional norms. This has allowed for an understanding of sexual dynamics that is less constrained by gender roles, gender binaries or sexual orientation.
Yet it is also true that girls are often still shamed for being sexually assertive. Boys are often still encouraged to initiate sex, even if it’s not what they really want to do. Further, we continue to hear of girls who are sexually assaulted and blamed, and boys who assault and are absolved.
In order for norms related to consent to continue to change, it must become acceptable for everyone to say Yes and for everyone to say No—as they wish, when they wish, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Let’s Replace Pressure with Agency
We must relieve young men of the pressure to view sex as a means to establish masculinity or dominance. Within such a framework, boys are more likely to view sexual partners as objects, not whole people. Their confidence and self-concept may be influenced by their ability to have sex, even if that's not what they want.
Both young men and young women must be given the agency to freely say Yes or No to sex without being concerned about their reputation or their ability to keep a partner. When we require that girls be gatekeepers instead of active participants, they are likely to view sex as something to deny or endure. How, then, can they see sex as something to honor, enjoy and participate in as they choose?
This is especially important because the gatekeeper role ascribed to females promotes the notion that girls say No not because they mean it, but because they’re “supposed” to; or that No actually means Yes; or that girls expect boys to keep pressuring them. This is one of the factors contributing to the myth that false accusations of rape are common.
When we endorse these historic norms, explicitly or implicitly, we set our youth up for sexual and emotional failure as they are just starting on their journeys as sexual beings. What if, instead, we encourage youth to employ authenticity and personal agency to guide their sexual choices? What if we discourage them from judging others’ sexual choices? This has the potential to create a generation that has more genuine, consensual and fulfilling relationships.
Who Commits Assaults and Rapes?
Exactly who perpetrates rape and sexual assault? Conflicting theories about this make it challenging to know where to focus prevention messages and interventions.
One longstanding theory is that a very small percentage of males (perhaps 6%) commit a substantial majority of rapes. These are severe repeat offenders.
Another theory looks at a more complex possibility. There is data that suggests that some rapists are indeed severe repeat offenders. Others might rape once or twice. There is, additionally, a group that doesn’t realize that their approach to sex is harmful, non-consensual and assaultive, and that what they are doing is, in fact, rape (see here and here).
Whichever theory one prefers, one conclusion from the available data is that many young people do understand the concept of consent in sexual interactions. Many already ascribe to the norm that “No” means No and “Yes” is the only thing that means Yes. In all or most of their sexual encounters, these are the principles they put into practice.
Reaching All Students
This is one of the reasons I think it is important to reach all youth to address misperception of norms about consent. We need to do this early. Much earlier than college, which is where most of the Affirmative Consent messaging is currently delivered, if it’s being given at all. Building this understanding will be helpful for young people who are at risk to commit assault as well as those who are unlikely ever to do so. It will also support those who might be harmed by the assaultive behavior of others. Here’s why:
- For young people who do respect the elements of consent, discussions about affirmative consent confirm that this is what most of their peers understand and practice, and it is what civil society expects of everyone.
- Learning about affirmative consent boosts communication skills that can clarify for both partners whether or not consent is present.
- A belief in the value of affirmative consent can strengthen the ability and resolve of young people to look for and insist on respect for these principles in all of their relationships.
- These efforts emphasize that a relationship where personal boundaries and sexual limits are not respected is not healthy.
- Learning about affirmative consent clarifies for individuals who are not clear—particularly those at risk to act as perpetrators—that it is never okay to pressure a person into sexual activity. It also confirms that the only way to know if a partner consents is to hear a clear Yes, both verbally and through body language.
Communication Is Key
Today’s shifts in our understanding of consent reinforce that the absence of a clear No does not mean Yes. Only “Yes” means Yes. Too drunk to communicate coherently does not mean Yes. Passed out from fatigue or intoxication does not mean Yes. Had sex with one person last week does not mean Yes to someone else this week. Performed oral sex last night does not mean Yes to intercourse tonight. Said Yes to vaginal intercourse then does not mean Yes to anal intercourse now.
How can such clarifications and distinctions can be negotiated between two people? Communication. And because in sexual encounters it is easy for people to misunderstand each other, more communication is better than less.
Encouraging a shift in our conceptualization of consent and how to communicate about it underscores this undeniable truth: people are better off when both partners involved in sexual activity are engaging with a resounding YES! Why would we want anything different, especially for our youth?
Gina Lepore, MEd, is a human sexuality educator and a Research Associate at ETR. You can reach her at email@example.com or find her at LinkedIn.