The other day, a first-year friend of mine mentioned that the word “consent” became something of a joke after the first-years were bombarded with it during orientation presentations. This was familiar to me – the same thing happened when I was a freshman last year. People joked around, asking each other for consent for every little thing, or simply dropping the word to get easy laughs.
So, sure, it’s only natural that something that’s repeated so much during orientation – and a word that most were probably not too familiar with before coming to college – would turn into a joke shared by the entire freshman class. But this also indicates a problem with the way consent is being discussed and presented to incoming first-years, and the student body at large. Consent is not something that should be turned into a joke, and the problem lies in the alienating nature of the word and its usage.
“Consent” is not a word you hear much of before coming to college. I never heard it discussed once in my high school health class. Granted, I went to a Texas public school, but I think this holds true pretty much across the country. So when first years are taught about consent and why it’s important, it’s pretty much the first time these students have thought about consent in any real, pressing way (which is a problem in itself, but not the point of this article).
When students are told to ask for consent, or loudly and proudly give it during hook-ups and sexual encounters, the real reason why consent is necessary remains murky. When you’re told to “ask for consent” while getting it on, it’s easy to imagine that you’re being told to whip out a clipboard and ask your partner to sign a waiver. I, the undersigned, do hereby certify that I consent to this boy putting his hand up my shirt. A lot of students end up feeling that asking aloud for consent, or verbally giving it, would be awkward or uncomfortable during a hook-up.
But this idea that asking for consent is awkward indicates an overall misunderstanding of what consent really is and why it’s so necessary. There’s a real difference in the meaning that comes across when you change the language used to explain consent. Simply using the word “consent” in the place of saying “make sure you’re partner is okay with what’s going on, make sure they’re into it, give them a chance to voice any concerns, and show them that you care about how they feel in that moment of intimacy,” alienates us from what consent truly entails.
And then, of course, it’s easy for consent to be a joke. It’s just some dumb word that didn’t even exist before you came here. But it’s not so easy to make a joke about the importance of confirming that your partner feels safe and happy with what’s happening between you.
It seems unlikely that a simple “is this okay?” would ruin the moment, and it would definitely be less uncomfortable than the idea of not knowing whether the sexual encounter you had with a person was one that they wanted to have, or potentially one that will stay with them as a traumatic memory for the rest of their life.
In an effort to dispel the notion that asking for or giving consent is awkward, the administration and campus groups have been pushing the tagline “consent is sexy.” My thoughts on this can be best explained by a Tumblr post I came across a while ago: “consent is sexy in the same way that not shitting on people’s doorsteps is sweet and neighborly.”
The message that consent is sexy implies that, conversely, sexual activity without consent is merely unsexy. But this completely undermines the very importance of consent. As Angie Epifano said during her orientation visit, “consent has to happen for it to even be considered sex.” Sex without consent is not bad sex. Sex without consent is rape.
Consent isn’t something you can use to just amp up your sexual pleasure, and it also isn’t about checking something off a list or following a trivial instruction. Consent is about showing your partner that you care about their feelings in a moment of intimacy. Asking for consent shows that it matters to you whether your partner is into what’s happening. It’s being considerate, which is nice, but it’s also being considerate in a moment when to be so is your only morally defensible option. This is what the administration and student health organizations should be stressing to incoming classes and the student body as a whole.