Consent: Why Is It so Hard to Define?


There have been recent questions about the notion of sexual consent, thanks in part to Washington effectively taking on over 50 colleges and universities for their seeming “rape culture.”  Certainly, those who have gone through the horror of having been raped know the pain of being violated in spite of saying “no.”  A significant question has now come to light, seemingly as a result of these sexual assault complaints.  Why is consent so hard to define?

Yale University, for instance, had to take two pages to define exactly what consent was in its policies of sexual misconduct and harassment.  The big question, though, is why it took one of the most esteemed educational institutions two pages to explain a really simple notion?  No means no, as simple as it sounds.  Yale’s policy discusses issues such as body language and tone; while there is always room for debate when discussing how someone says something and whether they really meant it, there should be no grey areas when it comes to sex.

It’s clear that the bureaucrats are focused on eliminating any questions when it comes to the notion of what “yes” sounds like when talking sexual conduct.  This is only understandable, given how very easily that careers and lives can be ruined – on both sides – when accusations of rape surface.  The problem is, it should not matter one iota whether the person is drunk, high or otherwise; there is always enough of an understanding, as an adult, of what sex is.  Regrets at casual sex while intoxicated should not lead to rape accusations.  Consent means permission to do something or agreement to be a part of something, and intoxication aside, there is still usually enough presence of mind to know whether or not sex is wanted or agreed to.

It’s when “no” is ignored that consent was not granted, or when any of the parties involved are simply unable to say yes or no that consent can’t be given.  Sex is a very personal and intimate act by its very nature.  If someone says no, or is simply incapable, due to inebriation of some sort or medical incapacitation, everything should come to a halt.  The problem is that there are a lot of people who come to college for the first time, free from the constraints they experienced while living at home, and sometimes things get too far.  Either because their inhibitions have lowered because of too much alcohol consumption or because of the sheer headiness of living on their own for the first time, the sheer possibilities that come with being sexually active with a partner become even more exciting than they may have been as a teen.  “No” may get forgotten or ignored in the sudden heat of sexuality.

Consent should never be about intimidation or pressure, and certainly, it should not be about being to drunk to say yes or no.  It is incredibly easy to get lost in the moment when foreplay tumbles into sex.  As hard as it is, we have to remember – for our own mutual respect and in the interests of being humane – that “no” is where it stops and if it’s even a question if he or she has given consent to sex, it just shouldn’t happen.  There’s no need for pages of documentation to establish a definition of what consent is; the numbers of men and women who have been sexually assaulted over the years will no doubt be able to offer some insight into what “no” should have meant.  It does not need to be hard to define.

Opinion by Christina St-Jean

Yale University

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