TBT: “Consent Is Hard”

A repost, because people never do stop bringing this up.

There’s some interesting conversation going on in the comments on my post, “An MRA Speaks on Rape.” It’s interesting not for how it starts–which is the typical fretting about potential edge cases in consent–but because of where it goes from there.

It started with the standard misdirection:

Wel I have some reservations against calling “having sex with an intoxicated person” rape. Does that mean that if both persons were intoxicated they raped each other?

Photo of a red cocktail in a rocks glass on a white bar napkin. A lime wedge and cranberry seeds float at the top.
“The Normandy at The Normandy” by Ben Zvan, used with permission

I pointed out that that wasn’t what was being discussed. It is, after all, a very different thing to say that one may be too intoxicated to effectively give or withhold consent (as federal definitions of rape do) and that no one who is intoxicated can consent to sex. Someone else wasn’t keen on me keeping the thread on topic, however:

Given the numbers of people who go home together after meeting at bars or clubs or parties or other places serving alcohol–given the number of people who go out to such places in order to meet someone–and the countless stages of intoxication, and of comparative intoxication, of visible intoxication, questions of who’s buying the drinks, what each person’s goals are–of all the conversations to cut short with simplistic and sometimes unkind responses, this is not one.

I think that there are questions in there to be fleshed out. Because that’s the kind of statement that sounds good and solid, and can block a further conversation if it’s not deconstructed. I’d have looked into it.

Declaring an area crystal clear does not in fact, get rid of that obnoxious blurriness.

A number of commenters made excellent points, and they’re all well worth reading, but I just want to say this up front: If you find the topic of consent to be difficult to sort out, you’re going at sex wrong.

Will it always be immediately clear whether someone wants to have sex with you? No. Will it always be clear whether they want to have the same kind of sex you want to have? No. Will it always be clear, even when they say, “Yes,” whether they feel free to say, “No,” or are sober enough to know what they’re doing? No.

So what?

Consent is not a true-false test on which you ever need to guess the answer before the class bell rings. Sex, aside from masturbation in private, is something that happens between two or more people. If those people are present for sex, they are present for you to communicate with them. They are there for you to talk to and listen to. They are there for you to reassure that any answer they give is acceptable. They can tell you what they want and what they don’t.

There is no reason to ever have to turn consent into a guessing game, unless you have a partner who refuses to communicate or whom you don’t fully trust.

Then it’s up to you. If you still really can’t tell whether you have freely and reasonably given consent, you have a decision to make. At that point, it’s time to figure out just how comfortable you are running the risk of raping someone.

Sure, it’s possible that your staggeringly drunk date would still want to have sex with you sober. It’s possible that the person sleeping next to you would jump you if they were awake. It’s possible that the hesitation you sense is performance anxiety and not unhappiness about feeling there’s no choice but sex.

It’s all possible, but if you can’t be sure, the alternate possibility is rape.

That shouldn’t be a hard decision. Pretending that it is, or even just giving in to the societal pressure that says the pursuit of sex should be the primary consideration, is giving cover to rapists. Rapists don’t set out to be villains. They excuse their actions by claiming consent where there is none–and by claiming that consent is difficult to sort out. They treat it like that true-false test, where the answers carry equivalent weight and a guess gives a fair chance of getting it right.

But this isn’t something you flip a coin over. It isn’t something you have to guess at in the dark. And it really, really isn’t hard.

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TBT: “Consent Is Hard”

3 thoughts on “TBT: “Consent Is Hard”

  1. 1

    It comes down to this basic question: What’s more important to you; having sex or making sure you’re not raping someone?

    Once you answer that question, the rest really is crystal clear.

  2. 2

    I agree with every word you have written. The practical problem, though, is that if a man thinks a woman might be interested in having sex with him, but he has guessed wrong, the mere fact that he raises the subject will be called sexual harassment. Even if he immediately drops it once he realizes his mistake. So much for encouraging communication.

  3. 3

    I’m confused, Krychek_2. When you say raises the subject, are we talking about a situation in which a man thinks a woman might be interested in him because she happens to be in his vicinity and he cold-propositions her in the middle of her conducting her own business? Are we talking a situation in which they’ve been talking for a while, he’s hinted that he’s interested, she’s ignored it, and he propositions her because, if she’s not signaling interest, it must be because she doesn’t understand that he’s interested? Or are we talking about a situation in which mutual flirting between two people has been escalating and he decides to make his interest clear?

    I ask because I’ve spent years working on harassment issues, and I’ve never seen the third. The first two don’t actually match your description, but they do match most of the cases I’ve seen where someone alleges harassment on the introduction of the topic of sex.

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