When We Consent, We Shouldn’t Feel Terrible After, Right?
clunky 粗笨的;笨重的；If you describe something as clunky, you mean that it is solid, heavy, and rather awkward. ◆ clunky leather shoes 笨重的皮鞋
blurt 脱口而出；说漏嘴；If someone blurts something, they say it suddenly, after trying hard to keep quiet or to keep it secret. ◆ She blurted it out before I could stop her. 我还没来得及制止，她已脱口而出。
whisk 迅速送走;匆匆带走；If you whisk someone or something somewhere, you take them or move them there quickly. ◆ Jamie whisked her off to Paris for the weekend. 杰米匆匆把她带到巴黎去度周末。
precursor 先驱；先锋；前身；A precursor of something is a similar thing that happened or existed before it, often something which led to the existence or development of that thing.
heterosexual 异性恋的；Someone who is heterosexual is sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex.
gory 血淋淋的；令人毛骨悚然的；骇人听闻的；Gory situations involve people being injured or dying in a horrible way. ◆ a gory accident 流血事件
One August afternoon in 2019, I performed in a short play meant to make incoming freshmen at my college aware of the kinds of challenges they might face during their first year of school. After the lights dimmed on a skit about eating disorders, the topic quickly shifted and the stage opened on a party scene. One thing led to another, and a male cast member whisked me away to his “bedroom” — a few chairs hastily stacked together. We traded clunky dialogue and then he leaned over and said: “I’m really enjoying getting to know you. … Can I kiss you?” As directed, I paused, then enthusiastically blurted out, “OK!”
Things soon went terribly wrong. My character’s male partner failed to ask her for further consent, and she was sexually assaulted. Later in the play, a resident adviser helpfully said that “consent includes a free, happy and continuous yes. Nothing less. And if someone is unclear that they have that, then they don’t have consent.”
Every year, thousands of American college students complete some form of training designed to avert campus sexual assault by educating students on consent: what it is, how to ask for it and under which circumstances it cannot be given. The wisdom goes that if people — particularly young straight men — understood consent, then there would be less sexual violence, and women could finally feel some real sense of sexual equality.
To be sure, consent is a precursor for ethical sex. But, too often, consent education doesn’t teach us how to understand, and learn from, the sex that comes after we say “yes.” With instruction focused primarily on verbal yeses and nos, young people are stuck with a woefully limited, legal understanding of what sex is and ought to be, instead of gaining the broader ability to articulate our sexual desires in emotionally messy situations. We need a culture that does a better job of encouraging us to go beyond merely legal sex, and to prioritize emotionally satisfying sex, too.
In the 2010s, a series of horrific, high-profile campus sexual assault allegations led to a discussion of sex that was suspicious of young men’s sexual desires. Feminist activists argued that preventing sexual assault entailed reversing the expectations of heterosexual sex — not of women saying “no” to stop an advance, but of men asking for a “yes” to start one. By 2015, at least 1,400 colleges had adopted such definitions of consent and a cottage industry of consent trainings had cropped up. A consent-based view of sexual ethics has become common; now, to talk about sex and morality is, for the most part, to talk about consent.
The language we’ve learned in these programs has become part of our everyday conversations. When my friends and I talk about our love lives, we tend to share the same kinds of stories, almost ritualistically. Usually, we’ll be sitting on the floor of a dorm room or cheap apartment, drinking discount hard seltzer or boxed wine. As the night wears on, a little buzzed, we share the gory details of our fledgling romantic encounters. Between tales of bad Bumble dates, dance-floor make-outs and Olivia-Rodrigo-worthy breakups, almost all of us have had the same experience — a time we were asked explicitly for consent, and we wanted to say no, where we could have said no, and just didn’t.
Inevitably, someone will ask, “Well, did you say yes?” The answer is almost always that we did, but despite that, we’re left with an unshakable uneasiness. We said yes, but we don’t know why. These experiences are so confusing to talk about because, on paper, everything went perfectly. If you consent, you shouldn’t feel terrible after, right?
The primary fear articulated by my friends in these situations is impoliteness — they often feel that enduring the awkwardness of turning someone down is ultimately worse than having unwanted sex. Being the source of someone’s disappointment should not be worth more than our dignity, yet it is a calculus that seems nearly ubiquitous among young women I know.
One friend told me about a first date gone wrong. She remarked to me with a sigh, he made her a three-course meal. He bought really nice wine. It would be too awkward to leave. When she stayed it was incredibly unpleasant — like making out with an octopus. She hated it. They texted briefly in the following days before she finally ended things and blocked his number.
Experiences like these are common, but they aren’t stories of sexual assault — we freely consented, without fear of violence and often with the coveted verbal “yes.” After all, asking young men to be mind readers seems neither practical nor fair. Everything went according to script. Why then, did we go through with sex we didn’t want? And why didn’t we have a way to talk about why we did?
College students today often become sexually active with too little to guide them — beyond, perhaps, abundant pornography. There is some evidence that teenagers are waiting longer to start having sex, and when they do start, they’re having less casual sex. Consent education takes already anxious, inexperienced young people, and gives them a simplistic, binary way of understanding sex. It’s no surprise then that many of us have absorbed the message that sex is a straightforward transaction with little room for complicated feelings — and that we’re confused when we experience the inevitable complications that sexual intimacy brings.
In 2017, Kristen Roupenian wrote about such uncomfortable romantic encounters in her viral short story “Cat Person.” When a professor of mine assigned it as part of a feminist philosophy class, my classmates and I were encouraged — for the first time in college — to evaluate sex outside of consent box checking. Our professor asked us if what happened in the story was right or wrong — and whether the characters themselves were morally blameworthy. When one student began reciting a familiar argument about enthusiastic, verbal consent, our professor stopped her. She wanted us to think beyond legal definitions and Title IX trainings, and to precisely examine for ourselves a question of sexual ethics.
A new kind of thinking emerged — one that allowed consideration of questions like: What duty do you have to a sexual partner? Can you hurt someone without being blameworthy yourself? Is sex … special? The class was divided on the answers to these questions — that’s the whole point of asking them in the first place.
Even though consent is essential, when it dominates our discussions about sex, we don’t learn enough about our power to do more than refuse or approve advances. We don’t learn what we owe to our partner beyond simply not committing a crime against them. And we don’t learn to navigate the complexities of loving — and making love to — another person.
The best sex is as rewarding emotionally as it is physically. This requires trust, both in our partner, and in ourselves. When we trust ourselves to know what we want, and have the language to articulate those wants to others, sex becomes more than the transactional experience common under current norms. Instead, it’s exciting, joyful and intimate. Valuing one another as equal people — not just as bodies to extract consent from — forces partners to recognize our moral duty to one another, namely that concern for others’ pleasure also means concern for their dignity.
Sex education should start from the assertion that each person deserves pleasurable, mutually respectful sex — not sex that is merely consensual. In turn, it should teach students how to think for themselves about their desires and talk openly with their partners about them, without shame. When I sit down with my friends, I want to talk about our experiences with a real sense of agency. I want to know that they feel respected by their partners but also that they respect themselves enough to make their desires known.
Yes, this will be a more difficult message to teach to college freshmen than the message in the skit I performed in. But it would be worth it.