As Jessica Bennett related in the New York Times this weekend, in an article called “Campus Sex…With a Syllabus,” codes for sexual behavior now include terms such as “enthusiastic consent,” “implied consent,” “spectrum of consent,” “reluctant permission,” “coercion,” and even “unintentional rape.”
(As to why the article appeared in the paper’s “Fashion & Style” section, I guess you’d have to ask the Times.)
“Consent” derives from the Latin word consentire, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “To feel together, agree, accord, harmonize…The sense, ‘consent to a thing being done’ was a subsequent development.” Nonetheless the “new” meaning has been current for centuries:
Consent: “To agree to a proposal, request, etc. Voluntarily to accede to or acquiesce in what another proposes or desires; to agree, comply, yield.”
All those synonyms for “consent” – acquiesce, agree, comply, yield – imply that one party (the male) is requesting or proposing, and the other (the female) in the position of accepting or refusing. Are we teaching kids that sex is by definition that kind of transaction?
Yes, sexual assault on campus is frighteningly common. Administrators (and perhaps legislators) must seek ways to deal with it and prevent it. But does that make it necessary to define sex as a transaction between an active partner and a passive one? Is there no room for couples to organically, mutually progress to a sexual relationship? How is a couple in a healthy young relationship expected to understand the new vocabulary of consent?
Another new term entering the lexicon is “affirmative consent.” Last year New York became the second state to enact affirmative consent legislation, otherwise known as a “yes means yes” law. It redefines sexual assault to include any sex act where the party being approached hasn’t affirmed his or her assent in so many words. Consent, explains Jeanne Zaino in Inside Higher Ed, “now requires an affirmative agreement between the two parties or what can also be defined as clear, unambiguous assent to the sexual interaction.”
Clear and unambiguous? Hardly. Certainly not when an “affirmative consent” policy coexists with criminal laws stating that sexual assault occurs when someone explicitly refuses and is ignored or overpowered – “yes means yes” as opposed to “no means no.”
Among other questions, what constitutes a sexual act? Students interviewed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus civil liberties group, couldn’t even agree on whether kissing was a sexual act, and were nonplussed when asked how one could prove one had attained consent.
One reason campus sexual assault is such a tough issue to address is that it’s so hard to come up with clear, effective language.