In early May, a New York jury found Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing the writer E. Jean Carroll in 1996. The jury did not find him liable for allegedly raping her.
In the wake of this high-profile case, and the many others of the #MeToo movement, what should we be doing to prevent sexual violence and promote equitable sex? So far, consent is getting too much of the spotlight. Schools, universities and popular media are focusing heavily on consent in their efforts to curb high rates of sexual violence.
Many advocates and educators have recently shifted their messaging from “no means no” to “yes means yes” and “consent is sexy.” This messaging promotes voluntary and affirmative agreement. That is, the idea that silence does not mean consent.
Regardless, consent is much too low a standard for promoting ethical sex — even if it may be the best available legal standard. And focusing on consent limits our ability to create better approaches to dealing with sexual violence.
It’s time to stop focusing on consent
Sexual violence is the use of verbal pressure or physical violence to engage in any sexual activity with someone who is unwilling or hasn’t consented. It is most often committed by men against women and other marginalized groups and is supported by societal stereotypes about gender and sexuality.
As part of my research over the past decade, I have interviewed women who were victimized and men who perpetrated sexual violence. I have also conducted focus groups with men about heterosexual sex and dating. My critique of consent is based on this and other research.
Here are five reasons we should stop focusing on consent and start thinking about more ethical values and norms.
1) Consensual sex is not always wanted, pleasurable or free from coercion.
People can also obtain consent by pressuring or coercing someone. Men are more likely than women to use violence and coercion in order to obtain someone’s consent, often after they’ve gently declined.
Messaging about consent like “no means no” and “yes means yes” implies that it’s okay to continue trying if one’s partner hasn’t clearly said “yes” or “no.”
2) Teaching people how to give and understand consent isn’t going to prevent sexual violence because sexual violence isn’t usually about misunderstanding.
There’s little to no evidence that education about consent reduces sexual violence. Most men already understand when women don’t want to have sex, even without a firm “no.” And knowing how to ask for consent isn’t going to stop those who choose to ignore refusals or use violence. In the context of men’s sexual violence against women, consent doesn’t change men’s feelings of entitlement to sex and women’s bodies.
In the words of one woman I interviewed who was victimized:
“He didn’t necessarily…force himself upon me, but…he knew that there wasn’t really consent. Like I gave it, but not really fully.”
3) Consent doesn’t require meaningful, collaborative decision-making between partners.
Consent boils down to one partner’s agreement in response to another’s request. It is insufficient for promoting deeper collaboration in deciding whether and how sex will take place. In the case of sex between women and men, this usually means that men’s desires are prioritized. Consent is also something you do before sex, rather than an ongoing and embedded part of sex.
4) Consent doesn’t disrupt the stereotypes that support sexual violence.
For example, false stereotypes suggest men can’t control their sex drives. Some men use these stereotypes to claim it’s not right or fair for their partners to change their minds or stop sex once started or consented to.
The expectation that sex should be natural and spontaneous can make it difficult for women to stop unwanted sex. It also means that many young people view consent as disruptive to this “natural” progression.
5) Consent can be used as an excuse for sexual violence.
It allows perpetrators to justify sexual violence because they can claim the victim gave unclear responses. Popular consent messages like “yes means yes” and “no means no” are easily co-opted and provide a ready-made excuse.
For example, men in two of my studies used the importance of consent to blame sexual violence on women for not clearly communicating their lack of consent. And because we often see communication as being up to women, these men didn’t need to take any responsibility for asking or clarifying.
One perpetrator I interviewed even referred specifically to a consent message heard on campus to simultaneously admit that he should have listened to his partner while blaming her:
“I also told her to maybe be a bit more direct when it comes to ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ because she was providing answers that were a little cloudy. Which I know with all the consent stuff up on the walls here it’s, you know, ‘only yes means yes.’”
If not consent, then what?
Moving beyond the language of consent will open new possibilities for promoting truly equitable and ethical sex. At a minimum, we need to teach young people how to communicate more meaningfully about sex.
We need to teach that empathy, mutual decision-making and ongoing communication are integral components of sex, rather than preconditions that only take place before sex. And we need to teach and expect boys and men to listen to women’s desires and care about their well-being.
Reducing sexual violence and promoting ethical sex is also going to require substantial cultural change. Prevention programs that, in part, challenge what it means to relate as women and men are some of the most effective at reducing sexual violence. Comprehensive sexual health education that teaches young people about these issues early in life is also essential.
The idea of consent should have never had more than a supporting role in defining ethical sex. It’s time to shift the spotlight.