In the past, I've suggested that humans ought to try to "do unto others" in the realm of sex, an ethic even more demanding than obtaining "affirmative consent"—though I think the rise of affirmative consent as a normative goal is welcome and overdue. Nearly everyone will sometimes find "do unto others" a challenging if not impossible standard to meet, particularly in a setting like college. Every autumn, a batch of freshmen arrive. Inevitably, many sexually inexperienced newcomers who know almost nothing about one another engage in intimate behavior. These 18-year-olds include people raised in ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative households. Some are experienced drinkers. Others have only the foggiest notion of their limits. Some were homeschooled. Most attended a high school where nonverbal signals and expectations about intimacy seemed but were not universal. And some enter college having had mostly or entirely positive sexual experiences, occupying one end of a spectrum that runs all the way to students who, unbeknownst to anyone but themselves, were assaulted or raped as kids or teens.
The reader email below is from someone from an abusive background reflecting on how being raped and assaulted before leaving home affected her subsequent relationships, first as a person who married young, and later in dating relationships:
I was not taught about consent as a child or teenager or even a young woman in my 20s. I was raised in a Christian family that can be described as evangelical or fundamentalist depending on whom you ask. The important thing when it came to sex, I was always taught, was whether you were married or not. I do not recall any person, any book, or any teacher ever suggesting to me that whether I wanted sex had anything to do with it. As far as I can tell, it was and is unusual for women in that subculture to even be aware of the mainstream conversation about consent. As a teenager, I was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped by an adult who worked for my family. It was known in my family that this happened; no one spoke to the man, turned him into the police, or intervened in any way. I married young, and felt it was my marital duty to have sex. Although I did sometimes say "no" to my husband and he never forced himself on me, it is also true that neither of us had ever heard that consent was important (aside from both believing that physically forcing someone to have sex is wrong).
I got divorced in my late 20s and had several sexual partners after I got divorced. No partner ever asked for my consent for any part of sex. I was often scared or terrified during sex, but I did not understand why I felt that way, and it rarely felt to me like a good enough reason to say no. I figured there was something wrong with me for feeling that way, and I figured that if I didn't let my partners have sex with me then they would leave me. I understand now that I was re-experiencing the trauma of my teenage years. Essentially, much if not most sexual activity in my life has triggered trauma or has been a re-experiencing of trauma. My partners have not been violent (aside from the man who harmed me in my teens). I have never had a hook-up, have never had anonymous sex, have never had sex when I was drunk or high. My partners have all known me, and they have cared for me.
In other words, my partners have been normal men, and I have had a conservative sex life. But none of my partners were taught to actively seek consent, and in some cases they were not really taught to seek consent at all. Because of the rape that I experienced, I usually felt terrified and paralyzed during sex, but I had no idea how to communicate that fact to anyone (it seemed surreal and out-of-body to me, for starters). Luckily, I found a good therapist several years ago, and things shifted for me.
It was only this year (I'm now in my mid 30s) that I first experienced a man asking me if he could kiss me, then if he could touch me in this way or that, and then if he could go inside my body. I have been sexually active since I was 14; this was the first time that I felt fully safe during sex. I was also incredibly turned on. There is no doubt that this is a complex and fraught issue. No one person's sexuality is identical to another's and I'm not sure there's an algorithm we can apply to every human—some formula that guarantees no one is harmed. But given how common assault and rape are, and therefore how common trauma is, it sure does seem wise to err on the safe side—to verbally ask for consent, or to talk with a potential partner beforehand about expectations and needs and desires.
If a magic genie transformed me into a man for a year, nothing on Earth could convince me to have sex with a woman without actively seeking consent first. Knowing from the inside what it is like to not feel a choice during sex; knowing from speaking with so many friends about how common rape and sexual assault are; knowing how it feels to be harassed and objectified so often; knowing how it feels to constantly be around men who believe they are entitled to everything from more physical space in a room to the body of any woman they deem desirable—there is no way that I would ever, ever assume that I could touch or enter a woman's body without asking her first.
That is a powerful account of why conscientiously making sure that one has consent is important at any time in life. I prefaced the email by referring to college not only because the reader was responding to the debate about affirmative-consent laws, but also because her email is one I'd share with a son or daughter about to leave for school to convey that one never knows what experiences shaped people or affected their expectations about sex. Hence the need to proceed with more care than comes naturally or seems necessary to the typical 18-year-old, who cannot really imagine a background radically different from their own.
Insofar as colleges welcome a diverse freshman class each fall, they're also throwing together a bunch of teenagers whose upbringing and experiences—good, bad, and neutral—condition them to conceive of sexual norms, signals, and expectations in dramatically different ways. Stone-cold sober, they possess little experience or wisdom. Then they drink. One sometimes forgets that youth is a recipe for disaster. It would be terrifying except that one doesn't know any better at the time.