After I asked college students and recent grads to comment on California's affirmative-consent law, several different respondents shared a controversial perspective best captured in the email below. The male writer reports that he began college determined to ask women for explicit verbal consent during sexual encounters, but abandoned that approach over time.
Here is his explanation of why:
I am a recent graduate, and want to share with you a few of my experiences that I think are illustrative of why the new affirmative-consent laws are out of touch with the reality of the human experience. I hope they can be of some value to the debate.
I was raised by a left-leaning, feminist family who (at least I thought at the time) were relatively open about sex. But while I arrived at college with a healthy respect for women, I was totally unprepared for the complex realities of female sexuality.
“Oh,” sighed one platonic female friend after we had just watched Harrison Ford grab Alison Doody and kiss her is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Why don’t guys do that kind of thing anymore? Now days they are all too scared.”
On our second night together, one of my first partners threw up her hands in disgust. “How am I supposed to get turned on when you keep asking for permission for everything like a little boy?” She said. “Just take me and fuck me already.”
She didn’t stay with me for long.
This would be a recurring theme. More than once I saw disappointment in the eyes of women when I didn’t fulfill the leadership role they wanted me to perform in the bedroom. I realized that women don’t just desire men, they desire men’s desire―and often they don’t want to have to ask for it. I also realized that I was in many ways ashamed of my own sexual desire as a man, and that this was not healthy.
At this point I was experiencing some cognitive dissonance with my upbringing, but in time learned to take an assertive lead unless I got a “no” or otherwise thought I was about to cross a boundary as indicated by body language.
One night I ended up back in a girl’s room after a first date (those do happen in college). She had invited me in and was clearly attracted to me. We were kissing on her bed, outer layers of clothing removed, but when my hands wandered downward she said, “No, wait.” I waited. She began kissing me again, passionately, so again I moved to remove her underwear. “Stop,” she said, “this is too fast.” I stopped.
“That’s fine,” I said. I kissed her again and left soon after, looking forward to seeing her again.
But my text messages received only cold, vaguely angry replies, and then silence. I was rather confused. Only many weeks later did I find out the truth from one of her close friends: “She really wanted you, but you didn’t make it happen. She was pretty upset that you didn’t really want her.”
“Why didn’t she just say so then, why did she say we were moving too fast?”
“Of course she said that, you dumbass. She didn’t want you to think she was a slut.”
Talk about confusing. Apparently in this case even no didn’t mean no. It wasn’t the last time I've come across “token resistance” that is intended to be overcome either. But that’s a line that I am still uncomfortable with testing, for obvious reasons.
But I have learned not to ask when it clearly isn’t necessary, or desired.
One of my fondest sexual experiences started with making eye contact across a room, moved to a dance floor, and then to an empty bathroom. Not a single word was ever spoken, because none had to be. We both knew and understood. I was a man and she was a woman, and we found ourselves drawn together in that beautiful way that men and women have been since a time immemorial, a time long before language was ever spoken.
Today in California this would be considered rape. I find that very sad. Women are not infantile. They can make their own decisions about sex, and that includes being able to say no―even if they don’t want to have to say yes.
The experiences that this young man had will resonate with some readers. Others will find his descriptions unreliable or his conclusions wrongheaded. Agree or disagree with him, this much is clear: If his attitude persists among a significant number of college students, it will be a huge obstacle to spreading affirmative-consent culture.
How might different supporters of affirmative consent respond to this young man? They might say:
- Under an affirmative-consent standard, consent need not be verbal. Depending on the details, it's possible that your "saw her across the room" hookup was fine.
- Perhaps women supposedly put off by your attempts to seek consent were actually reacting to a lack of confidence or wimpy manner, not consent-seeking itself, which can be sought in a confident, assertive, charismatic manner.
- Some women may put off by explicit consent-seeking, but others are turned on by it. And even if some subset of women dislike explicit consent-seeking, that doesn't mean the standard should be abandoned, even if it does "cost" men some hookups, as if society should care about that when it adopts norms. This will reduce rape and sexual assault, a benefit that is much more significant than the trivial cost of a 22-year-old guy not having sex quite as often, or 22-year-old women who can no longer offer "token resistance" and get laid.
- The idea that women offer "token resistance" enables rapists and other sex criminals and should not affect consent-seeking. (The writer seems to agree in part when he notes that he is "still uncomfortable" testing "token resistance.")
I'd be curious to see a frank debate between this young man and critics of his position. (Would anyone be persuaded to refine their position or learn how to better persuade their critics?) But the sensitivity of the subject, the understandable aversion most people have to speaking on-the-record about their past sexual encounters, and the way both politically correct stigma and misogynistic threats are used to police discourse on this subject make it less likely that college men who feels this way will have open, rigorous on-campus exchanges with those whose perspective is different.
My hope is that emails from students and recent grads about any aspect of the affirmative-consent debate will air a broad spectrum of views and facilitate frank exchanges. If you have thoughts or insights informed by what you've seen or experienced, please share, anonymously or not, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.