Widgets Magazine


A hollow yes in the era of consent

On Saturday night two friends and I schlepped up the hill to Synergy for an annual Halloween party. A house resident stopped us at the door and said, “Before entering, please say this statement aloud.” She held up a small whiteboard. We gathered close and read in unison:

Getting consent means asking for and receiving verbal affirmation before engaging in any action that involves someone else’s personal space or belongings. Consent is not a single question but a continued conversation. This means that someone who gives consent can change their mind at any time.

This practice began earlier this year at EBF’s Wednesday happy hour, with the intent of encouraging a “pro-consent community,” and has since spread to other parties. This was my first time seeing it in action. After defining consent, we were allowed to join the fun inside. A small line had accumulated behind us, and I held back for a minute to watch in happy disbelief as the next group of partygoers recited the pledge. A humble but important cultural shift was occurring in real time.

Normally, at university functions of this sort, we hold up our student IDs, push past the student door-person in a drunken haze and make our way to the dance floor without a second thought. Large college parties are often ground-zero for incidents of sexual assault: seemingly taboo-less spaces in which boundaries of sexual respect are regularly transgressed under the perfect storm of loud music, intoxication, no personal space and a pervasive culture of misogyny.

This Halloween party was the first time I have been forced to contend with consent in the setting where it matters most. I realized that up until this point, I have consented in practice, but not in theory. Even when asked, I have said yes and not meant yes. This is troubling because I’ve always assumed I’m in the driver’s seat of my interactions at parties and beyond. After all, as the sticker on my water bottle declares, “OF COURSE I’M A FEMINIST.” Going forward, how can saying yes mean yes at the same time?

Anti-sexual assault student activists have made huge strides towards creating a culture of genuine “yes”es and consent in recent years. Stanford administration has followed suit and learned to speak the language of consent as well (even while egregiously obfuscating the rate of sexual assault). The Dean of Students sent an email to the student body before Full Moon on the Quad, reminding us that “Kissing is NOT required. If you choose to participate, then make sure to get affirmative consent — an uncoerced YES.” During freshman orientation, we are made familiar with California’s “yes means yes” legislation and our rights under Title IX. But acting on this knowledge in the heat of sweaty dance floors has proved a separate challenge.  

This is partially because my hollow yes has been been preconditioned from a time far beyond college’s reach. Looking back, Bar Mitzvah parties were essentially frat parties sans alcohol. It was grinding to T-Pain on the vinyl dance floors in the basements of synagogues, of all places, where I first said yes without knowing how to say no. We considered it a badge of honor if a boy came up from behind and grabbed our hips. This dynamic played out at middle school dances and then at high school dances, and then when I saw it again at frat parties, I knew exactly what to do and how to act — how to deliver an unexamined yes.

Practically speaking, consent is easier said than done because, as a fellow columnist pointed out, “Real-life intimacy rarely matches up with the theory espoused by ‘enthusiastic consent’ in clear-cut ways.” It feels awkward to always be checking in with “Do I have your consent?” and even more awkward still to answer “No.”

Asking that we elicit an “uncoerced yes” is a crucial first step, but so is acknowledging that truly “uncoerced” is a rare find. We may not be coerced by another individual, but we are certainly coerced by our cultural context that valorizes female promiscuity at the expense of personal security. Consent, in this light, is a not an end-goal in and of itself but a benchmark on the way to a culture of sexual respect.


Contact Madeleine Chang at madkc95 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

  • 09

    Thought-provoking piece. Thank you for underlining the reluctance that can accompany a verbal yes, and how the spirit of consent is just as important as the letter.

  • JC

    OMG I wonder who the two were that made the cut as you Schlepped up to synergy.

  • Guest

    “our cultural context that valorizes female promiscuity at the expense of personal security”
    I’m confused. For a very long time people have been complaining about the exact opposite, i.e. that our culture shames female promiscuity.

  • Radioedit

    Can we please stop abusing terms like “coercion?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to ‘coerce’ means “to compel by force or threat.” It is not a synonym for the kind of everyday social pressure that is an unavoidable feature of human interaction.

    I appreciate what the “enthusiastic consent” crowd are saying, but wrapping up their concerns in the terms of consent is incredibly misguided. “Consent” is just a common English word that essentially just means “to agree.” It doesn’t have to be enthusiastic. It just has to be voluntary. The standard of voluntariness that applies to sex is the same standard that applies in all other areas of life. If you aren’t being threatened with criminal harm, then you’re free to consent or not.

    Choosing to consent because you want someone to like you is a completely voluntary choice. They don’t have to like you. Who cares if they don’t like you? If you agree to give someone money because you don’t want to seem selfish or greedy, no one would think to call that robbery. Likewise, if you agree to have sex with someone because you don’t want to seem like a tease, no one should think to call that rape.

  • MLC

    Feminists have spent the last 30 years encouraging women to have “sex like a man” and not be ashamed/embarrassed. Unfortunately, the majority of society still views these women as “sluts.”

  • MLC

    For the last 30 years, the feminist movement has encouraged women to “have sex like a man” and not feel guilty or ashamed. Unfortunately, the majority of society in the US still view these women as “sluts.” The young women that DO feel guilty or ashamed can then subscribe to the current narrative that regret=rape and therefore be labeled a “victim” and ultimately be accepted and empowered in a society of people who love and support them, rather than ridicule them. The writer makes a valid point about personal security in the quote above. Those that promote having “sex like a man” don’t warn of the consequences of risky behavior (e.g. hooking up with a stranger you met on Tinder). Asking anyone to take personal responsibility for their own safety where sex is concerned, is somehow called “victim blaming.” No one is blaming a victim if they do get raped…it’s illegal and it’s a horrible crime. Why is it unreasonable to ask someone to do everything they can to decrease their odds of a bad thing happening? We do it every day when we wear a seatbelt or don’t wear pretentious jewelry on the subway or don’t walk down a dark street at 2am.