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Complicating the cult of consent

NSO can feel less like an orientation and more like an initiation into the Arrillaga Family Mystery Cult that is life at Stanford. You memorize the abbreviations, break the ice with your fellow neophytes a thousand times over (“Yeah, cool, what’s your major?”), score a free helmet that you’ll never use because helmets are not cool and eventually gain access to the holy sacraments of the Stanford social scene: the pregame, the pre-pregame, EANABs (supposedly), underage pitchers at Treehouse, stumbling into a party at Sig Nu and stumbling directly out, and holiest of all, the consent sign.

If you’ve gone out even once in the last year, you’ve probably encountered the consent sign, which seems to have been handed down to every co-op and frat like a golden tablet from above. In a single strongly and economically phrased line, it defines consent as something to the effect of “asking for and receiving verbal affirmation before and while engaging in any action that involves someone else’s personal space or belongings.” Not only have you run into it, you and your friends have read it aloud and in unison (and with gusto, hopefully) before being allowed into just about any party.

The sign is more than just a friendly reminder in case consent, you know, just slipped your mind. Somewhere between a commandment and a covenant, the ritual reading is a public performance of our sexual values as a community. But consent so conceived isn’t without its issues, as we rarely seem to recognize. Like many things that are good in theory, it gets tricky in its application.

Consent culture is a relatively recent development and, I’d like to propose, a response to two other forces that have shaped sexual culture on college campuses for the last decade: the hookup scene and campus rape. Ambiguities – emotional and otherwise – are unavoidable when it comes to casual sex, and so emphasizing the importance of active and enthusiastic consent is an attempt at resolving, or at least minimizing, such ambiguities. At the same time, consent culture looks to protect and empower those who would be or have been sexually violated by making the terms of a sexual interaction explicit.

At its core, consent is about respect, and who could say respect isn’t important? “Yes means yes” is a good starting point, but as it turns out, not every Yes really does mean Yes, while even a single No is still a clear, unequivocal No. As it often does, alcohol complicates the equation. To give consent at all you must be capable of giving consent, in this case meaning you’re not too intoxicated, but this kind of standard opens up another grey area.   

I distinctly recall a certain section of the online alcohol education course that everyone in my class completed before coming to Stanford. In the scenario, you’re presented a character who’s had a certain number of drinks and asked whether or not she was capable of giving consent. Now, if you’re falling on your face you clearly can’t consent, and if you’ve had one sip of your first beer, you clearly can. But what about everything in between? If four drinks is too much but three drinks isn’t, what about three and a half? Only you can decide if you’re too intoxicated, but if you really are too intoxicated to consent, how could you know that you can’t give consent?

An a priori standard is impossible, and so stipulating that you can’t give consent if you’re too intoxicated isn’t very helpful. Such a standard also fails to deal with the possibility that both partners are intoxicated. If neither of you are capable of giving consent, but you both say yes and you do have sex, was it nonconsensual? That seems unlikely, but the implication then is that it was consensual, even though neither of you was properly in a state to consent.

My point is that while the intention behind consent is to reduce grey areas when it comes to sex, in some circumstances it fails to do just that. Intimate interactions can’t easily be reduced to formulas or checklists. How many times have you personally said, “Yes, I want to have sex with you,” before and periodically during? It’s not exactly first class dirty talk, and in reality, it doesn’t always play out that way.  

Moreover, consent culture assumes the best in people. Good communication is one thing, but consent only helps when both parties ask for it. If you force someone to have sex with you or have sex with someone who is blackout drunk, you must know that what you’re doing is wrong. Consent is of no concern to perpetrators of this sort of sexual violence, and thus is not an answer for preventing it. Unfortunately, consent also fails to address one of the central issues in college rape cases — the question of what the law should do if, all else constant, you say you didn’t consent but I say you did.

Last week, Stanford admitted its newest crop of idealistic start-uppers, world-savers, and mailing list spammers. Long before the embarrassingly tearful goodbyes of move-in day, like us they’ll click through a similarly goofy, condescending consent and alcohol education course. As they acclimate to their new home here at Stanford and the complicated mess that is college life more generally, we’d do well not to spare them the messy, ambiguous truth.  

Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Iain Espey

Iain Espey

Iain Espey is a senior from Six Mile, South Carolina, majoring in philosophy. He grew up on a dirt road in the backwoods and now he basically lives in Coho. He’s been called wise but also cold. A friend once told him he has “resting anguish face.” In the near future he hopes to teach children, write, and finally get around to ironing his shirts.