So I recently put up a post on the BARCC website about consent, and I believe it. Check it out here. In terms of sexual assault and rape, when we talk about consent, we're not talking about a long-term on/off switch that we and our partners flip. It doesn't work that way.
But...I'm not sure I actually believe my own statement about consent not being complicated. I think it's exceptionally complicated. We talk about consent in the context of sexual assault in a way that we really don't talk about it in any other circumstance, with the possible exception of medical care. Perhaps we should be making more analogies to doctors in our work.
Here's the problem: how many times a day do we get to consent to something? If I'm hanging out with friends, maybe I'll have the chance to determine if we go to a certain place to get food, or maybe I'll have input into what board- or video-games we might play. Maybe. But that doesn't require a continuous checking-in, it doesn't require that I try to think in advance of what emotional needs my friends might have, and it doesn't really require a ton of assessment of the cultural factors that weigh down that decision. If I ask my roommates if they want to grab Anna's Tacqueria for dinner, they aren't labeled, socially positioned, or discriminated against because they say yes or no. So the way that I think about consent in most of my normal daily interactions doesn't really fit the same model of consent that we're asking people to use in the sexual sphere.
Secondly, how many things happen to us on a day-to-day basis where consent isn't even a concept we get to broach? I've got homework to do, and my options are either to do it and get a good grade, or not do it, get a lower grade or fail, and face some serious consequences. When I worked for the marketing firm I worked for right out of undergrad, when my boss asked me if I could stay late to finish up reports that our clients needed the next morning, I guess I could have said no, but then I would've gotten in a lot of trouble.
Time after time in the course of most of our daily experiences, forces outside our control interact with us and affect our lives, and rarely if ever do those forces ask if they can do so. I don't get to negotiate with my college about tuition; my options are either to pay it or get kicked out, or go to another school. I don't get to negotiate with my public transportation agency about when the bus comes; I can either get on the bus or I can decide not to. I don't get to (directly) decide what my taxes are going to be most of the time - I can either pay them, or I can get audited by the IRS and possibly arrested. The idea that, in sexual relations, we're not only allowed but expected to put wants and desires first, and to regularly make sure we're falling within the lines of those wants and desires with our partners is a big jump from almost every other part of my world. I'm not saying it's a BAD jump, or that I don't whole-heartedly believe in it; what I think is difficult is that I don't necessarily have a whole lot of models for it.
The reason this is important for this discussion of rape and sexual assault is simple in my mind: most of us do not have experience with consent in the way we talk about it in the context of sex. If I expected my law school to be as attentive to my needs as a sexual partner is expected to be (under this ideal standard), I'd be laughed out of school. If I expected an employer (god forbid a law firm, in the future) to be this attentive, I've be laughed out of the firm, fired, and blacklisted from other firms. Where was I supposed to get the tools, experience, and understanding of this progressive idea of consent, from the world I live in?
In my world, people who get to express their desires and wants on a moment-to-moment basis in any context outside of sex are FABULOUSLY more wealthy and powerful than me. I worry that without more comprehensive sexual education, a lot of kids in the US will start thinking of consent as a class-based privilege. You can talk about consent all you want, if you've got the power to back it up. If you don't though, then you sound entitled and foolish. Consent is bourgie. If we've never made it clear that comfort zones, personal boundaries, and consent have a place in our lives in any other context than sex, why would people believe those things have a role in sex, either?
I think that the best place we have to model the type of consent we want to see in sex is the medical industry. It's not perfect, for sure, but the way that good doctors interact with good patients, especially when discussing surgery or treatment options for longer-term care, might be the best alternative model we've got for consent. A good doctor is supposed to offer a number of possibilities, reasonably cover the risks, and make sure that the patient has a good understanding of what's going on and can make a decision fairly before proceeding with any one treatment option. That would be my hope for consent in the sex arena, too.