It’s telling that the idea of affirmative consent is so frightening to so many people. As the issue became a hot topic of debate in the wake of California’s affirmative consent law, I found myself yelling futilely at my computer or people on podcasts as they wrung their hands and seemed to fundamentally misunderstand that idea of embracing “yes means yes.”
The idea of having to “teach” something as natural as how we related to each other sexually is off-putting to some. But the huge backlash to affirmative consent shows just how thoroughly we are already taught the opposite. Whether it’s through movies and TV, peer pressure on teenagers, warped versions of masculinity, slut-shaming or some other toxic influence, something has made the idea of communicating openly and ensuring that the person you’re with is enthusiastically participating seem foreign and unrealistic.
It’s frustrating that people look at the sexual assault epidemic and argue that implementing such a standard is going to be meaningless. First of all, regardless of its impacts on the campus sexual assault problem, training people to use an affirmative consent standard is going to be better for our culture and help people have more enjoyable sex lives. Passing laws or policies on affirmative consent isn’t going to flip a switch. We need to be teaching people, from the time they are young, to view sexual relationships through a different lens and communicate about all parties’ comfort levels and enthusiasm. And all those people who think this is going to result in a huge uptick in false rape accusations can just stop talking. They apparently haven’t noticed that it’s the exact opposite of fun and lucrative for a person to come forward with a sexual assault story.
Affirmative consent can make things better for everyone. But then people worry that consent is too difficult to parse. Leave it to Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess (h/t to badass feminist writer Rebecca Solnit) to lay it down:
If you’re still struggling, just imagine instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea.
You say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they go “omg fuck yes, I would fucking LOVE a cup of tea! Thank you!*” then you know they want a cup of tea.
If you say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they um and ahh and say, “I’m not really sure…” then you can make them a cup of tea or not, but be aware that they might not drink it, and if they don’t drink it then – this is the important bit – don’t make them drink it. You can’t blame them for you going to the effort of making the tea on the off-chance they wanted it; you just have to deal with them not drinking it. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you are entitled to watch them drink it.
If they say “No thank you” then don’t make them tea. At all. Don’t make them tea, don’t make them drink tea, don’t get annoyed at them for not wanting tea. They just don’t want tea, ok?
They might say “Yes please, that’s kind of you” and then when the tea arrives they actually don’t want the tea at all. Sure, that’s kind of annoying as you’ve gone to the effort of making the tea, but they remain under no obligation to drink the tea. They did want tea, now they don’t. Sometimes people change their mind in the time it takes to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk. And it’s ok for people to change their mind, and you are still not entitled to watch them drink it even though you went to the trouble of making it.
If they are unconscious, don’t make them tea. Unconscious people don’t want tea and can’t answer the question “do you want tea” because they are unconscious.
Ok, maybe they were conscious when you asked them if they wanted tea, and they said yes, but in the time it took you to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk they are now unconscious. You should just put the tea down, make sure the unconscious person is safe, and – this is the important bit – don’t make them drink the tea. They said yes then, sure, but unconscious people don’t want tea.
If someone said yes to tea, started drinking it, and then passed out before they’d finished it, don’t keep on pouring it down their throat. Take the tea away and make sure they are safe. Because unconscious people don’t want tea. Trust me on this.
If someone said “yes” to tea around your house last saturday, that doesn’t mean that they want you to make them tea all the time. They don’t want you to come around unexpectedly to their place and make them tea and force them to drink it going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST WEEK”, or to wake up to find you pouring tea down their throat going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST NIGHT”.
If you hear someone complaining about how difficult this is, ask them to really listen to themselves. Are they really saying it’s such a burden to make sure the person they’re with really want to be doing what they’re doing? Would they flip out about finding out whether someone wants some tea? We can make affirmative consent happen, and we need to.