“Is this okay?” has little impact on sexual assault—but it definitely improves sex.
Affirmative consent means that sexual initiators must obtain the other person’s explicit permission for every escalation of intimacy, from kissing to touching to undressing to genital play to intercourse. Recently, California became the first state to require both high school sex education classes and college orientation programs to promote this concept. More than a dozen states are considering similar legislation. And increasingly, colleges and the military incorporate affirmative consent into disciplinary actions around sexual assault: Did she give you clear permission to remove her panties?
I’m 100 percent in favor of affirmative consent—but not because it prevents rape. “Is-this-okay?” actually plays only a minor role in sexual assault prevention. I support affirmative consent because it leads to better, more satisfying sex.
The Evolution of Sexual Consent
If two people kiss, can one of them (usually the man) assume he has permission to start undressing the other (usually the woman)? A century ago in the U.S. and Europe, this was a total non-issue. Husbands essentially owned their wives, and were legally free to “take” them sexually whenever they wished. By marrying, women implicitly consented to satisfying their husbands’ lust on the husbands’ terms.
But during the twentieth century, as women gained legal rights, they began to assert control over reproduction and their sexuality, they began to demand the right to refuse sex or consent to it, both in marriage and pre-maritally. However, many men did not get the message and, regrettably, sex that women considered assaultive remained common.
A small proportion of men who forced themselves on women were sadists or predators. But most were not malevolent, but just unclear on the concept of who has the right to do whatever.
Consent can be tricky. Until the emergence of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, most couples relied on nonverbal cues, with passionate response to unfolding intimacy implying consent for escalation. But this caused problems. Lingering Victorian sensibilities held that “good girls” shun sex and have to be coaxed into it. Some men who thought they were coaxing were, from women’s perspective, assaulting them.
This led late-twentieth-century feminists to insist on a new norm, “no means no.” Activist women said, Feel free to coax—but if we say “no,” you must stop. Most men got the message, but some did not, especially young, drunk, testosterone-crazed young adults coming on to drunk young adult women wishing to feel desired. Horny young men took to plying women with liquor until they passed out drunk and could not say “no.”
Meanwhile, military and college demographics were changing. During World War II, only a tiny fraction of armed forces personnel were women. Today, it’s 15 percent. Into the 1990s, colleges were mostly male. Now women comprise 57 percent of undergraduates and 59 percent of grad students. In 1975, only 23 percent of college faculty were women. Today, it’s 42 percent. In 1975, few college presidents were women. Today it’s 23 percent.
As women’s numbers and influence have increased in the military and higher education, women have become fed up with the limitations of “no means no,” and have pressed for a new standard, “yes means yes,” clear unambiguous consent for every erotic escalation.
Do I Have To Get Her To Sign a Contract?
The push for affirmative consent has triggered eye-rolling and push-back. Some critics complain that repeatedly asking permission is awkward, kills romance, and interrupts sex. Others dismiss the idea as political correctness run amok. Some have published mocking “sex contracts” that young men are advised to ask young women sign so they can’t be charged with rape.
Meanwhile, supporters contend that affirmative consent is a trifling inconvenience given the fact that currently, some 10 to 20 percent of college and military women suffer sexual assault.
Who Gets Raped? Why?
Affirmative consent may help dissuade men from a small proportion of sexual assaults, but ironically, the concept plays no role in successful college and military rape-prevention programs that have reduced women’s risk of sexual assault by half to two-thirds.
Researchers have identified the risk factors for college and military sexual assaults:
• Naiveté. Around two-thirds of victims are first-year students or raw recruits, inexperienced at sexual negotiations.
• Alcohol. In the vast majority of young-adult rape allegations, both accusers and accused are blotto drunk. A study by United Educators (UE), a college insurance consortium, showed that 60 percent of accusers were so intoxicated that they had no clear memory of the assault. In the military, the situation is similar.
• Power/prestige. In the military, perpetrators target victims of lower rank. In college, assailants have prestige, notably the cachet of being athletes. Male athletes comprise around 10 percent of college students, but according to UE, commit 25 percent of sexual assaults.
• Bystanders. Friends often realize that things are getting out of hand, but take no action to stop it.
Sexual Assault Prevention 101
The details differ, but effective college and military assault-prevention programs are quite similar and produce dramatic results quickly:
• Blunt talk to men during orientation. From day one, authorities declare in no uncertain terms that sexual assault is not tolerated. “Do you think Ms. Sloppy Drunk can give real consent?” “If you step over the line, gentlemen, you’re looking at rotting in prison.”
• Alcohol abuse awareness. Alcohol is the most problematic drug among young adults, and rape is its collateral damage. Assault-prevention programs advocate something similar to designated drivers. One friend stays sufficiently sober to keep drunk friends out of trouble.
• Bystander intervention. “Don’t just stand there,” rape-prevention officials insist, “do something—anything to stop bad behavior before it becomes assaultive.” Jane Stapleton, of the University of New Hampshire’s program, recommends turning on lights, turning off music, and “accidentally” spilling drinks on overly aggressive guys.
In short order, rape-prevention programs reduce sexual assault allegations by half to two-thirds. Affirmative consent may also help, but notice, it plays no role at all in these programs.
However, there’s another reason to support affirmative consent. It enhances sex.
Affirmative Consent, Better Sex
Occasionally, quickies can be fun, but sex therapists universally agree that the best sex is slow sex, escalating pleasure that unfolds playfully at a slow, leisurely pace.
A slow pace is critical to most women’s sexual responsiveness. In studies of how women want to make love, most say they need around 30 minutes of kissing, cuddling, and non-genital caresses to warm up to genital play.
A slow pace comes less naturally to men, especially young men, who can rocket from neutral to intercourse in no time. But young men need to know that rushed sex not only turns women off and spurs them to tell friends that you’re lousy in bed. Rushed sex also substantially increases men’s risk of premature ejaculation, weak erections, and inability to ejaculate.
The best, least problematic, most mutually satisfying sex is slow, playful sex. A leisurely pace creates plenty of space to affirmatively whisper, “Is this okay?” It also creates opportunities for women to coach men what feels erotically best. “Is this okay?” “A little gentler please….”
I’m all for comprehensive sexual-assault-prevention programs, and if affirmative consent adds to their effectiveness, terrific. But yes-means-yes advocates might have more success incorporating the idea into young-adult sexual culture if they emphasize another reason. Affirmative consent leads to better, more satisfying sex.
Michael Ccastleman © 2016
Michael Castleman writes and publishes greatsexguidance.com.
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Keenan, S. “Affirmative Consent: Are Students Really Asking?” New York Times, Aug. 2, 2015.
Medina, J. “Sex Ed Lesson: ‘Yes Means Yes,” But It’s Tricky,” New York Times, Oct. 15, 2015.
Senn, C.Y. et al. “Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women,” New England Journal of Medicine (2015) 373:1376.
Timpf, K. “Students Told to Take Photos of a ‘Consent Contract” Before They Have Sex,” National Review, July 7, 2015.
Torgerson, D.J. “Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women,” New England Journal of Medicine (2015) 373:1375.
Traister, R. “Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It,” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 20 2015.