The Grey Areas of Sexual Consent

The difference between men’s and women’s definitions of sex and consent puts the standard understanding of consent up for question.

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Sexual consent is an issue that has been front and center in the news for a while. As a result, sexual education is on the rise and the conversation around sexual consent are looking deeper into the nuances of power, voice, gender, and culture among other factors. However, to draw clear lines for what is and isn’t consensual is still a tricky matter.

The Aziz Ansari incident boomed a couple of weeks ago, reportedly involving consensual sexual activity that left 23-year-old photographer “Grace” in tears after the encounter. Claiming that she indeed did give Ansari verbal and non-verbal cues about her discomfort during the encounter, he seemed to have not picked up on them, clearly stating in a subsequent conversation that he “misread things in the moment.”

The encounter could be argued by some to be a clear-cut case of sexual harassment because of the presence of non-consensual activity, but it could be considered by others to be a night of bad sex. However, getting stuck on what to label the incident, who to criminalize, and who to victimize is of little importance at the moment.

What needs to be discussed is the gap between the way men and women view sex and understand sexual consent, and Ansari’s reply about misreading cues is perfect physical evidence of this existing gap that needs to be explored.

What do men know about sex and consent?

A large number of men have received their sex education from pornography. Traditional  porn videos show a man completely in control and in a position of dominance, and a woman completely submitting to his demands and desires and magically achieving an orgasm through that.

Additionally, a significant area of porn and sexual culture indirectly glorifies forced or coerced sexual acts on women, showing that they eventually enjoy them, even if they said “no” in the first place. Pornography also teaches that boundaries may not be important. Porn videos, where the two partners sit down to discuss what each is comfortable with doing and not doing, don’t seem to be very popular, or even existent. This indirectly teaches men at a young age that sex is a right; it is something you do to a woman, and if she shows disinterest or expresses objection, it is because she is playing hard to get and wants to be chased. It also indirectly lays out a script to be followed on how sex starts and ends and what happens during.

What do women know about sex and consent? 

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Similarly to men, women watch pornography and learn from it. However, most of what women learn about sex is what they are taught through patriarchal culture. Women understand from a young age that sex is not about them. Sex is something a woman gives to a man, something she endures and doesn’t object much about because it is easier to go through with it rather than face their partners’ reactions should discomfort and non-consent be expressed.

With increased sex education, women now know that they can say “no” to sexual advances and that being forced into doing a sexual act that they are not comfortable with is not acceptable. However, remains from the “dominant man-submissive woman” culture are alive and well. As a result, women often resort to “subtle no’s” that can be expressed through body language cues like flinching, acting rigid, physically moving away, or soft verbal methods such as “I’m on my period” or “can we take things slow?”.

Why are we talking about this?

The difference between men’s and women’s definitions of sex and consent puts the standard understanding of consent up for question. It seems that the way consent is taught and approached is not a black-and-white matter. Most importantly, the way consent is expressed seems to depend on factors largely affected by culture and socialization, pointing to a grey area in the topic of consent that plays a role in bringing out misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the subtle no’s, often leading to unfavorable sexual outcomes and experiences.

A struggle that many women face is that of being assertive and straightforward about their desires and their bodily autonomy exists as a consequence of culturally ingrained attitudes about sex as well as the power of the uncomfortable situation they find themselves in. Many women find it difficult to be assertive in these positions because they  fear the reaction of their partner, worrying or feeling uncomfortable about rejecting or hurting the other person. In turn, subtle no’s expressed by a woman may be misinterpreted by a man or may go completely unnoticed or ignored, as a result of the assumption he has about women liking to tease or play hard to get.

Familiarizing ourselves with consent cultural factors that nuance the way the topic is approached and understanding that the same concepts mean completely different things to men and women is a first step to creating inclusive consent rhetoric.

An inclusive rhetoric also includes accepting that generally men’s view on sex and consent may not be the healthiest and could be harmful, and the willingness to work on attitude changes by increasing awareness of the way sex is viewed and approached,  as well as by teaching men to be more empathetic and sensitive to women’s sexual behavior and body language.

Women must also be educated on how their attitudes and sexual behaviors are mostly taught to them through generations of sexual oppression and denial of female pleasure. Through this education, women need to unlearn certain behaviors and thinking patterns, and learn how to listen to their bodies and what they want, consequently becoming more assertive and overcoming helplessness and powerlessness during sexual encounters.