In 2016, I had the honor of being a delegate for the Women Gender Empowerment Network at the United Nation’s conference for the Commission on the Status of Women. To enter the conference, you have to have your purse scanned each day. My purse was covered in my advocacy buttons, essentially making it a portable bumper sticker outlet (I love bumper stickers ... maybe too much). This was a great way to share what I believed in and to meet like-minded individuals.
Culture and Consent: The Things We Have to Unlearn to Get It Right
On the second day of the conference, when my bag went through the scanner, one of the guards took it out and was examining the buttons. I was afraid he might have an issue with them but instead, he looked up, pointed to my “Consent is Mandatory” button and asked in a thick, West African accent, “What is consent?”
But really, what is consent? Consent is kind of like love - you cannot easily define it because it is so personal and is influenced by each individual’s culture, emotional intelligence and communication style.
When I ask audiences how they define consent the most common answers I get are:
People deciding to do something together
These are all excellent starting points, but unfortunately, consent can get a lot more complicated.
Society's Mixed Messages About Consent
First of all, almost every modern society presents mixed messages about consent. On the one hand, everyone hears that rape is wrong. But when we discuss rape or assault, it is depicted as holding someone down while they scream and fight their attacker off. This is not what the majority of sexual assaults look like, so both victims and perpetrators often believe that what happened doesn’t count as rape. If the victim didn’t scream, say no, or fight back, then they must have been willing, right?
So, while we know that assault is wrong, what we often categorize as “vaguely consensual” or “gray rape” is still commonly used as fodder in popular movies and music. If consent is not explicit, enthusiastic, informed and freely given, then it is assault. There is no gray area here, despite what popular culture often tells us.
If consent is not explicit, enthusiastic, informed and freely given, then it is assault. There is no gray area here, despite what popular culture often tells us.
Think about every romantic comedy you probably grew up watching. How present was consent between the characters? Take, for example, the harassing boombox scene in "Say Anything," or the scene in "The Notebook" where the male lead threatens the object of his affection with his suicide if she doesn’t go out with him. Both of those stories revolve around the notion that rejection is just a reason to try harder and convince your “one-true-love" that they do, in fact, belong with you.
Even as tiny children, we see these portrayals romanticized in cartoons. Pepe Le Pew is a sexual harasser and stalker who assaults the cat that he supposedly adores. "Beauty and the Beast" is about Stockholm Syndrome, and both "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White" were not able to consent to those allegedly spell-breaking kisses.
As teens, we hear song after song, in every genre of music, that glorifies coercion as romantic and getting someone drunk as a means of seduction. By this time, we have already ingested a lifetime of messaging from the media and our communities telling us that violating peoples boundaries is romantic and sexy. Then we turn around and are appalled that sexual assault, stalking and harassment are so prevalent. Where could we possibly get these ideas from? The reality is that we are like frogs in a pot of hot water, never realizing the temperature is rising all around us until we are being boiled alive. Rape culture is insidious, and so our concept of consent becomes murky and convoluted.
When No Means Yes and Yeas Means No
In addition to these messages are our socio-sexual scripts. Sexual scripting is a concept studied in the social sciences that looks at how people communicate about common interpersonal topics, thus creating a sort of “script” that we follow. Part of these sexual scripts are the concepts of token-resistance and token-compliance. Token-resistance is the fancy word for when some says "no" but means "yes." This is extremely controversial to talk about as a prevention educator because it flies in the face of the common catchphrase “no means no.” But it is also one of the most common questions educators get asked - can a no ever be a flirtatious yes? The reality is that society has written resistance into our sexual scripts and many people still say "no" or "stop" but mean it ironically. So do we ignore this phenomenon or the reality that consensual non-consent is part of many people’s kinky sexual expression? This may be a super sticky subject, but I firmly believe we have to address it head-on.
Token-resistance has a twin, token-compliance, which is when someone says yes but wants to say no. This also eats away at simplifying consent as “yes-means-yes” because it requires us to examine where even our yeses come from. Are they genuine? Are they valid?
Token-resistance/compliance is a real problem in creating rape-free spaces and communities. The fact of the matter is that our culture stinks at effective and honest communication and that causes a myriad of problems. We have to do the hard emotional work of breaking down these barriers and discussing our needs and desires honestly and effectively so that every "no" is listened to and every "yes" is valid.
Our culture stinks at effective and honest communication.
By this point, you might be feeling overwhelmed. Trust me, I get that. The reason that consent is my full-time job is because this is so deep, so vast and so very not as simple as a cup of tea. But here is the goods news: there are cultures we can look to as examples. Anthropologist, Peggy Reeves Sanday studies rape-free cultures and has found a number of commonalities that they share. In addition to her research, there have been conversations about the Kreung tribe in Cambodia, and their lack of sexual assault and domestic violence. These common threads across rape-free cultures can help inform our Westernized beliefs about gender, sex and power and creating cultures of consent.
The commonalities of rape-free cultures include:
- An egalitarian gender system. This means that one gender is not seen as having rights above or over another.
- Sex is not taboo. Sex across the lifespan is openly discussed and embraced. In the Krueng community, teen girls are given special spaces, called "love huts," by their parents, as a place to explore their budding sexuality and desires with peers in their village.
Neither of these concepts is hard to understand or impossible to emulate. What is hard to do is the work of un-learning everything we have previously been taught about sex, power and consent. The next step is to look at what consent, in its purest form, would look and feel like so that we are working from a place of not only what we don’t want, but what we do want. What we actually want. Isn't that what consent is all about?
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.