7 Men Share What They Don't Understand About Consent & Experts Answer Their Questions
On Oct. 5, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to move forward with the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's allegations of sexual assault (which Kavanaugh has denied) following a three-day long FBI investigation. On Saturday, Oct. 5, 2018, Kavanaugh was sworn into the United States Supreme Court, a position he will presumably hold for the rest of his life. The nationally televised hearings have not only inspired many women and men to come forward and speak out about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, but it has also launched a much-needed conversation in the social sphere regarding consensual sex. What happened on the Senate floor draws a distinct parallel to the internalized fears verbalized in homes across the country: Many men and women alike remain unclear about what consent does and does not like in practice. But given all of the stories that have been publicly shared about assault and rape, and the discussions these stories have started, what remains confusing about consent?
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), defines consent as "an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity." However, the definition goes on to state that there are "many, many ways to give consent," and that while consent "doesn’t have to be verbal, verbally agreeing to different sexual activities" can help sexual partners to set boundaries. Additionally, Planned Parenthood defines consent as "when a person freely agrees to something," but then goes on to further define the term as a "a clear, happy, excited 'yes!'" Most notably, what these definitions do not encompass are the complexities of giving and receiving communicating consent — the gray areas.
In an episode of VICE's HBO Special Report, which aired on Sept. 29, 2018 and is aptly named "Consent," sexologist and sexpert Michelle Hope spoke with a panel of millennials about the gray areas. Hope read out a sexual scenario and each panelist stated whether on not they considered the act to be consensual. A particular scenario, which painted a woman performing oral sex on a man — whom she had met and had sex with the night before — while he was sleeping, caused a stir amongst panelists and audience members alike. Was their interaction consensual? A disagreement arose in the room, the tension palpable. One thing grew clear: defining consent does not provide a one-size-fits all solution for giving consent in real-life circumstances. But why is it so confusing to understand?
"I work a great deal with dating singles — and men in particular — who are extremely confused about the issue of sexual consent," licensed psychotherapist and relationships expert Dr. Gary Brown tells Elite Daily. "It is completely understandable that men and women are sincerely struggling with this very confusing issue. They need to be more open about when and how they want to be intimate."
In recent weeks, there has been an outpouring of discussion among American women about consent, what it means to give it, to not give it, to be ignored, and to have your agency for consent taken away. Our society teaches women from a young age about giving their consent, but it does not place the same responsibility on teaching men how to properly ask for it. Movements such as #MeToo (the movement, which was founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, just celebrated one year since the groundbreaking Harvey Weinstein exposé), and #TimesUp, are the result of this discrepancy. But the true consequence lies in the fact that it has now become a woman's duty to educate the men in her life about consent — and the weight of that responsibility on one gender is not only unfair, but unrealistic.
If you're not sure you have the ability to thoughtfully and respectfully understand what someone is telling you, that's a signal that you should not ask someone to have sex with you.
Consent is an issue that concerns and affects everyone, not just women — and our culture surrounding consent is only going to evolve if men are actively re-considering how consent plays a role in their own sexual encounters, not solely from a woman's point of view. Doing so provides more opportunity for men and women to engage in thoughtful conversations about what consent looks like for them.
So, in order to further the conversation so that the dialogue will no longer be one-sided, Elite Daily asked seven men about the areas of consent they continue to find confusing. In order to better understand where the lines literally blur for men in many instances, we also asked experts to respond to each of the responses in an effort to define those gray areas once and for all.
How Do You Consent When You're Both Drinking?
I guess I have never understood the line when two mutually drunk people hook up. If you’re drunk, and the other person is drunk, but not like visibly falling over or anything where you’d be like, ‘Oh, jeez, someone take this person home.’ And then if you hook up, and they regret it, can they later say, ‘Oh, I was drunk and he took advantage of me'? I know you need conscious affirmative consent to have sex, but drinking at some point negates your ability to be completely conscious. Yet you don’t show any of that externally, and when both parties are drinking — that’s exactly when random hookups are likely to happen. So I guess the line there has always been somewhat confusing to me.
"Alcohol can definitely impact the way that people interact with each other and the decisions that they make when it comes to sex," Julia Bennett, Director of Learning Strategy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Elite Daily. "When it comes to consent, alcohol can definitely influence how that conversation goes and influence your ability to make healthy decisions. If you're instigating a sexual encounter with someone, then it's really important to keep in mind that alcohol, if you've been drinking, can play a role in your ability to both respectfully ask for consent and also to understand the signals that someone is giving you."
The ‘gray area’ for me continues to gray the more that alcohol is introduced. Correct me if I’m wrong, but neither party can consent if they have consumed an excessive quantity of alcohol. This obviously poses huge difficulties, given [that] the large majority of encounters and hookups occur at bars after both parties have drank. In the event that both parties can be reasonably be considered intoxicated, I don’t know how one party or the other can (A) give consent, and (B) be found responsible (especially in cases where people black out, when neither party can be considered normatively component). Basically, when two people are drunk, can either give consent? And if neither can consent, I think the only conclusion we’re left with is that sex while drunk isn’t consensual sex... and I don’t know what the implications are there. One of my friends has a consent form in his room, which I think is a huge display of maturity on his part.
"If you hear a no respectfully, if you understand an unclear sign from someone, if someone gives you body language that you'd understand if you were sober was non-consensual, you might not have as much of an ability to understand that if you have been drinking alcohol," Bennett says. "A lot of people talk about how alcohol plays a role on the end of the person being asked, but alcohol can really play a role in your ability to understand the other person's signals about whether or not they want to have sex."
Legally, neither party can consent under the influence. Sometimes, sex under the influence is fun AF. So, how does that factor into the consent conversation — if some people don’t mind having a drunk one-night stand or something? I don’t know that people are asking for explicit enough consent to make periodic check-ins seem normal, natural, and sexy.
When it comes to drinking and being able to navigate consent in a situation where alcohol is involved, the most important thing to keep in mind is paying attention to the person you are asking if they want to have sex with you or be sexually active with you," Bennett says. "Knowing that alcohol can really affect your ability to understand signals, asking someone to have sex takes an extra cautious approach when it comes to asking for consent. If you're not sure you have the ability to thoughtfully and respectfully understand what someone is telling you, that's a signal that you should not ask someone to have sex with you, to take a step back, and be really extremely cautious in terms of asking for consent."
How Do You Get Consent Without Ruining The Mood?
Something I find confusing is basically the idea of how to balance respecting a woman’s wishes about sex, with being passionate, spontaneous, and ‘hot.’ Specifically in regards to hooking up, when you haven't had sex before. When you've already slept together and go home together, it’s somewhat understood that you may sleep together again. But before you've slept with someone, trying to address their feelings towards sex, without killing the moment — it’s tricky.
"Talking about consent is a really important part of any relationship and any healthy sexual interaction," Bennett says. "There's a whole culture out there of people wondering if it'll be 'awkward' or 'kill the mood,' but asking for consent doesn't have to be awkward or scary. It can actually be pretty sexy, depending on how you do it. So, learning how to talk about consent in a way that feels comfortable and natural for you is really the key. Consent can be a part of foreplay, it can be a part of having a conversation with someone about what they want to do, what you want to do, and finding where those things overlap. So, really, asking for consent doesn't have to be this sort of awkward, separate conversation. Actually, the conversation about consent should be part of the experience. It shouldn't be this separate thing to get out of the way or on the side. Part of the experience is asking what someone wants to do, what activities someone wants to engage in."
I think both sexes are taught some really conflicting things about sex by the media and by friends. Things like ‘Be spontaneous,’ or ‘Just go for it,’ or ‘Be an alpha.’ And some people are definitely very bad, socially, at reading a room or the person they are with. But at the end of the day I think both sexes make it very clear when they don’t want to do something, and continuing to force an unwanted act — that’s when I think what’s mostly a gray area becomes very much black and white. But I think communication is very important and doesn’t have to be something that ‘ruins’ the mood. Someone asking to kiss you is hot (if you actually want them to). If you aren’t sure about something then absolutely take it slower. Assuming that someone is all in should not be your autopilot.
"One way that you can really open up the conversation is to make it part of a positive experience for the person involved," Bennett says. "Frame it as an open-ended question, saying, ''What do you want to do tonight? How would you feel about XYZ activity?" and then turn it into a conversation, that's a really great way to open up a dialogue, make them feel comfortable, and give them space to express what their boundaries are."
When Is Consent Needed?
Here’s where I get tripped up: the nonverbal contract. What happens when consent is assumed (particularly for things that aren’t explicitly sexual, like holding hands or kissing or cuddling)?
I was at a conference last week, and we all attended a Cubs game together. There was an attractive woman from another company that I had met the previous evening. She initiated by asking me to walk her down the stairs to the restroom at Wrigley. She grabbed my arm and we walked downstairs; I waited while she used the restroom. She immediately clinched my arm when she walked back out. About 20 of us left the game and went straight to a nearby bar. The woman sat across from me and began to brush the inside of my shin with hers. I noticed her trying to brush my hand with each pass and we frequently took breaks from our own conversations to flirt.... she became more affectionate with every ride (a brush turned to holding hands turned to cuddling turned to an “accidental” kiss on the neck). Then, something else happened. I leaned down to look at her and we kissed. It’s hard to say that either of us initiated it independently, and it lasted for about five seconds. We went on the rest of the night and she told me a lot about her family, losing her mother, her tattoos, her aspirations, etc.
Did I do the wrong thing by not verbally and unequivocally confirming her consent with that kiss? Was it wrong of me to have held her hand or reciprocate her advances? How far does the 'nonverbal contract' go? Certainly not all the way to sex or groping, but to another kiss? Did we both consent to what was happening implicitly?
"You need consent for all sexual activities," Bennett says. "Ideally, you're getting verbal consent, as well as checking in with body language. There are a lot of ways to ask for consent and there are a lot of ways to gauge consent as well. A lot of times, when we talk about consent, we only talk about verbal consent, but there's also body language, and it's important to look out for both. You could say, 'I really want to kiss you,' and pause, and then see if they seem excited by that, if they lean back toward you, or if they say, 'I really want to kiss you, too.'"
Does Anybody Actually Ask For Consent?
Personally, I ask, ‘Do you want to have sex’ and wait for a verbal ‘yes.’ But a girl literally laughed at me one time. She mocked me. I wasn’t offended, but it was clear that she hadn’t been asked that question. Who would laugh at that, in that exact scenario, if it was something that they were used to hearing?
"Asking for consent is part of a happy, healthy sex life and a happy, healthy relationship, and it's also true that in this culture we don't teach people from a young age how to have these conversations, and so consent education growing up is incredibly important," Bennett says. "But given that a lot of folks don't get that growing up, it can lead to awkwardness around these conversations or not being sure how to have them or they might feel out of place to people who haven't had them in their life, because they haven't learned how to do that. So that's why it's so important to teach young people how to talk about consent, how to talk about sex, how to talk about their boundaries and what they're interested in and not interested in. Consent education is really important for young people, to make this normal for themselves and their relationships."
What If Someone Changes Their Mind About Agreeing To Sex?
So much confuses me about consent. Everything confuses me about consent. I think people’s definition of what counts as ‘consent’ is so subjective — to the point that the way someone feels about consent can change from the moment, to later on. I think going forward, people will have to discuss consent at length before having sex, maybe even going as far to give written consent. It’ll definitely eliminate some of the romance, but I don’t see how we can avoid heading in that direction
"When it comes to any sort of touching another person, it's always ideal to directly ask for consent," Bennett says. "In our culture, you will never know how the other person will interpret your behavior, so it's always better to ask for consent."
*Names have been changed
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.