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Opinion We’re casual about sex and serious about consent. But is it working?


Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about affirmative consent. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which was published in March by Princeton University Press.

Boy meets girl at a party. Boy and girl get drunk. Boy asks girl to go back to his room. Boy and girl kiss. Boy wants to go further. Girl hesitates; she isn’t sure. Boy takes out a condom. Girl opens it.

So did both parties consent to sex?

That’s the question du jour on our college campuses. And on many of them, the answer would almost surely be “no.” At least 800 institutions have established some kind of “affirmative consent” policy, whereby both partners must give clear and unambiguous consent to every sexual act. Simply engaging in sex doesn’t signify that you have consented to it; you have to agree directly and explicitly to anything that you do. And two states, California and New York, have written that standard into law.

But I’ve got a different question, one which you don’t hear nearly as often: If boy and girl don’t really know each other, how could they know what each other really wants?

That’s a question about intimacy, not just about consent. And the discussion about emotional connection and communication is mostly missing from the endless role-plays, workshops and online courses that we foist upon our students when they get to college. In fact, it’s the great contradiction at the heart of our college sex wars.

[Innocent until proven guilty? Not under ‘yes means yes.’]

University administrators take it for granted that a certain amount of sex will be “casual,” that is, devoid of intimate emotion or connection. But our rules now require the sharing of feelings, even in an encounter that is by definition divorced from them. We simply assume that virtual strangers will be having sex. But we urge them — or, even legally enjoin them — to communicate openly and explicitly about it.

Good luck with that. We might succeed in cajoling more students into some kind of verbal consent. But that’s a script, a bedroom contract between sexual vendors. Yes, it will make the whole transaction legal. But consensual? Really?  If you met somebody an hour ago, how can you tell what they want? And  since you know so little about them, aren’t you more likely to do something that they don’t want, no matter what kind of “consent” they have given?

I’d like to suggest a modest addition to our campaigns against sexual assault on campus: Instead of simply pleading with students to ask for explicit consent when having sex, we should be asking them why they are having sex in the first place.

I think that we’ll find the answers are often troubling. In several recent studies, college women have told researchers that they dislike the hookup culture. But they engage in it anyway. “It’s just something that I feel like as a college student you’re supposed to do,” one woman told journalist Donna Freitas, who surveyed 2,500 college students about sex.

Many women also think it’s the only way to get what they really want: a romantic relationship with a man. But they often find that men don’t share that goal. “They’re in college, they don’t want a girlfriend,” a female student told La Salle University sociologist Kathleen Bogle, describing men on her campus. “They basically just want to get (sex).”

They’re succeeding, too. “No real commitment, no real feelings involved, this is like a guy’s paradise,” a male student told Bogle. “I mean, this is what guys have been wanting for many, many years. And women have always resisted, but now they are going along with it.”

Despite new regulations meant to ensure that these women have given their verbal consent during sexual encounters, these women still feel pressured into activities they would prefer to avoid. And not just at the individual level, where one party does something the other doesn’t want, but on a cultural level, where there is widespread pressure on women to conform to a sexual ideal that they don’t share.

So what should our colleges do about it? Right now, they’re doing all they can to avoid getting sued by assault victims or investigated by the federal government. They are embracing the new affirmative consent guidelines because they might give them legal protection by providing a clearer set of rules for sexual encounters.

But if we want to protect our students, not just their colleges, we will have to begin a deeper dialogue about the meaning of sex itself. Who wants to have sex, and why? And who really benefits from a “friends-with-benefits” system? When we separate physical intimacy from the emotional kind, we provide a fertile soil for sexual miscommunication and, yes, sexual coercion. For the past several years, we’ve tried to be casual about sex but serious about consent. And it’s not working.

Explore these other perspectives:

Kevin de León and Hannah-Beth Jackson: Why we made ‘Yes Means Yes’ California law

Wendy Murphy: Title IX protects women. Affirmative consent doesn’t.

Alan Dershowitz: Innocent until proven guilty? Not under ‘yes means yes.’

Annie Clark: Why are we waiting until college to learn about consent?

Kara Eschbach: Affirmative consent won’t end rape culture. Here’s what might.

You. (A live chat with Kara Eschbach and Jaclyn Friedman)