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Opinion Yes, get consent. But be human, too.

A student holds up a slogan her group came up with while planning a consent campaign at James Madison University in 2014.
A student holds up a slogan her group came up with while planning a consent campaign at James Madison University in 2014. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)

I spent Saturday afternoon in a darkened theater, surrounded by giggling college freshmen, watching a play about sexual assault. I was back at my alma mater, and not much had changed.

Correction: A few things had. When I was a freshman in 2006, Princeton’s orientation-week sex-ed program was called “Sex on a Saturday Night,” and upperclassmen sometimes attended just to heckle. In 2018, it had been renamed “The Way You Move” (still awkward but less salacious) and was a decidedly more solemn affair.

That said, the basic contours remained the same. Student actors dramatized a weekend night out, replete with budding romances and too much beer. There was “pregame” drinking, a goofy dance party and then, startlingly, an alcohol-enabled rape.

That harrowing scene was followed by a somber debriefing and an introduction to the college’s peer advisers for sexual health. Having sex with a blacked-out classmate was not okay, because she could not consent. An administrator took pains to define the term and to discuss the “gray area” between a clear yes and an absolute no — it was described as a contaminated space, where to engage in sexual activity was to assume varying amounts of risk.

This was where it began to strike me as odd, in a way it hadn’t back when I was one of the 18-year-olds in the audience. Something was missing from the conversation, which seemed awfully coldblooded. The discussion was all about consent, but it was only about consent. Consent is not a bad thing, of course — a profusion of sexual harassment cases has taught us that much — but consent isn’t enough.

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Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has prompted a healthy reevaluation of our sexual mores. But as more-complicated cases come to light — a bad date with Aziz Ansari is harder to parse than Harvey Weinstein allegedly attacking women in hotel rooms — it has become increasingly clear that the rethinking is not complete. While we’re much better at calling out bad behavior, we haven’t come to an agreement on what’s good. Consent is the line we use to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable, but it’s thin and often detached from a real understanding of the human person. While consent is a helpful legal framework for risk avoidance, it too often allows us to bypass questions of respect, relationship and care. Is the worst thing about taking advantage of a drunken classmate really the fact that you didn’t get her to mouth “yes” first?

Even among the consent regime’s fiercest partisans, the realization that something is missing has been quietly gaining steam. Feminist writer Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of the seminal “Yes Means Yes” anthology, recently wrote as much in Refinery29: “On the way to codification we’ve replaced some of the old rape myths with this new one: That consent is just a hurdle you have to clear in order to Get The Sex.”

She continues: Real consent “requires us to see our sex partners — whether they be anonymous hookups or life partners — not simply as instrumental to our own pleasure but as co-equal collaborators, equally human and important, equally harmable, equally free and equally sovereign.” It’s not enough to just note that there is a “gray area” that requires risk avoidance, independent from any ethical concerns.

After the presentation ended and the freshmen filed out, I stopped backstage to talk to the student actors. Had the play seemed like enough, in their opinion? Wasn’t it a little incomplete?

“Yeah,” one, a junior, agreed. “The logic is sort of Cartesian.” (Oh, college!) “Do this, not that. Don’t break the rules. But given the time constraints . . . ” She shrugged.

She was right, of course. A one-hour play, even combined with a well-intended administrative extrapolation, can’t impart a full understanding of human dignity. Moral consciousness is built over a span of years, maybe decades. Empathy and intimacy have to be learned. And developing true humanity — the ability to view relationships as shared rather than transactional, to see others as deserving of respect and goodwill — is the work of a lifetime.

No doubt the creators of these college skits now realize that they’re a backstop at best and know they don’t deliver a holistic sexual education or moral sensibility.

Because college is too late. One would hope parents and primary schools are doing their part, long before they release their subjects out into the world. And maybe, too, in dorm rooms or philosophy seminars, questions of ethics and empathy will be discussed in more detail by the students themselves. That might be the task for this next generation of sex-havers — to develop a sexual ethic that is not just a set of rules but also truly respects the human person.

In the meantime, my advice to the Class of 2022 is simple, though in practice I know it’s going to take some work: Yes, get consent. But try to be human as well.

Read more:

Christine Emba: Let’s rethink sex

Elizabeth Bruenig: The sexual revolution isn’t going away. It never really happened.

Jon Zimmerman: We’re casual about sex and serious about consent. But is it working?

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

Molly Roberts: No to making ‘yes means yes’ the standard for determining rape