Why Feminists Want “Affirmative Consent”

“Affirmative consent” reminds me of the talks my preschool teacher would have with the class. “Don’t play with someone else’s toy unless they give you permission first,” ect. “Consent” seems to me like something which ought to be very simple for mature adults to understand. Why do feminists demand such nonsense?

Imagine a stereotypical feminist college student, call her “Emily.” Emily will grow up hearing that she will be able to do anything a man can do. Her feminist college professors will tell her that there are no meaningful innate differences between the sexes. She will be told that just as men enjoy sleeping around women can too, the only thing that would stop them from enjoying it are outdated patriarchal norms. She will be told this not just by the New York Times (which she hardly ever reads because it’s boring) but by the TV as well. As a young person, her knowledge of the adult world will have come from four sources of observation: her parents and other adult family members, her parents’ friends, her friends’ parents, and media, which is mostly TV.

But then she tries sleeping around and her reaction is quite different from that of her favorite TV characters. She finds it…unsatisfying. And the men she sleeps with are…mean. They treat her with very little respect and won’t give her relationship commitment. Why buy the cow when the milk is free? And if she doesn’t make herself available for sex they ignore her. She knows they make fun of her behind her back. She develops sour grapes syndrome, telling the New York Times she doesn’t want a relationship, she “just wants to have fun.”

Isn’t a very simple solution to not have sex? Though it shocks some people the fact is women like to have sex. She will feel a strong desire to “hook up.” But she might resist the urge and choose abstinence. The notion(such as the claim found in this article in the National Review) that most millennials are participating in the “hook up culture” is a myth. In reality it is a distinct minority. But if Emily does choose abstinence she will still want a relationship with an attractive man and will still develop a resentment of the jerks she can’t help but be attracted to. She might consider finding a guy who doesn’t have a girlfriend and wants one, her university is full of them, but who wants to date nerds?

An article at Think Progress written by “Tara Culp-Ressler” explains “What ‘Affirmative Consent’ Actually Means:”(links in original)


And in a Washington Post article entitled “YOU are a rapist; yes YOU,” law professor David Bernstein argues that requiring a standard of explicit consent for sexual encounters “makes almost every adult in the U.S. (men AND women) — and that likely includes you, dear reader — a perpetrator of sexual assault.” Bernstein is mainly concerned about the ambiguous first steps of initiating a sexual encounter, giving the example of a woman who may unbutton a man’s shirt without explicitly asking.

There are legitimate questions about whether state legislation is the right vehicle for instilling a culture of affirmative consent on college campuses. But much of the hyperbolic concern over turning students into rapists and taking the fun out of sex stems from a misunderstanding about how affirmative consent actually operates in practice.

Affirmative consent isn’t based on the idea that every sexual encounter is a rigid contract between two parties. No one is suggesting that college students need to run through a checklist before unbuttoning each other’s shirts. Instead, it’s more about broadly reorienting about how we approach sex in the first place.

So it’s not about enforcing a legalistic standard, it’s a culture thing. Except, you know, for the fact that it will operate and be interpreted as a law.

The current societal script on sex assumes that passivity and silence — essentially, the “lack of a no” — means it’s okay to proceed. That’s on top of the fact that male sexuality has been socially defined as aggressive, something that can result in men feeling entitled to sex, while women have been taught that sex is something that simply happens to them rather than something they’re an active participant in. It’s not hard to imagine how couples end up in ambiguous situations where one partner is not exactly comfortable with going forward, but also not exactly comfortable saying no.

Or it might have something to do with the fact that the act of heterosexual sex inherently involves domination and passivity.

Under an affirmative consent standard, on the other hand, both partners are required to pay more attention to whether they’re feeling enthusiastic about the sexual experience they’re having. There aren’t any assumptions about where the sexual encounter is going or whether both people are already on the same page. At its very basic level, this is the opposite of killing the mood — it’s about making sure the person with whom you’re about to have sex is excited about having sex with you.

Making sure someone else is enthusiastic about what you’re doing with them requires you to consider their wants and needs, think about how to bring them pleasure, and ultimately approach sex like a partnership instead of a means to your own end.

So that’s the crux of what it’s really about, it’s a way for Emily to force the guys she’s sleeping with to care about her feelings.

Some have taken to calling this “prudish” and “puritanical.” While there are some parallels I personally think the comparison is unfair to the Puritans.


Kate Taylor, Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too, New York Times, July 14 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/fashion/sex-on-campus-she-can-play-that-game-too.html?hp&_r=1&pagewanted=all&

Dennis Prager, Why Is There a Campus Hookup Culture?, National Review, April 30 2013 http://www.nationalreview.com/article/346952/why-there-campus-hookup-culture-dennis-prager

Tara Culp-Ressler, What ‘Affirmative Consent’ Actually Means, Think Progress, June 25 2014 http://thinkprogress.org/health/2014/06/25/3453041/affirmative-consent-really-means/

Robby Soave, Feminist Camille Paglia on Yes Means Yes: ‘Drearily Puritanical, Hopelessly Authoritarian’, Reason, December 14 2015 https://reason.com/blog/2015/12/14/feminist-camille-paglia-on-yes-means-yes

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One Response to Why Feminists Want “Affirmative Consent”

  1. JH says:

    When I was at Swarthmore, there was a running joke that no one had sex except the girls’ rugby team, who had sex with each other.

    More recently, Swarthmore female students filed 86 separate allegations of sexual assault in 2013 alone. So one has to assume either that the heterosexual students at one nerdy liberal arts college either became substantially more sexually active in the intervening decade and a half, and/or that a truly astonishing percentage of the sexually active students filed sexual assault charges.

    One thing I think might be left out of your model above is that high school students– particularly the high school students who make it into elite schools– do a lot less fooling around than they used to, thanks to much greater parental supervision. So your average girl gets to Harvard or Penn or Swarthmore with less experience finding her own boundaries, at the same time as she feels much more social pressure– thanks to porn as well as TV– to trespass those boundaries altogether. I think the combination of inexperience with hookup culture (and the valorization of victimhood, of course) is what got us to our current state.


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