We are not called a woke generation for nothing. We have risen and shone as a collective to address long known societal issues that our predecessors have failed or ignored to do so.
One of these issues is sexual assault. As evident in the rise of the #MeToo movement and its effect not only in culture but in policy, men and women alike are now empowered to call out misconduct for breakfast and call forth action before bedtime. We are now empowered to lead sex lives grounded on enthusiastic yes’s and mutual fulfillment. This newfound empowerment against sexual assault comes with a heightened sensitivity to consent.
Now as we navigate each of our own encounters and relationships, we want to keep romance in play while holding ourselves accountable in making sure we aren’t crossing any lines. And so we ask: how do we master consent in this woke era?
Make your MOVE
Consent is about making sure you make your MOVE: Mutual, Ongoing, Voluntary, Explicit.
This woke era is simultaneously the Netflix era so it’s fitting to point to the definition of consent provided in a promotional video of hit Netflix series 13 Reasons Why: “consent is a mutual and voluntary agreement between people to engage in sexual activity.” This simplified definition uses keywords mutual and voluntary to cut through the nuances of the word. Consent, like communication, goes both ways. The parties involved assume both roles of consent giver and consent getter. More to the point, all parties involved must be in the right state of mind and spirit to voluntarily agree to a sexual conduct. This goes without saying that sobriety, consciousness, and physical and emotional autonomy are prerequisites to consent.
More keywords tied to consent are ongoing and explicit. Consent is not a static yes: it is continuously asked for and given throughout a sexual conduct. With that said, consent can be withdrawn anytime, especially if the conditions wherein consent was given have changed. This does not necessarily mean that your partner needs to say a resounding ‘yes’ every other minute, but it does mean that you need to take enthusiastic cues from him or her to proceed. The same level of respect is maintained when consent givers do not treat consent like a Sexbomb song: laban laban, bawi bawi. The rule of thumb is to go into a sexual encounter agreeing to the sexual process as a whole and staying open to possible changes along the way.
This should be an easy enough checklist for us to identify what counts as consent. But is it really?
Yes or No
Like any agreement, consent can be given verbally and/or nonverbally. Verbally, consent is given with a 100% enthusiastic ‘yes’ and withheld or withdrawn with any response less than that. In a woke era, we must acknowledge the wide spectrum that exists between the absolute yes and the absolute no; and that we must understand that the absolute yes is the only thing acceptable as consent. A maybe does not count as consent nor does a depends. A yes as an absolutely or a definitely is the answer that counts as consent.
An infographic released by Queen’s University in Canada strongly states: consent is never implied. The absence of no is not a yes. As consent could be given verbally and nonverbally, it can also be withdrawn the same way. This can happen anytime with or without explanation.
Here’s a dose of truth though: bad sex does not reverse consent. Disappointing outcomes do not nullify or negate the consent that was already given. It’s pretty much like skydiving: once you have agreed to the undertaking, understood its implications and risks, taken the plunge, and landed on the ground, the consent you have given cannot be taken away.
While we can easily find the definition of consent in the dictionary, a meme, or a campaign video, it should not escape us that the means of giving and receiving consent could take on different forms, especially that, at the end of the day, we’re individuals who have different ways of going about things. The yes of one person could be vocal while the yes of another is mostly nonverbal. However, individuality should not be used as an excuse to refuse to be part of a society that requires consent for pleasure.
Not a hindrance to romance
A society that values consent and consent education is what we want to be, but this naturally redefines romance for us. How are we now to tackle the nuances of consent in dating and touch without turning our romantic lives into legal contracts? Without being paranoid that our romantic gestures would be taken as steps to assault? Relationship author and love guru Mandy Lee Catron elaborated in a New York Times article nearly two years ago on how she and her boyfriend came up with a ‘relationship contract’ as a way to addressing consent and other terms of agreement. Their relationship contract is a four-page, single-spaced document valid for 12 months which is an explicit agreement of the expectations they have of each other as well as boundaries within the relationship. The reactions it elicited were mixed: some loved it, some found it unromantic. Catron states: “Writing a relationship contract may sound calculating or unromantic, but every relationship is contractual; we’re just making the terms more explicit.”
If we are to go by the Oxford dictionary definition of romance as “the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love” then Catron’s relationship contract does not exactly fit that mold as it leaves little room for mystery. But it doesn’t exactly violate it either. A relationship contract would address umbrella expectations while still allowing the day-to-day affairs in a relationship to unfold as they do.
Another way of how we’re tackling consent nuances these days is the creation of consent apps. Consent apps enable smartphone users to make digital contracts before having sex: actual proof that a ‘yes’ is a ‘yes’. This is an adaptable idea but it does not cover all bases: it could fail in corresponding to real time cues. It could fail by being ambiguous. It could fail by killing the vibe. A stroke on the shoulder is still different, if not better, from a tap on an app. However, we cannot deny the practicality of proof consent apps deliver – for setting up the initial contact, at least. An app won’t be much use during a face to face encounter where we would have to rely on physical and social cues on what to do next. Is it okay to tuck her hair behind her ear, when the wind blows it in front of her face as she stares up at you through her lashes? Is it okay to lay your head on his shoulder as you watch a movie? Romance is a little bit more intuitive; consent, on the other hand, is increasingly more explicit as actions get more intimate.
Romance and consent are not mutually exclusive. To master consent, we do not need to abolish romance. We need to redefine it; we already have. The mystery in romance no longer lies in unsaid expectations, but in eager anticipation. We now get the excitement from knowing we are secure in the hands of our partner. We no longer subscribe to a definition of romance that makes us vulnerable to assault. We’re subscribing to one that would make us feel safer — where we are safer. After all, our relationships should be our safe space in a world that’s shady and dangerous enough as it is. And yes, a relationship contract or a consent app may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but surely, consent is. Consent should be. It is not just another hashtag, marketing campaign, or app concept. Consent is key to making relationships a safe space where power is not one-sided or exploited. Consent is intention and respect made explicit, clear, and top priority.