Consent is not like tea

By Branwyn Wilkinson

Opinion Contributor

“I don’t think there’s any easy solution to this problem, but I do think that the only way to find one is to start talking about it.” -Alexis Book in “The Gray Area Between Sex and Rape”

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep the important conversation about consent going.

It was very encouraging to read Alexis’ article last week because she did a great job putting what, I’m coming to believe, is a common occurrence into words. Yet, I’d never seen “non-immediate consent” written about before, and I think that’s because it’s an occurrence so common, most women don’t even think to question it.

I don’t personally know anyone who has been raped. But most of my close girl friends have at least one story about being pushed into going further than they wanted to. I have stories like that too; and while they don’t make up the majorities of our experiences, they make up too many to be ignored.

I agree that this is the result of a problem in our culture. I agree that the only way to start fixing it is to start talking about it.

So let’s talk about sex education. Nevermind that high school sex ed programs are terrible across the country, even the best forget to teach about one basic element of sex: consent.

My high school health class was as awkward as they come, but it was awkward because we were actually learning about sex and how to keep ourselves safe. Yet, I still didn’t learn the specifics of consent until the start of my Freshman year of college. I knew that forcing someone to have sex was under no circumstances okay. But the idea that a partner was supposed to ask (not beg) before making the next move? The truth that you’re not supposed to feel bad, and should not be made to feel bad, for not being ready to take the next step? These were new concepts to me.

As a young woman, I have received heaps of mixed messages about how to conduct myself when it comes to sex, and about consent. I’ve been taught that it is my right to say no, but I’ve also been told that there comes a point when it’s “too late” to say no. I’ve been told that there comes a point when saying no makes you a “tease.” That if you say no at this point you’re being “mean” to the guy.

But what about me? Why do I need to protect the guy’s feelings over my own? Isn’t he just as mean to ignore what someone else wants? Especially when those wants concern their own bodies.

There’s no such thing as a “tease.” Just as “slut” is a word used to shame women who decide to say yes, tease is used to shame women who decide to stop when they’re comfortable, instead of waiting until the man is satisfied.

Teaching consent needs to be more than just empowering women to say no. It needs to include teaching men to respect that no before the third or fourth time it’s said. It needs to include teaching women to respect their own no; because a lot of women never say that third or fourth no. When our requests aren’t listened to, doubt creeps in. We remember all those things that society has taught us over the years: that we’re being mean. That we’re overreacting. That we should just submit because, in the long run, sex isn’t about what we want.

Are any of these things true? No. But when society has taught you over and over that your right to say no comes with conditions, that’s what you remember in moments of vulnerability.

When I first got to Canisius, part of our consent education included watching the video “Consent Is Like Tea.” It’s a fine video in which asking for consent is presented as being as simple as asking someone if they want tea. At any point, the person may refuse tea and that’s okay. Consent it simple. Like tea.

However, once I got over the jokes that are bound to arise from referring to sex as tea, I realized the video was wrong. It presented an ideal, rather than the reality.

Ideally, asking for consent should be as simple as asking someone if they want tea. But what the video fails to take into account is that no one has ever been conditioned to feel guilty for turning down tea. The same is not true for sex.

The problem stems just as much, if not more so, from the conditions our culture places on when a woman can say no, as it does from rape culture. The issue of consent has to do with so much more than men taking advantage of women, because more often than not, it isn’t men who teach us the conditions of when to say no. It’s other women. It’s our teacher. Our mothers. Our friends.

We need to change how we talk about consent, and stop placing conditions on when we can say no. And we need to start talking about consent before college. We need to start talking about consent with young people as soon as we start talking to them about sex. We need to build an idea of consent that doesn’t come with conditions into the schema of a healthy sexual relationship, instead of trying to add it in later.

For now, consent is anything but simple. However, if we continue to have conversations like this, someday consent can be “as simple as tea.”

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