The Complexities of Teaching Consent

The past year, I have had to reach out to my students and teach them about consent. Yes, sexual consent.

My undergraduate students are naive, or so I assumed as they’d once misread good touch and bad touch. I teach Youth, Gender and Identity – an interdisciplinary paper consisting of introductory concepts from psychology, women studies and gender studies. I welcome discussions on every topic and the same goes for sexual harassment. Unlike the common perception, the subject isn’t just limited to rape, but covers a wide range of issues.

The young students in my class too don’t know how lewd comments and non-consensual touch can also fall under sexual harassment. But I won’t blame them, because even if they address the problem within their own circles, as they say, they only get counter questions in return, such as, “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?”, “Do you have any evidence?” or “Have you tried talking?”

Students also tell me how they don’t understand the intrusion of private space the difference between flirtation and harassment. From our conversations, I realised how many of these students are unaware of everyday incidents of sexual harassment. Even if they felt uneasy, their discomfort in that moment was shoved too deep down in their psyche, that they couldn’t recall it a later time.

There were questions that stayed with me for the longest time: Why did these men have difficulty comprehending a ‘no’? Why did the women have doubts and anxieties over saying ‘no’ in case of everyday harassment?

Understanding consent and verbal consent

I remember a statement by Dr Jordan Peterson, Canadian professor of psychology, in conversation with Camile Paglia, American feminist critic.

“If you have to negotiate every next move with your dance partner, then you’re in fact not a good dancer after all. Similarly, if you have to negotiate every next move in the bedroom in the form of verbal conversation then you are in fact not a sophisticated and developed human being.”

I wanted to disagree with the statement for the longest time, but this time I couldn’t. Although seemingly straightforward, sexual consent truly is complex. Consent as a form of communication has multiple nuances.

On November 11, 2017, Peterson tweeted:

Canadian Law of consent emphasises the affirmative communication of consent through action or words. The law also clarifies that there is no consent when the consent is a result of someone abusing a position of trust, power or authority. You see “verbal consent” was never part of the boudoir for the longest time in history.

If we look into academic literature for a definition of consent Hickman and Muehlenhard (1999) defined it as ‘‘freely given verbal or nonverbal communication of a feeling of willingness to engage in sexual activity”. This definition emphasises both the inward (voluntary willingness) and outward (communication to another person) manifestations as key dimensions of consent. There exists vast literature on sexual coercion and rape that has focused, and continues to do so, on the absence of consent. From ‘No means No’, the #MeToo movement to #TimesUp – it all largely revolves around consent. However, little research has examined sexual consent as a subject in itself and the practiced forms of non-verbal consent.

Also read: Let’s Talk About the Language of Consent

Understanding non-verbal consent has always been difficult for social scientists, both in and out of the bedroom. Yes, popular consensus and ‘sexperts’ would provide you a general guide on how to read non-verbal consent. But what works as consent between two people on the first night is vastly different from what works between the same two people in a long- standing relationship.

A huge portion of misinformation on consent is based on portrayals of sexual intimacy in popular media, cinema and literature. For instance explicit contents of Henry Miller and Khushwant Singh are based on narratives of their perceived masculinities and not practiced reality; these are assumptions of how they saw sex. Critics like Kate Millet paid attention to Miller’s writings in Sexus (1965) and dissected every statement that she reads as “subjugation” of the woman. As it is pointed out by post modern feminists that the liberal feminist laws of consent barely applies to women in patriarchal societies.

Problem of sexual scripts

The need for legalisation of verbal consent became even more prominent as the complexities of sexual assault grew. Specifically as the courtrooms started getting filled with discussions on how a man coerced a woman and manipulated his way to consent and the women had to surmise, however, sex was not consensual. From question of lingerie to who initiated the conversation everything is analysed under authorised jurisdiction. When did it get so confusing here? Did this confusion always exist? How do we study the non-verbal gestures as evidence in the courtroom? Is consent a negotiated process?

To answer the latter, negotiation is definitely not consent. Yet there are more layers to understand. Kristen Jozkowski of University of Arkansas who is a premier researcher in this area challenges the prevalence of policies that teach that true consent can be only verbal, who argues that such policies have been established without looking into the lived realities of how people actually negotiate consent. Policies which aren’t at par with reality are bound to fail, especially because our ability to offer verbal consent is influenced by gender and culture which discourages women from uttering enthusiastic “yeses” altogether.

In the sexual scripts that passed down to women and men, according to Jozkowski, women are expected to refuse sex and men are expected to verbally and physically push past women’s refusals. Women who give an enthusiastic “yes” run the risk of getting labelled sluts, while men are socialised to discount women’s “nos” as “token refusals” they need to turn into nonverbal acquiescence. To expect women to say enthusiastic “yes”, so that consent is crystal clear, is to ignore the power of these scripts. It is unrealistic scripts cannot be changed unless the pertaining culture does not change. Cultural biases work against women in the opposite direction as well. When women are not aggressive in rejecting sex, not only are their partners likely to misunderstand their desires, says Jozkowski, it may also suggest that they did not do enough to ‘prevent the assault’.

Teaching students the practice of consent has been one of the most difficult parts of my teaching career. The concepts are complex and examples are murky. Consent would continue to remain in the slippery slope of words. Until then, all we can take away is that no is definitely a no, although a yes could be influenced by a variety of things.

Jahnabi Mitra is a lecturer, psychologist and independent researcher. You can find her on Instagram @jahnabi_m