Why is Consent So Difficult to Understand?


Serious question: why is the idea of consent so difficult to explain, and more importantly, to understand? No, really — why is such a seemingly simple concept so difficult?

Of course, rape culture has been a major topic of conversation since the public learned of the Stanford rape case this year, but questions of consent have long been an in issue in American society. But it’s not because we haven’t tried to clarify.

Since the 80s, we used the slogan “no means no” to teach kids the meaning of consent. It was simple: if someone says “no” to sex, then you do not have their consent. But in the last 5 years or so, we’ve finally realized the many holes in “no means no.” Unfortunately, not all parties are always conscious enough nor do they have all their faculties together to be able to say no. And even if all parties are sober and conscious, that doesn’t mean saying no comes easy. There are plenty of women who have expressed that they either freeze up or do not feel comfortable saying no when they feel that they will be inevitably overpowered by their partner.

And so, “no means no” became “yes means yes.” But that slogan had its own problems. When someone says yes at the beginning but later changes their minds, can they then say no? If someone says yes while they’re conscious but then becomes unconscious, is their yes still valid? How often along the way do you need to ask that yes they still do consent?

What seems like it should be a simple and direct concept has often proved to be complicated and unclear. Two years ago, Project Consent formed in an attempt to clarify things for everyone and produced those cute animated videos that made their way around the web.

And last year the Thames Valley Police station put out their own video on consent, using the analogy of offering a guest tea, that was much more comprehensive.

So it doesn’t seem like we have an issue with explaining consent. So is the problem with our ability to actually understand consent? Where’s the disconnect?

Some people will blame rape culture on the popularity and accessibility of overtly violent porn on the internet. Others will point a finger at our society’s obsession with violence in general, from movies to video games.

But maybe the problem can’t be blamed on any of those things. Maybe rape culture is so ingrained in our society that the concept of consent will never be fully consciously digested, no matter how well we explain it.

Coverture (aka the doctrine for which marriage resulted in the woman becoming the man’s legal property) wasn’t fully abolished in the United States until the 1970s, so how can we reasonably expect that the concept of a man needing the consent of a woman to engage sexually will be fully understood by 2016? If it took over 200 years to convince men that women were not their property, how can we expect that we can convince men that they need women to agree to sex in just a couple of decades?

Unfortunately, these questions don’t seem likely to be answered anytime soon. And even with situations, such as in the case of the Stanford rapist Brock Turner, that seem so obviously to have involved nonconsensual sex, there will still be a few standouts (i.e. both of Brock’s parents, Brock’s friends, the judge, and Brock himself). But at least the conversation has been opened up. And that’s a start.


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Lena Finkel
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules. When she's not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her hanging out with her tuxedo cat Tom.