Ask first, no questions later

Verbal consent must precede sexual activity in order to eliminate ambiguities

Monday and Tuesday the University held a conference on sexual assault as part of a national effort to address issues of sexual misconduct on college campuses. Nationally-acclaimed experts on legal and social matters surrounding assault spoke at the conference, as well as University President Teresa Sullivan.

One of the issues raised at the conference during a panel discussion by university presidents was consent. Each panelist affirmed that it is the president’s responsibility to set a standard expectation of consent, despite the difficulties in defining it.

A recent article in The New York Times explains how some college students are working to establish an explicit “ask first” standard for consent. This means that a person must obtain permission from a potential partner before making any advances, including kissing.

Some may deride the idea of an “ask first” policy because they feel like it destroys intimacy. But such a policy may be necessary when lack of communication between partners is so common. According to a study done at the University of Arkansas last year, only 10 percent of female students reported that they give consent through body language, while 61 percent of male students reported that they interpreted consent through body language. In a parallel reversal, 51 percent of female students reported they give consent through verbal cues, while only 9 percent of male students reported receiving consent through verbal cues.

Clearly, there is a problem here. Much of human communication is non-verbal, but unless the advancing party is interpreting the message the same way that the consenting or non-consenting party intends to give it, non-verbal communication does not work. Spoken words are necessary to eliminate ambiguities, and this is what the “ask first” initiative is trying to convey.

It is important to note the “ask” element in that a question must not be presumptive. “Why don’t we go upstairs?” has a very different connotation from “Would you like to go upstairs, or would you rather stay down here?” The phrasing of the first requires the potential partner to give justification for refusal. This mentality stems from a flawed societal standard about gender — that men are entitled to sex, that women’s bodies are available to them unless the woman expressly denies him.

The principle of “ask first” is that no one should be presumed to belong to anyone. Everyone — men and women — should refrain from making intimate advances on another person unless he or she knows — not infers, not guesses — that such an advance is desired. To ask the question may not feel normal. It may feel forced. But forcing yourself to use words you do not usually use is far better than forcing another person to do something he or she is uncomfortable with.

Asking for consent may feel awkward at first, but we can get over that obstacle by starting an open conversation about how to obtain verbal consent in a way that will preserve the intimacy and spontaneity between partners. The main purpose of the conference at the University this week was to initiate discussion. This is one way we can continue the dialogue. We should not be embarrassed to talk about matters of sexual intimacy. Such conversations are necessary to address the so-called “blurred lines” that are easy to hide behind when making excuses for inappropriate conduct. Let’s eliminate the blurred lines by actually talking to each other. It is not acceptable to let anyone hide behind them anymore.

Published February 12, 2014 in Opinion

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