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​IMAM: The problem with affirmative consent

The new policy doesn’t do justice to the complexity of human interaction

After the Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” came out last year, sexual assault became a heated topic around Grounds. The University has responded with steps such as asking students to complete a sexual assault module. More significantly, it adopted affirmative consent into its sexual assault policy. Naturally, the University needs to respond in some way, but affirmative consent is not the answer. In fact, the concept itself could have numerous problematic implications for how we view sexual assault.

One of the biggest problems with the “yes means yes” approach is that it oversimplifies sexual interactions, which by nature are much more complex than that policy would suggest. In fact, it does so to the extent that even an unwanted hug might be counted as sexual assault. The fact that this case would not logically constitute sexual assault for most people highlights the self-defeating characteristic of this policy: what purpose does a policy serve the community if we would generally classify so many interactions that violate it as unworthy of being reported, and possibly even silly? Furthermore, categorizing such interactions as sexual assault is dangerous because it trivializes attacks under more violent and traumatizing circumstances.

Affirmative consent fails to recognize that, while violent assault crimes are an ever-pressing issue, humans are still able to make mistakes concerning sex that (although they may regret them later) were not necessarily forced. The University website’s Sexual Violence page describes affirmative consent as verbal or nonverbal, and states it can be obtained through “clear words or actions.” The website also states consent is knowing, and that someone “should be able to clearly understand the who, what, where, when, and why they are consenting to anything sexual.” This is an ambiguous guide at best, especially when placed in the context of the bar and college party scenes, where alcohol can impair one’s judgment regarding what one is willing to do in the moment, and affect one’s ability to both read and receive “clear” signs. So, even when the partner correctly reads the other person's nonverbal, “clear” signs as consent, if that person later realizes otherwise, the interaction could be viewed as an assault.

Additionally, even if true affirmative consent is given, it can then be taken away if the other person goes further without a clear “No,” since this view of consent requires it be given each time a deeper level of intimacy is reached. The concept of “checking in” with your partner is not only unrealistic when considering that few people’s tastes involve a verbal confirmation that each level of intimacy is acceptable as it is reached, but also unfairly places most of the burden on the male counterpart (assuming this is a heterosexual relationship). If the man in the situation were to think consent was implied based on non-verbal signs from how the partner is reacting to the current level of intimacy and so tries to take it further, the woman should feel free to try and stop him. Since affirmative consent can include non-verbal signs, it results in even further blurred lines regarding consent, as shown in the guy’s misunderstanding of her signs.

This is not to mention that in a culture where men are normally expected to make the move, this policy could result in us thinking it is also his responsibility to make sure that assault does not occur. In this way, while affirmative consent attempts to encourage both sides to seek consent from the other, in reality it could instead result in a double standard against men, criminalizing seemingly innocent, well-intentioned human contact and mistakes.

On the other hand, someone who maliciously intends to assault someone won’t be deterred in his attempt to do so because of the implementation of affirmative consent. At the same time, the person attacked in violent cases such as these would not need this new policy in order for her experience to be considered an assault. While the burden of ensuring no assault occurs should not be placed on the victim’s saying “no,” it is also unfair to place it on the other partner to make sure there is a “yes.” Affirmative consent oversimplifies the complex manner of sexual interactions and could change how sexual assault is viewed in negative ways.

Alyssa Imam is a Viewpoint writer.