Why Don’t More People Understand Sexual Consent?

Consent infographic: consent is clear, coherent, willing,
Source: SUNO

When it comes to sexual interactions, it seems like the notion of consent should be pretty simple. Yes means yes, no means no, easy peasy, right? Except obviously, it’s not that simple for a disturbingly large number of people. That begs the question, how have we gotten it so wrong as a society that this isn’t clearly communicated to everyone?

Disturbingly, a 2018 survey found that only 28% of Canadians have a clear understanding of how consent is given. The Canadian Women’s Foundation explains that consent needs to be explicit, enthusiastic, and ongoing, and it may be withdrawn at any time. Yet 20% of Canadians aged 18-34 believe that sending explicit images automatically and always indicates consent to sex. Ten percent of Canadians don’t believe that consent is necessary for sexual activity within long-term relationships.

Far too often, police and the justice system assume that consent is given until it’s somehow proven otherwise. It’s an odd way of looking at the matter. It’s like my vagina is assumed to be permanently open for business unless I have a signed agreement that I want to close up shop. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so disgusting.

Rape of an unconscious woman

In 2015, Stanford University student Brock Turner sexually assaulted an intoxicated, unconscious woman. He was found guilty on several charges, including penetration of an unconscious person. Despite this, he was only sentenced to six months in jail, of which he actually served three months. Why? Because a drunken and passed out woman has an “I consent” stamp on her vagina? Turner and his lawyers had the gall to file an appeal, but in some display of sanity, a higher court rejected it.

The victim, who later revealed her name as Chanel Miller, shared her powerful victim impact statement with Buzzfeed.

This is why some definitions of consent include the enthusiastic element. An unconscious twitch is not an enthusiastic yes.

What she means when she says "no": 1. No

“Consensual” gang rape

In a 2016 attack in Spain, a group of five men raped a teenage woman, and recorded the attack on their cellphones. The defense victim-blamed, arguing it was consensual, and the court found the men guilty of the lesser charge of sexual abuse rather than rape. This implies that consent exists until proven otherwise.

I’m really not sure how lawyers can live with themselves after pulling that kind of crap. The public outcry led to legislative changes in 2018, with the Spanish prime minister announcing “If they say ‘no’ it means ‘no,’ and if they don’t say ‘yes,’ it means no” (Global Citizen). The fact that anyone is sensing a need to explicate that shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the cultural messaging that people are receiving.

Failures of the Canadian justice system

There was public outcry when Canadian former judge Robin Camp repeatedly asked the victim in a sexual assault case why she didn’t do more to demonstrate lack of consent. He also suggested she should have just kept her knees together. Why, because if a woman’s knees aren’t glued shut, there’s automatically that good old “I consent” stamp on her vagina? Yet he didn’t think to ask why the defendant didn’t do more to stop himself from stabbing her with his penis. Mr. Camp was removed from the bench as a result, but unfortunately, the law society in his province saw fit to allow him to continue to practice as a lawyer.

I recently read on CBC News about a woman in the city where I live who was sexually assaulted during a school dance as a teen. She was assaulted inside a bathroom stall, and was left with significant injuries requiring surgery. Defense lawyers argued in court that the sex was consensual. Does anyone ever consent to having their vagina torn open?

The judge convicted the perpetrator but thought he was a low risk to re-offend. The judge was concerned about what the perpetrator would miss out on, so only handed him 2 weeks of jail time. The concern is what he is missing out on? Please.

In Canada, rape-shield laws are supposed to prevent victims’ sexual histories from being used against them to suggest that they consented to the alleged attacks. In practice, this is a lot more iffy. It’s disturbing to think that some people think that consent is implied because of past activity. Consent is necessary for every single sexual encounter.& How is that so hard for some people to grasp?

We need to do more

Clearly not enough people are picking this up on their own, so when we have the birds and the bees talk with our kids, we need to talk to them about consent. Not just gloss over it, actually talk about it.

It’s bizarre that something that should be so simple is instead be somehow lacking in clarity. There is no consent unless it is clearly given freely, each and every time. Anyone who has problems understanding that needs to keep their pants on.

Elements of sexual consent: freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, specific
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16 thoughts on “Why Don’t More People Understand Sexual Consent?”

  1. I suspect some of those instances of rape being downgraded to assault are plea-bargains i.e. that the defendant would plead ‘not guilty’ to rape, but ‘guilty’ to assault and the prosecution go with the latter because of the difficulty of proving the former in court. But, yes, it is disturbing.

  2. Such an important topic! 💗 Thank you for writing about this. I was in Spain when that happened. The girl is still suffering from a trauma well the 5 awful monsters who did it will not be in jail for much time. It also reminds me of a time I was partying and I drank alcohol and a boy used that to touch me when I didn’t say it was okay. The next day I felt horrible and felt like something bad happened. I thought it was mine fault when it wasn’t. Just because I drank doesn’t mean it’s okay to do that. It’s disgusting.

  3. People committing rape and sexual abuse and harassment know what they’re doing. They know when someone isn’t into something 100%. They know when someone is clearly uncomfortable with as little as a hug and still follows through. The people defending them know it too. They just don’t care about personal boundaries, or women’s sexual enjoyment, or bodily autonomy. They’d rather keep certain power imbalances in tact so they can keep on doing it, and to rationalise their past behaviour. I can guarantee you that every person that ‘struggles’ to understand consent who HASN’T been convicted of a sex-crime has done something, if not violent or stereotypically considered rape, then something coersive, involving wearing down someone’s else’s defences. That, or they’ve been a victim of it and don’t want to realise they’ve been victimised.

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