As part of the growing population of young people who consider themselves informed and progressive, most students at UW would likely consider themselves knowledgeable about consent and the tricky social, legal, and moral implications that come hand in hand. But there is more to consent than just getting a “yes” and getting down to business.
The history of consent is a short but important one. Professor Patricia Molano teaches a philosophy and sex course (PHIL 201) at UW and shared some insights about the perception of consent and how it has changed throughout history.
Molano elaborated, “Consent emerged historically to counter the common law belief that constructed a woman’s sexuality as under the purview of a man’s control. It was oxymoronic for a woman to claim she had been raped by her husband — being married gave men the right to take sex.”
Molano continued to explain that only recently in history, with the emergence of the importance of the individual rights, has the idea of consent and the exploration of consent models been highlighted and studied.
“Consent is mostly a marker for ‘people get to do what they want’ in this domain. Consent is supposed to enable that to happen … There were a lot of changes that started to happen that dealt with individual autonomy,” said Molano. “Consent has always been a facet of human rights, just not necessarily in terms of sexuality. For thousands of years, people have been rebelling because they did not consent to do things: be slaves, pay taxes, fight in wars. It is only recently that the conversation around consent has been focusing on sexual rights.”
Molano pointed out that there are several challenges that come up when exploring consent paradigms, especially the questions of whether or not consent is enough, and what can be considered consent.
“There’s all kinds of ways of thinking about consent,” said Molano. “Some people think a verbal ‘yes’ is enough. Some people say positive actions should be enough to give consent. Some people think consent should be asked for and given continuously, whereas some people think just asking once counts as consent.”
“It gets complicated when you think about what you’re looking for with consent as a social practice, versus what you’re looking for with consent as a legal practice, versus what you want from a university policy. Those are just three very different ways of looking at consent,” Molano said.
“It’s really important that … we talk about sex in our culture because it’s common for woman’s pleasure to … not be as obvious as a man’s. Women receive a lot of mixed messages about their sexuality, so I think it’s important in these discussions to prioritize woman’s pleasure in sexual experiences. Respecting someone’s decision-making capabilities is sort of the basis of consent,” added Molano.
Consent is not just an issue when it comes to sexual encounters; it can come into play in social settings as well. “Normally when you’re interacting with people, you want to be thinking about how they’re feeling about the conversation or how they feel about the interaction, or what are the dynamics going on more broadly and how does this conversation seem in the context of your relationship … but consent for social situations like conversations is complicated. The reason we often talk about consent in … a sexual context is because there is legal and policy work surrounding consent and it’s easy to draw a bright line at consent.”
So what can students do to better educate themselves on consent and its parameters? Ask, research, think! Ask your partner what qualifies as consent for them so you can be sure to always provide it willingly and also confirm their consent. Research more about the topic, including legal and feminist websites because a lot of the significant literature surrounding consent is in the legal realm. Think about consent honestly with yourself. How do you give consent now? Has it always been clear? Thinking about ways in which we can improve our reception and projection of consent can lead to healthier relationships and can also help clarify, for yourself, where your limits stand.