Although the popular video urges its audience to think about consent in simpler terms, on a case-by-case basis, the dilemma is much more fraught than we are lead to believe.
Now, the very basic issues of consent are clear to most people. We all know the rules. No means no. Yes means yes. But what happens when a verbal “no” is never uttered? What happens when a yes only comes after alcohol is introduced into the situation? It is easy to understand how the topic quickly gets muddied.
Our widespread confusion about consent is writ large in the US media. Just look at the abundance of public sex assault cases in summer of 2017. Sometimes, it even shows up in our laws. Currently in North Carolina, the law states that someone cannot revoke consent in a sexual encounter once they have given it. It is the last of 50 states to maintain such a provision in its legal code, but it provides some insight into how sex and consent are viewed in the rest of the country, too.
The North Carolina law is based on a legal precedent (State vs. Way) set in 1979 that decided that once penetration with consent occurs consent cannot be revoked. Even at first glance, this seems like a drastic simplification of the intricacies involved in any sexual encounter, or in any encounter, period. Situations change, and so do attitudes—so why write obligatory, assumed, continued consent into law?
To continue using the “Consent is like Tea” metaphor to understand the dangers of North Carolina’s law, imagine that someone offered you tea and you said “yes.” So, you take a sip, but it’s boiling hot and burns your tongue. Or maybe it’s a flavor that you don’t like. Or it’s over-steeped and bitter. Or over-sweetened. Or there’s too much of it to possibly finish in one sitting. Or any other million reasons why you don’t want to keep drinking the tea. Are you still required to keep drinking the tea? Of course not—the very idea seems absurd. Why, then, is it so much harder to use this logic when it comes to sexual assault?
Luckily, NC Senator Jeff Jackson has proposed to change this misinformed and outdated law. In April, he introduced Senate Bill 553, which states that if someone continues after consent has been withdrawn, they are committing rape. Several months have passed since Jackson’s proposal and more than 17,500 people have signed a petition against the original, archaic law, but the bill is still sitting in committee.
Short of changing laws like Senator Jackson aims to do, how can we honor affirmed, informed, continued consent before it becomes a criminal case in court? Part of the reason that consent—when it regards sex—is so complicated is because honest and open discussions about sex are considered a taboo. How can we talk about consensual sex if we can’t even talk about sex?!
It all begins with communication. For you and the person or people that you’re with… Try starting a conversation with some questions like: What are you okay with? What are your boundaries? How do you express when you like what’s happening? When you don’t? What do you need to feel comfortable trying something new? What will you do or say if you want to stop?
If imagining this is uncomfortable as hell, that’s totally normal! It may not seem like the most important thing when all parties involved are on the same page, but that mutual understanding can change pretty quickly. And when it does, most of us do not have the tools to talk about sex or consent. So, it’s awkward.
But you know what’s worse than an awkward conversation? Sexual assault. And the difference between sex and sex assault lies in consent. So, be brave and have honest conversations about sex. Consent may never be as simple as tea, but it will be a lot easier if we move past our fears and discomfort and just start talking to each other.
Written by Claire Cuthbert, MESA Intern and graduate of CU Boulder in Psychology and Spanish.