I wish we learned about consent in high school. I was taught abstinence, sexually transmitted infections, and the annual cost of raising a baby. But I never learned what counted as permission to have sex. In fact, I wasn’t even cognizant of the fact that someone needed my permission; teachers and parents mainly reinforced that “no” meant “no”, not the importance of “yes”.
Sexual assault is greater than “no means no” which is why we have to teach consent.
The problem is that sometimes “yes” means no. Sometimes silence means no. Sometimes a non-verbal “no” is loud and understandable but can be overlooked in the absence of a verbal one. Sexual assault is greater than “no means no” which is why we have to teach consent.
Planned Parenthood uses the acronym F.R.I.E.S — which stands for freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific — to explain consent to any newbies. It reframes some of the alleged grey areas between sex and sexual assault. Consent when someone is being pressured, forced, or manipulated is not freely given — and typically not enthusiastic either. If someone changes their mind about having sex but their partner keeps going, their consent is invalidated because it wasn’t reversible. If both partners agree to have sex with a condom but then someone removes it or tampers with it, one partner was not able to give informed or specific consent — which is rape.
pprehensive consent is when consent is given when someone is coerced, threated, or pressured
However, the socially engrained perception is that men are natural conquerors, initiators and sexual negotiators which stumbles up against the idea presented in F.R.I.E.S. The idea that men are the natural sexual aggressors implies that men’s actions are informed by a biological need to spread their seed. We pathologize men who aren’t hypersexual in this way, and reward men for successfully convincing sex out of women — but that isn’t how consent works! Someone who gives in to sex because they’re being pressured or manipulated isn’t actually giving permission, they’re tired of resisting. That’s consent on a surface level, which is otherwise known as apprehensive consent.
According to Apprehensive consent is illustrated by the Aziz Ansari story, in which he repeatedly tried to initiate sex with a woman referred to as Grace. She kept moving away from him. She said, “next time” and “I don’t want to feel forced,” but he still persisted. In fact, he pretended to understand what she meant, only to negotiate oral sex from her again a few moments later. He acted like he was interested in consent but really, he was hoping to weaken her resistance. And while Grace was able to exit the apartment in an Uber, she left feeling shaken and upset. She hadn’t wanted to put her hand on his penis or host his fingers in her mouth, but he had no issue with her apprehensive consent in that scenario.pprehensive consent is when consent is given when someone is coerced, threated, or pressured.
We should only ever be enthusiastic participants
Apprehensive consent is not actually consenting because it is neither enthusiastic or freely given. To understand that, we have to first embrace the idea that women even desire sex. We spent so long learning the opposite. A common TV trope when I was younger involved a prodding husband and his exhausted wife, who was never interested in being sexual. As a young woman, my partners would tell me that women didn’t even orgasm; we were allegedly too emotional and complicated. Fortunately, studies have shown exactly how high the female sexual drive is. And if we want and enjoy sex just as much as men, then our consent matters. We should only ever be enthusiastic participants.
Apprehensive consent is not actually consenting because it is neither enthusiastic or freely given.
We also deserve to be enthusiastic about how we have sex. Apprehensive consent to condomless sex is not consent, but men still try to negotiate with me — and even the toughest, most responsible women have caved under pressure. Part of it is that male desire is centralized within heterosexual sex; the male orgasm is literally treated as the end goal of the encounter whereas the female orgasm isn’t necessarily a factor. This equation puts additional pressure on women to cater to the sexual needs of their partner, even at the expense of our sexual/reproductive health. But also, human beings are just significantly worse at making decisions when they’re aroused.
Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University, researched the effects of sexual arousal on decision making for his book Predictably Irrational. He found that everyone thinks they’re essentially the same person during moments of passion — and that everyone is severely overestimating themselves. Protection drops completely off of our radar when we’re aroused and we’re more likely to engage in risky behaviors. And if someone is consistently trying to renegotiate protection after he’s already having sex with you, this might not be someone familiar with Ariely’s work but he certainly realizes that arousal alters judgment. If the context of your decision to not use condoms is manipulation or coercion, then it’s not exactly freely given.
Everyone thinks they’re essentially the same person during moments of passion — and that everyone is severely overestimating themselves
Last year, the practice of non-consensually removing the condom during sex — known as “stealthing” — drew mainstream media attention after a study was conducted for the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. It’s a struggle for women to deal with forms of gender violence that aren’t usually recognized as such, especially when the severity gets overlooked. You have to convince yourself that you’re even allowed to feel violated. In a story by the Huffington Post, one victim described feeling upset after getting stealthed, only for her partner to suggest she was being crazy or overreacting. It resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. Another victim reported that her partner defended his decision to remove the condom by saying that he “knew what he was doing”. Another woman was diagnosed as HIV-positive after getting stealthed. Overall, victims reported that their trust had been violated, that they blamed themselves, that they felt betrayed and humiliated.
Apprehensive consent counts as a person saying no
Consent to unprotected sex does not automatically entitle someone to ejaculate inside of you, either. As much as sex education hates the withdrawal method — or “pulling out” as we like to call it — it’s still 78% effective, which is 78% better than nothing. So admittedly, when my partner and I have both recently been tested, I have opted for him to pull out. Unfortunately, there are so many men who will agree to it and then cum inside of you anyway — and just like with stealthing, it’s hard to feel like an actual violation has occurred. One of my partners even handed me money for Plan B after, as if he was qualified to make decisions about the hormones I introduce to my body. My period never returned to normal after. And the fact of the matter is, I didn’t consent.
Which is why we need to teach consent in schools. We have to popularize a thorough understanding of consent that includes F.R.I.E.S. And we need to teach people what apprehensive consent looks like — because apprehensive consent counts as a person saying no. When we shift the scripts that we are all used to within sex, we make room for one that actually respects female desire. And hopefully, it helps us to eradicate a hyper-prevalent rape culture.