Content Warning: sexual assault
“Asking for consent is so awkward.”
Variations of this phrase get thrown around often enough, in daily conversation, on T.V. and even in the press: consider the New York Post headline from 2015 that said, “More men are asking consent for sex — and it’s awkward.” This flippant perspective on consent is part of a larger issue, and one that exposes inherent flaws in the ways we discuss sex and respect.
First, it’s important to understand what constitutes as consent. Willamette’s Sexual Assault Response Allies (SARA) define consent as “an informed, sober, freely given, ongoing enthusiastic ‘yes!’ when no is a safe and viable option.” If a sexual encounter occurs without the consent of all parties involved, that encounter is sexual assault.
It’s also worth noting that consent should be applied to more than just sex. Things as seemingly innocuous as touching or kissing can still be received as invasions of space that require permission beforehand. Consent can be requested in countless ways: “Can I kiss you?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Is this okay?” or “Do you like this?”
It sounds simple enough, but evidently, there are still people who find it uncomfortable to ask questions like these. In her article titled “Talking about sex is awkward, so how can teenagers ‘just ask’ for consent?” Elsie Whittington claims that many young people are averse to asking for consent because they fear being rejected by the other person.
“‘It’s really hard for someone to actually upfront ask someone if they want to do specific things with them,’” the article said, quoting a student Whittington interviewed. “‘It might be a really massive impact on your self-esteem.’”
Sure, it can be demoralizing to ask for a kiss and receive a blunt “no” in reply. Nobody wants to be rejected, especially young people who are fumbling their way through their earliest sexual encounters. However, this raises an important point: if you anticipate that your partner’s answer could be “no,” should that not be all the more reason to ask for consent? If you have any uncertainty about your partner’s intentions and wishes, shouldn’t asking for consent take first priority?
Fear of rejection is not the only reason some people may be uncomfortable asking for consent. Maybe they’re worried about ruining the mood, or think asking would make them look immature or inexperienced.
Frankly, if this is your thought process before kissing or having sex with someone, your discomfort is a moot point. The other person’s boundaries and safety should be your priority, not your worries about how asking for permission will make you look. If you care more about ‘the mood’ or your own self image more than you do consent, you should not be having sex. Full stop. To think anything otherwise is to expose your entitlement and warped understanding of the power dynamics of sex.
Not only is calling consent awkward an incorrect and tone deaf assertion, it it also a damaging one that buttresses rape culture. WAVAW, a rape crisis center in Canada, says on its website that rape culture is a culture that normalizes sexual violence. Painting consent as a clumsy mood-killer stigmatizes it, diminishes its importance and reinforces the idea that it’s better to just carry on without it.
“If you ridicule consent and turn it into something that doesn’t feel easy for people to ask for, then you’re essentially making it inaccessible for people, especially for people who have less control in a power dynamic with their sexual partner,” said one WU student.
The stakes are high. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) reports that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college, and the advocacy group End Rape on Campus finds that nearly one in four transgender and non-binary students have experienced sexual assault while in undergrad. NSVRC says 81 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted experience significant impacts, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The number is 35 percent in men.
If you think it’s awkward to ask for consent, it’s time you reassess your own values about sex, boundaries and respect.