The phrase enthusiastic consent is so useful in discussion of sexuality. Not in the least because it constantly sparks dialogue. For me, a part of its usefulness is also a part of its annoyance. I will forever have to explain what the term means.
Recently StudentsNS, a consortium of Nova Scotia student’s associations, launched a new website morethanyes.ca which declared: “Sex without enthusiastic consent is not sex at all. It’s sexual assault or rape”. This point stuck in the craw of Todd Pettigrew, an associate professor at Cape Breton University who writes frequently for Maclean’s On Campus.
For what it is worth, TheMorethanYes website doesn’t explain the concept of enthusiastic consent very comprehensively, and there’s some room for improvement to prevent future confusion. Sexual violence educator, and good friend, Jamie Utt describes enthusiastic consent as:
The standard we should all strive toward in our sexuality. It is an expression of the joy and ecstasy that can be sexual connection while also ensuring that both parties are fulfilled and cared for. It goes beyond the simple “Yes/no” so often thought of when people say consent and helps us realize that “God, YES!” and “NOW!” and “RIGHT THERE!” and “DON’T STOP!” are all expressions of consent.
Now, I really have to mention this there’s an air of really puzzling smug-satisfaction permeating the article Pettigrew wrote in response to these students. It just seems so mean-spirited to call an initiative to end sexual assault, “so overflowing with gormless self-congratulation that even I was stunned”.
There is a strange implication in taking the offensive against enthusiastic consent. It seems to indicate there’s only a certain amount of indignation or interest appropriate to for those who seek to end the astronomical levels of sexual assault.
While there are certainly points that are up for discussion around what enthusiastic consent means, it’s also possible to raise this with some respect to the individuals who put a lot of time and effort into discussions on how to end sexual assault on campus. It’s also worth an effort to come across as more than a stereotypical depiction of a mean-spirited writer-manqué professor who gleefully eviscerates the sort of high-minded ideas developed in “the sun-lit offices of youthful student activists”. This pattern of resistance to ideas of sexual violence appears more than once in Pettigrew’s writing, he also washes his hands of responsibility for rape culture with the stalest counter-argument of individualism over systemic behaviour. I don’t know him personally, but this dismissive persona certainly sets my teeth on edge. It really saddens me when a person in a position of authority behaves this way towards young people. It is discouraging and unnecessary.
At the same time, these students’ associations did not invent the term “enthusiastic consent”. Ignoring the history of a word may be either laziness or ignorance and in Pettigrew’s case I can’t say I know which; however, what I can say is this article demonstrates the same carelessness in writing about sexual violence that prompted the creation of a media guide and checklist around writing about sexual violence. I would like to assign this guide to Professor Pettigrew for homework. As I would not turn in an essay without doing the expected reading, I expect an English teacher to do some research before writing on a subject. There are many many pieces that describe what enthusiastic consent means and knowing the subject-matter discussed makes for a far more pertinent argument.
What you need to understand is that the standard of consent that Pettigrew “can scarcely believe” is set under the guidelines of Canadian law. It speaks to many of the things he agrees with in his own article, sex without coercion, but with additional reminder that consent needs to be obtained throughout.
Troublingly, Pettigrew supresses the evidence of what led up to the StudentsNS declaring the need for this discussion. There was a commissioned survey “Student Safety in Nova Scotia: A Review of Student Union Policies and Practices to Prevent Sexual Violence” That clearly laid out that students in Nova Scotia do not understand the nature of consent. It’s anyone’s guess what enters the mind of a man as he settles down to write about on-campus events, and decides this week to take a swipe via a rhetorical appeal to ridicule the efforts of students in Nova Scotia. The province that brought you the appalling Saint Mary’s chant, and the tragedy of Rehteah Parsons suicide after being gang raped. I would heartily commend an initiative that sought to prevent these sort of things from happening.
I’m not saying that Pettigrew is a rape-apologist, he demonstrates clear moral boundaries around sexual assault and consent when he writes, “when consent is not clear, one should err on the side of caution and hold off until consent, or lack of consent is clear. And I hope it goes without saying that I am not and would never be in favour of sex without consent”. This sounds wonderful—until we reach the dreaded “but” that goes on to condescendingly explain how out-of-touch with reality these views of enthusiasm are, while demonstrating a lack of understanding about which he speaks. Pettigrew creates his own false dilemma around consent by conflating what sex could look like in a long term relationship versus a one night hookup. They are not the same, and it is intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise.
It is here that Pettigrew touches on a point also raised by Men’s Rights activists around enthusiastic consent—that it seems silly to expect someone to be jumping up and down every time they want to have sex and surely we can be relied upon to interpret, “a tone of voice, a facial expression, a laugh, a sly wink—an “I guess” as clear consent.
We humans are very adept at understanding body language. Rapists ignore the clear signs of hesitancy or unwillingness to engage in intercourse. They see the signs that say no, and they don‘t like the answer. Later, they declare that there were mixed signals. That’s a well-known rape myth.
This is why education around enthusiastic consent also covers the need to understand non-verbal behaviours and respect them rather than rely on the social constructs of agreeability (we don’t like to say no, so we tend to issue rejections in softer language) to work in their favor.
Naturally, it occurs to me that there can be a problem with the phrase enthusiastic consent. I too have been in long term relationships. I get that sometimes you may not really feel in the mood until you’ve engaged in a bit of foreplay. I understand the way that sex can be a comfort or even a less than exuberant occurrence. Sometimes you just want to get off. We have all experienced sex that was probably less than the golden standard of enthusiastic. But should that be reason enough to wedge in this supposed grey area around sexual assault? Consider the tie ins to rape myths and the way in which society dismisses sexual violence. While I am against moral panic, I am also for community accountability and a part of that is understanding that writing about something like enthusiastic consent without doing the most basic research only muddies the waters around a conversation and turns precious energies towards having to battle semantics.
On behalf of Slut Walk Edmonton I commend the work of StudentsNS and their enthusiastic attempt to address these issues head-on. There will always be those who sit on the sidelines willing to tear your work down, to misrepresent what you stand for. Never mind them. Listen instead to the community and the voices on the margins of society because they have the lived experience to help end sexual violence. As a survivor of rape myself I appreciate your efforts, and here at Slut Walk Edmonton, we have your back.
Photo credit: Geralt