The New Rules Reexamined
“When I was in college, back in the heady ’70s—when we battled hard for the Equal Rights Amendment, when Ms. magazine was still new—I and the women I knew got drunk a lot, and woke up in bed with guys we didn’t always like or know. They never asked us, “Can I put my finger inside you?” We never accused them of sexual assault. We were, all of us, learning about limits and needs and wants,” writes Sandy Hingston of Philadelphia Magazine in her article “The New Rules of College Sex.”
I stumbled upon this article a few weeks ago on the WesAdmits 2015 Facebook page. In the piece, Hingston argues against the new rules of sexual consent that have become a part of campus policy and culture at schools like Wesleyan. I will not bore you with a point-by-point rebuttal. You can read the article yourself—but you may want to put something soft on the floor so that your jaw won’t break when it hits it.
I’d rather focus, not on school policy, but on the action of consent itself. I am a proud member of ASHA, or AIDS and Sexual Health Awareness, here at Wes. Part of what I do for ASHA is travel to Connecticut high schools and teach students about sexual health—including consent. We love to tell these high-schoolers that consent is sexy, that asking your partner to do this or that—and having them say yes enthusiastically—is how you have great sex.
All of that is completely true, and I will tell it to every teenager I know until the end of time. There is probably nothing better for a new sexual experience than for its participants to explain exactly what they want out of it. I believe that many a shitty first-time could be avoided if we were all okay with saying “could you rub my clit counterclockwise instead?”
But what about long-term relationships? When you’ve had sex a thousand times, do you really get explicit verbal consent for every act?
Sitcoms and movies are rife with jokes about couples talking each other into having sex. In the movie “No Strings Attached,” Ashton Kutcher’s friend tells him, “Ten years from now you’re gonna be having sex with your wife. And it’s gonna be in the missionary position. And one of you is going to be asleep.” If we think about this for more than the four seconds it takes to get the joke, laugh, and move on, we are probably struck by the ultimately creepy image of some guy humping away at a woman who’s halfway through her REM cycle. But is this, or at least a less extreme version, what sex is like for couples in long term relationships?
Speaking from the position of someone in a happy relationship approaching its third year I’d say…kind of. Don’t get me wrong, sex is still awesome even after three years. But sometimes you’re just tired. Or would rather cuddle. Or are annoyed at your boyfriend for eating the last bite of a spring roll. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood–but he is. And of course, sometimes it’s the other way around.
And so the seduction begins as you lay next to each other in a narrow twin-sized bed. A kiss here, a nudge from the hip there. One person slowly convinces the other, perhaps silently, perhaps with whispered suggestions, to perform an act that they initially did not want. Is this sexual assault? Bullying? Or is it romance? Is it sexy?
Like anything else, it’s all about perception. And truly, that is what consent is about—what is felt, not what is meant. What Ms. Hingston seems so upset about in her article is this issue of perception—that there is potentially a gap between what qualifies as sexual assault and what the participants feel occurred.
She cites a study in which researchers asked young women that had been sexually assaulted while incapacitated about their perception of the event. “Half said they themselves were partially or fully responsible for what had happened. The gray looked pretty gray to them,” she writes.
Though she does it in perhaps the most offensive and ignorant way possible, Ms. Hingston makes very clear how unclear the issue of consent is. And in the context of the long-term relationship, the lines are even more vague. Consent truly is all about your own perception and making that perception clear to your partner—being in a relationship with someone doesn’t mean you can stop communicating about sex. It just means that you might not say “touch me there.” Instead, both partners are responsible for knowing each other well enough to understand when something is wrong. Not only that, but each partner is responsible speaking up when there’s been miscommunication and for recognizing that they may not know their partner as well as they think.
One partner seductively convincing another to have sex might indeed be romantic—but if the person being convinced instead feels coerced, it’s sexual assault. It’s this fine line, in a new relationship or an old one, that we must be wary of. It is a line that may be apparent from one partner’s angle and not another, but is definitively there. These nuances, encompassed in those “new rules of college sex” that Ms. Hingston so clumsily examines are what make up not only consent, but positive sexual experiences. And those are something we should be striving for at every stage of a relationship.