Opinion: Empathetic men, assertive women key to avoiding ‘gray areas’ in sexual consent

Posted on Apr 10 2018 - 5:55am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

Last week, UM Ethics Bowl students argued whether or not the standard of sexual consent in legal policies should be an affirmative verbal “yes.”

The red team contended that an uncoerced, verbal or signed “yes” at every “junction” between sex acts is necessary, while the blue team argued that contingent consent – contextual consent built by a culmination of signaling and actions – should be the standard, unless someone verbally expresses “no.”

While I understand that a debate – especially one centered around policy – is binary in its nature, the discussion did not delve into specifics nor acknowledge the gendered power dynamics of sexual consent – both of which are critical in changing the narrative.

Both proposals, whether necessitating a  “yes,” “no” or a culmination of actions (such as one’s outfit, dating app messages and agreement to go home with someone) place the onus of consent on the woman, which is flawed because men are also responsible for picking up cues and being empathetic.

I had penetrative intercourse for the first time my senior year of high school. My boyfriend of one month and I were lying in my bed making out. We then took off each other’s clothes and continued making out until he pulled away and asked me if I wanted to have sex.

I was nervous, so I paused for a moment before answering “yes,” to which he gave me a puzzled look and asked if I was sure. I nodded yes, but he wasn’t convinced and said that if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to.

But contrary to what the blue team contended, most “reasonable” men are not going to act like my ex-boyfriend, because many men care more about getting off than about the actual wellbeing of their partners – especially if a partner is a near-stranger. Data from the Online College Social Life Survey shows that men are more than twice as likely as women to have an orgasm during a “hookup.”

In sociologist Lisa Wade’s bookAmerican Hookup” – which includes firsthand accounts of more than 100 college students across the country – a male student said he doesn’t “give a shit” about the female orgasm.  

“I don’t think any hookup is based on mutual orgasm. It’s really just based on an orgasm for me,” another male student said. Others expressed sentiments that sex isn’t really about the women at all but rather about impressing their friends. “Why do you think it’s called ‘scoring?’ It’s like you’re scoring with the women, yeah, but you’re, like, scoring on the other guys,” one male said.

In addition, in sociologist Brian Sweeney’s interviews of fraternity men, they said that when they had sex with lower-status women, they would be “rough, lewd and overly self-gratifying” and make sure that they “get something without giving in return.”

Female students in Wade’s book also noticed the double standard: One said that men treat her “like two hands and three holes,” and another said women are afraid to say “no” or say they don’t like the way men touch them because “it wouldn’t matter – it wouldn’t count, because we don’t count.”

If women don’t think they matter in sex, certainly, as the red team pointed out last week, they are going to “freeze up” instead of speaking up when a man does something they don’t feel comfortable with.

Women don’t think that their wants matter because they’re taught to attract and accommodate the desires of others, not to experience and act upon their own desires. This is why more women use Instagram than men and why beauty pageants still thrive.

As feminist Naomi Wolf points out, all of these beauty standards force women to be obedient and conform to the ideals of men, which extends to being obedient during sex. A female student in Wade’s book said that most of the time she doesn’t ask for anything in bed because she wants to impress her partners.

Another female student said that she doesn’t feel like a sexual experience counts if the guy doesn’t come. Further, many women in Wade’s book said that expecting an orgasm from a male hookup partner is demanding or rude.

The red team argued that just because a cultural norm exists doesn’t mean it’s right. While this is true, changing a cultural norm is going to take a lot more than a verbal expression of “yes” or “no.” It’s going to take men becoming more respectful and considerate and women becoming more assertive and confident.

To avoid the gray areas of sexual assault and consent, in which an unclear or confusing sexual encounter leaves one person (more often than not, the female) feeling that he or she has been taken advantage of, men need to value their partners’ pleasure and women need to ensure that they’re acting upon their desires.

Jacqueline Knirnschild is a sophomore anthropology and Chinese double major from Brunswick, Ohio.