One of the hazards of youthful idealism is that one can easily verge over into naive self-righteousness. So I should have been prepared for the latest project of StudentsNS, a collection of Nova Scotia university student associations, around sexual consent.
But this new initiative is so overflowing with gormless self-congratulation that even I was stunned.
Embarrassed by the national attention gained during last year’s Saint Mary’s frosh debacle, where students eagerly indulged in a chant making light of sex without consent, advocacy group StudentsNS has determined that its position on consenting to sex will be so clear and unambiguous, they have inadvertently jettisoned all sense of logic. From now on, according to their new site morethanyes.ca it is no longer enough for a sexual partner to agree to sex. Even clear consent is not enough. No, from now on the standard is—I can still scarcely believe it—enthusiasm. In a jaw-dropping graphic on its homepage, the campaign proudly asserts that “Sex without enthusiastic consent is not sex at all. It is sexual assault or rape.”
Of course, somewhere along the line there was a good idea here: the idea that 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. But the notion that the only real consent is enthusiastic consent is ludicrously blind to both to the realities of human communication and human sexuality.
Where language is concerned, ordinary speakers and experts alike agree that context means a lot. Sometimes it means everything. Depending on circumstances—a tone of voice, a facial expression, a laugh, a sly wink—an “I guess” may be clear consent just as “absolutely” may be clear refusal. It is one thing to say that “no means no”—and I support that notion emphatically. Moreover, when a potential partner has expressed clear lack of interest, or indeed, uncertainty, one should never seek to coerce, let alone force intimate contact. No one should ever be in the position where they have, or feel like they have no choice.
But after that, it falls to everyone involved to be attentive to the wide range of verbal and non-verbal cues that people have always used to signal sexual interest. No doubt, confusions can arise as in all areas of human communication, but, as in any interaction, it is the responsibility of everyone, on an ongoing basis, to make their wishes known and to be respectful of the wishes of others. But one’s wishes can be made clear in a variety of ways—and not all of them have to take the form of a precise and explicit declaration: “Yes, potential sexual partner, I am enthusiastically prepared to engage with you in sexual congress. Let us begin and I will provide you with periodic verbal updates in case my level of arousal is reduced.” And people, like this student at York University, wonder why nobody says things like that in the movies or on TV?
In any case, sexual intentions can themselves be complicated. In the sun-lit offices of youthful student activists, the notion that carnal knowledge should only be pursued with unbridled enthusiasm may seem perfectly sensible. But there are plenty of legitimate reasons to agree genuinely to sex without being especially enthusiastic about it. If some people choose to have an occasional meaningless romp to relieve the tedium of an otherwise boring or lonely week, they should have that option. A man may not feel especially amorous on a given occasion, but may agree to sex because he loves his partner and wants to make her happy. A couple trying to have a baby may approach sex not only with a lack of enthusiasm, but, indeed, as a monotonous chore. And this is to say nothing of sex in long-term relationships where intercourse can be a means of rekindling romantic enthusiasm rather than the result of it. Indeed, if non-enthusiastic sex is a crime, we will have to jail nearly every married person in the country.
Again, let me stress that I do not and never will condone arm-twisting, literally or metaphorically, when it comes to intimate contact. Sex that is not voluntary is sexual assault. And, once again, I understand the students here in Canada’s Ice-Water Playground have pure (if puritanical) motivations. But good intentions without recourse to reasoned and practical reflection leads to absurd pieties at best and moral panic at worst. Left unchecked, this kind of thinking will lead to sexual vindictiveness and witch-hunting that would have embarrassed the most earnest Victorian.
Enthusiasm is a good thing. But StudentsNS has way too much of it.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.