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How can you be sure someone wants to have sex with you?

Earlier this month, a Wall Street banker turned philosophy lecturer launched We-Consent, an app to help young people document when they’ve given one another explicit permission to, well, be explicit with each other. It follows Good2Go, the affirmative-consent app that was launched last September but removed from the Apple store within weeks, on grounds of “objectionable” content.

With We-Consent, both participants are encouraged to record video memos, naming themselves, the date, time and place they’ve given sexual consent, logging it for seven years in the event that one of them finds themselves accused of non-consensual behaviour afterwards. Immediately, most people over, say, 25 might find themselves questioning the app’s obvious flaws: first off, who would ever actually whip out their mobile to log the crucial moment before that crucial moment? What can filmed mutual agreement possibly mean when one or both parties have the right to change their un-filmed minds at any given point? Why is the basic human responsibility to understand the premise of yes or no being outsourced to an app?

The We-Consent app.
The We-Consent app.

But despite the ridicule both apps received, the consensus on campuses suggests that students aren’t so much facing a crisis of consent as standing a crisis down: even if the very modern ways in which consent awareness is being raised seem dumb and flawed, it’s not young people who are too stupid and too irresponsible to understand that no means no and yes means yes – it’s the generations before them. That much, at least, is clear from the reporting of cases where high-profile offenders have claimed “blurred lines”.

Several million sexual consent kits and contracts were distributed across campuses in the US by the Affirmative Consent Project last year. The rationale might seem bizarre and unromantic, but consent workshops are now mandatory for freshers at Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK; the National Union of Students expects the majority of first-year British undergraduates to have sat in on one. This month, MP Caroline Lucas tabled a bill in parliament demanding compulsory sex and relationships education in schools, with clear guidelines on the subject of consent. In the same week, a blog on the “Consent is Sexy” campaign was shared 131,000 times on Tumblr. Clearly, sexual consent demands clarity.

As last year’s Canadian ad campaign, More Than Yes, put it: “Real consent is mutual and sure. It is not muted, frail, hesitant or afraid. It is never uncertain, assumed or silent.” To be sure: the absence of no isn’t a yes. Being too drunk, too high, already naked, half-asleep, into this thing but not sure about that, turning away, feeling guilty or obligated isn’t a yes. All of these go-to archetypes of students’ sexual experiences have been cited as examples of when consent seems confusing or awkward. It isn’t. If there’s ever doubt, stop. The bleak alternative is that you risk raping someone.

Poster from the Consent is Sexy campaign.
Poster from the Consent is Sexy campaign.

As of July, affirmative consent – the “yes means yes” rule – is law across a quarter of US states, from California to Louisiana, and it is poised to be rolled out across the country. Governor Andrew Cuomo, on signing New York state’s affirmative sexual consent bill this month, asked his audience: “Why is sex assault on college campuses such a problem? Because we let it go on too long.” Emma Sulkowicz, who graduated from Columbia University, New York, in May, became a powerful case in point: in her second year, she filed a police report against a student alleged to have raped her. The case dragged on; the student wasn’t expelled. In protest, Sulkowizc carried a double mattress around with her on campus every day for a year, because: “I [wanted] people to see how it weighs down a person to be ignored by the school administration and harassed by police.”

Professor Stephen J Schulhofer, who co-wrote the amended rape law, told the New York Times that the case for legislating confirmative consent was compelling: “Whether millions of people drive 65 miles per hour despite a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, the law still saves lives. As long as people know what the rules of the road are, the overwhelming majority will comply with them.”

Last year, the Spectator scoffed at the idea, asking: “Do adults really need to be taught about the moment of ‘consent’?” The suggestion, posed under the banner of common sense, is that all the talk of needing to clarify consent is a daft generational trend, one where young people are complicating the simplest, and oldest, of human interactions with stuttering indecision. It is tempting to believe that the campaign for affirmative consent is unnecessary – after all, plenty of people have and will continue to have sex without mutually, verbally, clarifying each step. But when a reported third of British women on campus have endured sexual assault or abuse, and cases of institutional coverups and inadequacy have been alleged against Ivy League universities, common sense would suggest that consent hasn’t been talked about loudly or frequently enough.

On those terms, the march on affirmative consent, then, is also one for social progress. It’s unimaginable to think, 40 years from now in a world post-Savile and post-Cosby, that dozens of this decade’s most powerful men will be exposed for inflicting years of sexual abuse on women in the way “the culture of the 1970s” appeared to allow so many of them to.

Earlier this month, the NYT published details of a deposition against Bill Cosby. In it, he claimed that drugging a woman with Quaaludes – which she apparently knew about – and then having sex with her was consensual. That bringing a woman drugged on Quaaludes to orgasm was further proof that it was so. (Should it bear pointing out in biology 101 terms: arousal and rape aren’t mutually exclusive – sexual stimulation can occur whether consensual or not.)

Legally speaking, you can’t call Cosby a rapist. But that he casually claims, in his terrifying arrogance and delusion, that his methods have anything to do with normal sexual consent is warped – and he doesn’t exist within a moral vacuum. This is why, however basic and obvious the conversation over consent seems, it’s evidently not basic and obvious enough. Be it via apps and viral campaigns, student workshops or manuals, until the boundaries of consensual sex aren’t blurred, the question of whether we need to talk about consent remains: yes, yes we do.

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