The idea of affirmative consent sounds reasonable in theory: before two adults can engage in a sexual act, there must be an unambiguous verbal consent given. Supposedly, all it takes is the word “yes” to prevent any misunderstandings. Unfortunately, affirmative consent doesn’t match the real world — or the law — in any meaningful way. It simply adds another layer to the “he said/she said” mess that tends to follow many sexual assault allegations.
Two Harvard alumni have penned an op-ed for the Harvard Crimson that points out a number of the pitfalls with the idea of affirmative consent as the institution considers adopting a similar policy:
The problem is that what seems clear in principle is often decidedly less so in practice. Most affirmative consent policies, for example, say that consent may only be expressed through unambiguous words or actions. On its face, that is clear enough. Expressing unambiguous verbal consent only takes one word: “Yes.”
Requiring verbal consent seems that it would simplify proof in sexual assault accusations, but it doesn’t. We have seen multiple cases where the complainant acknowledged that they said yes, but claimed that they did not mean it, or that they non-verbally withdrew the consent later. The accused was found responsible for sexual assault in these cases.
Requiring verbal consent is also patronizing. In our day, “no” meant “no,” and we assumed that everyone was capable of speaking the word during an encounter. To our minds, it is decidedly anti-feminist to tell non-incapacitated, sexually active adults that they lack the agency to say no, which is what affirmative verbal consent policies do.
The internet overflows with tales of women who agreed to sex only to decide it was rape days later. A verbal consent that isn’t recorded is virtually meaningless. After all, wouldn’t a rapist also claim she verbally consented to intercourse?
Of course, those cases also illustrate that affirmative consent rules offer no succor to male students. A man can get all the consent he needs, engage in sex that he has every reason to believe is consensual, and he can still get nailed for sexual assault. All it takes is the woman claiming it wasn’t really consent despite him having literally no way to know that.
It’s a difficult time to be a male on a college campus, that’s for sure.