Features | Beyond “Yes” and “No”

Why #ConsentMcGill and the current consent discourse is failing survivors of sexual violence

This week, #ConsentMcGill rolls out on campus in full force. The campaign, which offers workshops, trivia nights, and activity booths in an effort to educate the campus community on matters of consent and preventing incidents of sexual assault, is part of a somewhat increased mainstream awareness of rape culture and the urgent need for university administrations to engage in more concerted efforts to combat sexual violence both on campus and beyond. The two authors of this piece would like to be excited that there is an effort on behalf of McGill to address issues of sexual assault, but instead we’re becoming deeply frustrated with the consent programming, and the inadequate discourse at its basis being propagated. Our frustration comes from a serious investment in fighting sexual violence. Like many others, we have experienced sexual violence, and we’re being let down by supposedly pro-survivor educational initiatives around consent initiatives that fail to fulfill their goals and change dominant mentalities around sex and sexuality on a fundamental level. And while we ourselves have been engaged in this kind of consent-based organizing in our time at McGill, it’s time to challenge one another to move toward a theory and practice as nuanced and complex as our sexual lives. It is time that we reimagine political projects aimed at ending rape and restoring sexual power to all those currently fucked over by rape culture.

The goals of consent discourse are generally to prevent rape and sexual assault, to promote healthy and mutually empowering sexual relationships, and to promote a pro-survivor culture in the place of rape culture. We have recently been struck more and more by the fact that the trauma we hold from being survivors of rape has severely warped our prior understandings of and experiences with sex and sexuality, and we maintain that current consent education has not assisted us in healing. Beyond these individual realizations of consent discourse failing to create a supportive experience for survivors, we have also noticed that consent discourse fails its educational goals.

Like many others, we have experienced sexual violence, and we’re being let down by supposedly pro-survivor educational initiatives around consent initiatives that fail to fulfill their goals and change dominant mentalities around sex and sexuality on a fundamental level.

Most consent programs like #ConsentMcGill and Rez Project do make an effort to educate about rape culture and oppression based on gender and sexuality, and additionally try to address and shift the cultural mentality around sexual assault and consent toward a pro-survivor framework. These programs provide some theoretical discussions surrounding rape culture myth-busting, power dynamics, and intersectionality. To its credit, consent education has helped both of us name formative, traumatic past experiences as rape or sexual assault, but it certainly would not have prevented those assaults from happening, nor does it provide us with any tools to navigate sexual relationships moving forward, as people who have fucked-up relationships with sex. Past the important initial step of putting words to the violence we have experienced, consent education at McGill fails when it comes to practically navigating complex sexual scenarios or looking at how consent can and cannot be given and why. While acknowledging that sex is complicated, these campaigns simplify sex and flatten sexuality and sexual encounters so repeatedly and severely that we are unable to restore them to their fullness and complexity.

One incredibly valuable underpinning of consent discourse is that sexual assault is about power, but often in consent workshops and programs, sexual assault becomes reduced to a simple miscommunication. Consent education based on a model of communication such as “Ask, Listen, Respect” assumes that fundamentally, all parties are committed to ensuring everyone’s well-being. In reality, it’s impossible to talk about sexual assault and sex the same way, because the problem isn’t that a person is incapable of asking and listening to another’s desires; it’s that a person refuses to respect what  another person wants. No amount of education on how to communicate before, during, and after sex will stop someone from sexually assaulting a person if they’re only or mostly invested in filling their own (sexual or psychological) needs. A person doesn’t rape another person because something was miscommunicated, and arguing so is dangerously anti-survivor.

Additionally, in our experiences attending or facilitating consent workshops, we have found that discussions of consent often turn into desexualized and decontextualized discussions of how to check in with all parties before, during, and after any sexual act. Most explanations of how “consent” works include one person asking if it’s okay to do something to another, and that second person saying yes or no. The latter of these scenarios is not examined beyond the point of rejection, because it is presumed that this will be respected. This framework is most obviously exemplified through #ConsentMcGill’s campaign slogan, “Ask, Listen, Respect,” which looks at consent as entirely isolated from the sexual context. What happens before the asking (both physically between the partners initiating sex and in each of their sexual lives) and after the response are left entirely unexamined. Rather than encouraging any dialogue that would enable future encounters to be enjoyable for all parties and to improve relationships beyond isolated encounters, consent is presented to us as something that exists in a temporal vacuum and does not deserve exploration beyond the initial desire identified by the inquiring individual.

 In reality, it’s impossible to talk about sexual assault and sex the same way, because the problem isn’t that a person is incapable of asking and listening to another’s desires; it’s that a person refuses to respect what  another person wants.

This can also be seen through the tendency of the #ConsentMcGill campaign and mainstream consent discourse to heavily rely on analogies and metaphors believed to make ideas about sexual consent, or specific sexual scenarios, accessible and clear. Consent in its most basic form is necessary to understand in all areas of our lives, from legal or political consent to consent for platonic contact between friends or siblings, to asking for consent before taking photographs. Ostensibly, respecting others in all areas of a person’s life should contribute to one’s likelihood of respecting a partner’s sexual integrity. But the fact is, sexual consent and the guidelines and tools surrounding it share very little in common with most other kinds of consent discourse.

We must stop relying on skits where physical contact does not extend past a hug or a kiss, and we desperately need to stop sharing articles featuring metaphors about tea or other mundanities to explain to each other how to be responsible sexual beings. Because yes, it should be fucking obvious that you shouldn’t rape someone, just as it is already clear you shouldn’t pour tea down someone’s throat if they don’t want you to. But the contexts and consequences of these situations are wildly disparate, and ignoring those differences for the sake of public appeal has very serious ramifications. Furthermore, the possible consequences of positive sexual encounters are profoundly more transformative and healing than any tea party could ever be, and thus our efforts towards improving them should be dramatically expanded.

The word “consent” has been overused and separated from the contexts in which it supposedly does or does not exist, and the way we discuss consent has become so vague that the grave differences between good sex and a cup of tea, or rape and a punch in the face, are obscured. Take, for instance, this line from a Facebook event for this week’s campaign: #ConsentMcGill is an educational campaign to increase campus understanding of consent, as it applies to sexual activity and to our day-to-day lives. It is unclear whether organizers understand the differences between sexual consent and consent in our day-to-day lives, and whether these differences will be meaningfully discussed in the programming. Descriptions and approaches like this do not contribute to healthier sexual lives they simply proliferate “consent” as a buzzword, divorced from its much-needed embodied and relational utility.

Because yes, it should be fucking obvious that you shouldn’t rape someone, just as it is already clear you shouldn’t pour tea down someone’s throat if they don’t wait you to. But the contexts and consequences of these situations are wildly disparate, and ignoring those differences for the sake of public appeal has very serious ramifications. 

Exemplified most disturbingly by slogans such as “Consent is sexy,” consent has become an item to acquire or at least to attempt to acquire; that is, it is understood as an inanimate object already floating somewhere in the vicinity of individuals with the potential to become intimate. “Consent is sexy” attempts to prove that “checking in” with your partner before initiating a sexual encounter should not ruin the moment. However, it also implies that consenting is a sexier response than a rejection. In addition to pressuring individuals to give their consent by enticing them to be sexy, “Consent is sexy” insinuates that consent as a concept is sexy. Though it may be that consent has become sexy as a feminist buzzword, it has rapidly decreased in material power. Instead, we misleadingly encourage consent to be treated like a game, where prospective partners try various codes and search in different places for “consent”: the key to access the other person’s body.

Often times, mainstream consent discourse presents stories of a sexual encounter with the would-be perpetrators as protagonists, aware of their desires and able to clearly and immediately articulate them, while the persons prompted to say “yes” or “no” are framed as the potential antagonist. Should they say yes, they open the door to the sexual fulfillment of the protagonist, but should they say no, they close that door, putting up road blocks in the other’s path to happiness.

As individuals invested in the sexual well-being of ourselves and others, can we continue to be concerned simply with ensuring people will not have unwanted acts thrust upon them, or do we also want more for ourselves and each other? Do we not see sex as more than just contact enacted upon bodies, and instead as diverse and creative relational ways to make ourselves and our partners and lovers feel incredible? If consent’s goal is to just make people feel okay with what is happening, we are seriously underestimating the potential power of sex, and instead settling for success in simply hoping we don’t all rape each other.

#ConsentMcGill’s campaign model of consent as “Ask, Listen, Respect” only allows sexual interactions in which each party is independently able to clearly identify their own sexual desires and abilities (which are assumed to be congruous), and then consent is successfully exchanged among parties when these desires and abilities match up successfully. This exchange is modelled as happening repeatedly through a series of questions, “Is this okay? can I do this?” Our sexual relationships are not a series of easily answerable and straightforward questions. This is particularly the case for those of us who hold trauma from past sexual violence and whose relationships with sex, sexuality, and our bodies have been changed because of that.

 If consent’s goal is to just make people feel okay with what is happening, we are seriously underestimating the potential power of sex, and instead settling for success in simply hoping we don’t all rape each other.

All of our criticisms come from the fact that our experiences as survivors with sexual confusion and trauma are not represented or addressed by the #ConsentMcGill campaign or mainstream consent discourse. Of course, no two survivors have the same needs or desires. We are thrilled for each survivor who has felt fully satisfied with consent education, but since the current framework of this work is falling so far behind for some of us, modifications to the project are clearly needed.

For one of us, sex is scary and triggering (we mean triggering literally, not in the diluted, ironic way so many of us have come to use it), and a clear, verbal, enthusiastic “yes” is not something that can easily be expressed in response to a request for or offer of sexual interaction.  To have sex again, and figure out how to enjoy it after having been raped, a sexual partner is going to need to work through the “no”s. A partner will need to be alright with sex not being immedietely on the table, and instead ask why theyíve said no, ask what they need to feel more comfortable, ask if they want to want it and how they can be helped in getting there.

For the other of us, sex is sometimes desirable, often uncomfortable, and always confusing. In most sexual situations, consent on a baseline level feels complicated even in conditions of relative safety, if consent is to be understood as not just simply a “yes”, but also one about which they feel sure and comfortable. This is due to the fact that at any given point before or during a sexual interaction, desire could be simultaneously felt alongside fear, shame, and confusion, and honestly sex happens way too quickly to clearly identify what they want and are not okay with. Even harder is then to be able to articulate these in the moment in an appropriate way to their sexual partner. When you have both a desire and also an intense fear of having sex, how do you properly give consent in a sexual scenario without first being able to be honest about these complexities? And just as importantly, while trying to work through your own confusions, how are you supposed to simultaneously be properly attentive to your partner’s sexual desires and boundaries?

When you have both a desire and also an intense fear of having sex, how do you properly give consent in a sexual scenario without first being able to be honest about these complexities?

If our consent discourse and programming is going to be pro-survivor and anti-oppressive, we must recognize and centre the fact that sex is complicated for a lot of people. We must move past basic notions of consent based on a yes-I-want-this/no-I-don’t-want-this binary and actually explore our difficulties and our desires in navigating consensual sexual relationships. We would like to move toward a culture of interdependent sexual protagonism, a way of framing consent that simultaneously works to remove the disconnect between consent and the person giving/receiving it, while also allowing all parties involved in sexual interaction to become their own protagonist. At the basis of our framework is the recognition that sexual relationships are navigated interdependently, and therefore desires and actions are shaped by and through each other. Sex is relational unless you include masturbation under its umbrella, and we rely on our sexual partners in some way to have fulfilling sexual experiences. Rather than stripping us of agency, this recognition allows us to become protagonists in our sexual lives through articulating our sexual complications and allowing our partners to help us (re)build our relationships with sex on our terms.

People who have only or mostly negative relationships with sex are not always going to be able to identify the ways in which they can form healthy relationships with sex alone, we won’t necessarily be able to know what our desires or boundaries are until they’re happening. Our sexualities and sexual desires are fluid, but they don’t fluctuate only between points we’re familiar with; sometimes they need help even to exist again. These realities must be given space. We certainly can’t overcome our apprehensions about sex on our own, nor do we think it’s desirable to, but we understand the fear of vulnerability. A consent discourse that is truly sexually empowering and survivor-positive must equip us with the tools to work together to explore our sexual selves, discover new heights of our fluid, unrealized sexual desires, and be prepared to deal with all the shit that goes with it.


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