The gray area of "got consent?"
by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
Most of the women on college campuses have seen the signs taped to the back of bathroom stalls, with their ominous statistic: 1 in 4. It’s the number of women who, according to the signs, will be victims of rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate. At Princeton, the signs take the form of a helpful “study guide for going out” with tips like “Take a cell phone” and “Check in with your friends.” The signs reflect a much larger part of college culture: the fear surrounding sex and alcohol. And, indeed, one of the first facts that the “1 in 4” signs anxiously let us know is that 70% of sexual assaults on college campuses are committed under the influence of alcohol.
In 1993, a doctoral student at Princeton named Katie Roiphe published an article about these signs (they’ve been around for longer than you thought!) in the New York Times Magazine, called “Date Rape’s Other Victim.” In it, she recalls her puzzlement over the idea that 25% of the women she saw walking around campus every day had been sexually assault, one which I think is shared by many people. “It didn't seem right,” Roiphe wrote. “If I was really standing in the middle of an "epidemic," a "crisis" -- if 25 percent of my women friends were really being raped -- wouldn't I know it?”
Roiphe’s article, which I read for my Politics of Gender and Sexuality class earlier this week, is a controversial, incisive, and still very relevant discussion of whether our preoccupation with sexual assault on campus, particularly assault in conjunction with alcohol, is healthy—or whether we are having the right conversation. She opens the article with a provocative statistic: in a 1985 survey undertaken by Ms. magazine and financed by the National Institute of Mental Health, 73 percent of the women categorized as rape victims did not initially define their experience as rape. It was the psychologist conducting the study who did. Roiphe goes on to pose the question: how responsible can a woman be held for her intake of alcohol and drugs? And are we stripping her of crucial agency by not holding her responsible? If a woman has sex and her judgment is “impaired,” whose “fault” is the sex? And should we even be talking about blame?
I was extremely intrigued by Roiphe’s article, which addresses the utter liminality of sex under the influence of alcohol—which, let’s face it, is the sex that most college students are having. When we’re warning the incoming freshmen about the dangers of date rape, are we also redefining sexual desire? Are we being forced into a damaging stereotype where men pressure women into sex and women resist? Roiphe points out that much of the language used to warn women about the dangers of sexual assault dates straight from the 1950s, when young women were still perceived as wide-eyed children, and their innocence was the most important component of their sexuality. I don’t think of myself as particularly fragile, but according to the “1 in 4” signs, every time I decide to drink and go out, I am in serious danger of becoming a victim.
But in the context of drunken sex, what does consent even mean? This is when the line becomes muddied, and when we need be having a different conversation. If a man and a woman get drunk, have sex, and wake up regretting it, the man will always be blamed for the night’s events, even if at the time he perceived them as mutual, and even if he regrets the decision equally. The assumption that men always want sex and women never do, and that women are not always equally or partially responsible for intoxicated sex, is old-fashioned and just not true. This is not to say that there are not instances of date rape and sexual assault while under the influence of alcohol. But here again, Roiphe makes an interesting assertion: “if we are going to maintain an idea of rape, then we need to reserve it for the instances of physical violence, or the threat of physical violence.”
In my politics class today, someone brought up a Charles Blow editorial from last December. In it, Blow bemoaned the “demise of dating”, saying, with apparent anguish, “Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date.”
Or, in other words, those young people are doing what now?!?
If you ask me, there is no reason to go back to the days of “going steady.” College students have been having a lot of sex for a long time, and just because it’s only now entering the public eye does not mean that it’s a new phenomenon. And I agree with Roiphe that there is something disturbing and potentially damaging about the “1 in 4” culture—one which reinforces the idea of a fundamental communication barrier between men and women. If he was speaking "boyspeak" and she was speaking "girlspeak", then how are they supposed to know what means "no" and what means "yes"?
Do I think that the drunken hook-up is something that we should maintain, or encourage? Not really. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily empowering about this exercise of sexuality—but it does seem to be something that’s unique to college, a time when people are still figuring themselves out, making mistakes, and forming their sexual identity. I don’t think the drunken hookup is necessarily traumatic, and in many cases, both parties are too drunk to consent. And the way to lessen the culture of sexual pressure which permeates college campuses isn’t to turn women into victims and men into predators, and which basically denies women sexual agency. Consent is a lot more complicated than we’re making it. And at the bottom of all of this, isn’t there a lingering taste of the old days, when women knew they shouldn’t be having sex at all?