When Blockers (that movie where John Cena plays an over-protective dad) came out earlier this year, there was one scene lauded above the rest. Kayla (Cena's movie daughter) turns to her prom date and says, "I'm fully planning on having sex tonight." Then, she takes a sip of her drink.
The sequence of those events was intentional, according to Kay Cannon, who directed the movie. “Consent was really important for me,” Cannon told IndieWire. "Before Kayla has a sip of alcohol, she is saying, 'I want to have sex tonight.' It was crucial." Essentially, Kayla was pre-consenting to having sex before she got drunk, when she might no longer be able to be clear about that decision. It seems revolutionary, but this isn't first time the idea of pre-consenting has popped up this year. In March, so-called "consent apps" being used primarily on college campuses started making news. Essentially, the idea is that people in a relationship or people who meet at a party and want to hook up sign digital contracts before they have sex, both consenting to whatever happens.
Both the rise of apps and Kayla's clear and insistent consent before she takes a drink seem like progress. We're asking people, specifically young people, to talk about sex and consent. And then we're modelling what that could look like for them (there's no doubt that Kayla's story is empowering). That's wonderful. But, both pre-consenting to sex before you start drinking and giving blanket consent on an app miss the point, says Susan Brison, PhD, a professor of philosophy at Dartmouth who studies sexual violence. Because consent is not a one-time deal.
To truly know if your partner is okay with everything you're doing, you have to talk to them throughout sex, she says. And you can't do that if you're drunk. "If you allow her pre-consent to count as consent, even if during the sex she changes her mind and she's feeling violated, then consent doesn't mean anything even in the typical case," Dr. Brison says. Consent has to be an ongoing conversation. You can say yes to having sex in the beginning, but then your partner might do something that hurts or makes you feel uncomfortable. And in that situation, you need to be sober enough to say no, and they need to be sober enough to stop. Otherwise, you shouldn't be having sex.
Yet, Kayla's pre-consent and consent apps imply that someone can say yes to sex once and then it doesn't matter what happens during the actual act. And when you think about it that way, the idea of pre-consenting doesn't sound so good. "What bothers me is when these things are being sold as woman-friendly or ways to eliminate one's risk of getting raped," Dr. Brison says. "I'm not buying that." In some ways, consent apps could actually make drunk sex situations more risky. While some of the apps only require a signature, some ask people to say, "I consent to having sex with so-and-so," on video, Dr. Brison says. And if a predator has a video of their partner consenting beforehand, it makes it almost impossible for a survivor to legally prove that they didn't want the sex to happen.
But even though pre-consenting isn't a real thing, there is something to celebrate in Kayla telling her date that she wanted to have sex despite her imminent drunkenness: communication, says Susan Li, who founded Project Consent. Drunk sex is still tricky to navigate post-#MeToo, when we're arguably more aware of consent then ever before, she says. But it's important that a movie like Blockers was showing a young girl communicate clearly with her date. "I wouldn’t call it either a great or terrible idea to inform your partner you plan on drinking before sex, I’d call it necessary to at least bridge that conversation," she says.
The problem arises when a partner believes that pre-consenting equals consent, and takes away their accountability for checking in on their partner after the actual sex has begun.