In 1990, a group of women gathered at Antioch College to talk about the growing problem of rape on their campus, drafting the very first version of the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP). In doing so, they created what we now know as affirmative consent, decades before anyone else began using the term. The policy required that Antioch students ask for consent at every step of sexual encounters, from the first kiss, to taking off clothes, to oral sex or penetration. In short, the group who created the SOPP flipped the widely accepted "no means no" definition of consent to a "yes means yes" definition. They were then mocked mercilessly by everyone from their classmates to Saturday Night Live for challenging the status quo.
Nearly 30 years later, people are finally seeing the wisdom of affirmative consent, and attempting to push the concept even further; the most popular consent definition of the moment, for instance, is enthusiastic consent,. It encourages people to ask for a verbal yes at every step of intimate interactions, but also recognizes that someone may feel coerced into agreeing to sex. So, in addition to the yes, enthusiastic consent encourages people to also notice nonverbal cues, such as whether or not their partner is kissing back, moaning, arching their back, or doing any number of things that makes it clear that they're really turned on.
The conversation about consent took another turn when the #MeToo movement arose late last year. Now, people are talking about how masculinity factors in. Instead of just demonizing men for not understanding consent, we're asking why they’re struggling with the concept in the first place. Mothers of young boys are starting to think about how to raise men to be good allies and to understand that they have to both ask for what they want and graciously accept when someone says no. Maybe it sounds simple, but it's a difficult task for a culture that tells boys and men that sex is, essentially, their birthright.
We're just starting to deconstruct the concept of masculinity that makes consent so confusing for cisgender men. But we haven't really touched upon how the narrative of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent change depending on someone's race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, financial background, ability, or other marginalized identities. Those conversations are happening, but they're often relegated to minority groups, instead integrated into the mainstream conversation. As the consent conversation continues to evolve, we need to consider and address how sexual harassment and assault impacts various communities. Ahead, we talk to three leaders in sexual education — Bethany Saltman, who co-wrote Antioch's Sexual Offense Prevention Policy in the 1990s, Ted Bunch, the co-founder of the violence prevention organization A Call To Men, and Bianca Laureano, foundress of the Women Of Color Sexual Health Network — about the evolution of consent, what's missing in mainstream conversations about consent, and what the next steps are to make consent unambiguous to all.