In the fall of 1991, Tex Clark was starting her first year at a tiny college in Ohio. During her freshman orientation, she listened to an entirely new kind of “birds and bees” talk. This time around, she was introduced to a concept called affirmative consent. “They had students explaining it to other students, in a peer-to-peer non-hierarchical way,” Clark, who is now a federal public defender in Portland, Oregon, told me by phone. “It was framed as radical, but it didn’t seem too radical to me.” In response to a different sexual-assault reckoning known as the “rape crisis” on American college campuses, feminists and other public intellectuals had begun a public discourse not unlike the one happening now. The result at Antioch College, the liberal-arts school where Clark was enrolled, was to enact a policy of “affirmative consent,” in which where mutual permission was required every step of the way in a sexual encounter.
“I was 18, I’d never gotten laid,” Clark said. She was from Texas and a lesbian—at orientation, sex still seemed a far-off dream. She remembers thinking, “That would be cool if I ever have a girlfriend; I’ll have to remember [affirmative consent].” Clark didn’t feel as though the policy was restrictive, or that the school was trying to stymie her sexual expression. “It was the idea that talk is hot and that consent is hot,” she said. “I think for most of my friends at the time, we probably had more fulfilling and positive sexuality than we would have had we not come to that conclusion.”
A few years after Clark got her orientation on consent at Antioch, the now-disgraced news anchor Charlie Rose held a roundtable about the subject on his show with Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, Rebecca Walker, Christopher Hitchens, and journalist Tad Friend. Walker connected the “rape crisis” to an expanded conversation among women about sex and pleasure. “When [my friends and I] talk about sex we talk about what we want, the orgasm, clitoris, all the different ways we can get pleasure and how we should broaden our vocabulary around pleasure, and I think that’s a direct result of the rape crisis…,” said Walker. “Men are in crisis because women are not sitting back as the evil backlash hits us over the head,” Naomi Wolf said of the furor over sexual assault in that moment. “Men are digging their heels,” she added, “because no ruling class has ever yielded power voluntarily.”
In the years since, the idea of affirmative consent—or, more recently, enthusiastic consent, in which parties engaged in sexual activity should not only be clearly consenting but doing so happily—has become more common on college campuses. At least three states have adopted “yes means yes” policies for their state school systems.
But none of these changes has happened without a chorus of dissenters who charge that getting an enthusiastic yes is somehow damaging to a sexual encounter. Just like in the ’90s at Rose’s round table, there continue to be those who believe that expanding the definition of rape—like “Take Back the Night” did in the early ’90s and #MeToo is doing right now—to include situations that aren’t just forcible rape but coercion, manipulation and abuse of power, will somehow lessen the power of a singular anti-forcible rape platform.
Katie Roiphe, who resurfaced recently for allegedly planning to out “Shitty Media Men List,” author Moira Donegan, was a loud dissenting voice in the 1990s. She was not just skeptical of rape statistics but also claimed not to want to muddy the conversation about forcible rape by expanding the discourse to include conversations about abuse of power and coercion. “The idea of ‘consent’ has been redefined beyond the simple assertion that ‘no means no.’ Politically correct sex involves a yes, and a specific yes at that. According to the premise of ‘active consent,’ we can no longer afford ambiguity. We can no longer afford the dangers of unspoken consent,” she wrote in The New York Times in 1993.
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“A lot of contemporary feminism does seem to emphasize a kind of female sexual vulnerability the idea that women are always about to be violated, always about to be offended by someone’s dirty joke, and I think this is dangerous precisely because we are sort of promoting this idea of women as asexual,” said Roiphe to Charlie Rose in 1994. “I think the problem with [the Antioch rules] is that it makes it seem like women are unable to express themselves and that every sexual encounter is so dangerous that we need this protection.”
Roiphe sees the entire concept of affirmative consent as taking away a woman’s agency. But at its core the practice is meant to empower women and couples to communicate their needs and desires as a way to combat victimization. “It concerns me when people are so nervous that someone won’t or can’t say yes to have sex with them that they have to cajole them. I often say that the people who are vociferously against ‘yes means yes laws’ are not people I want to be in a room alone with,” said Jessica Valenti, who has written about enthusiastic consent numerous times in the last decade, including in a book co-written with Jaclyn Friedman called Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, which was published in 2008. “People talk about [enthusiastic consent] as if it’s a radical idea, but that’s how sex happens naturally anyway,” Valenti told me by phone.
Earlier this month, a story on a website called Babe published an interview with a woman named “Grace” about an encounter she had had with actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. During that encounter, Grace says, “he probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times…. He really kept doing it after I moved it away.” She goes on to allege that during the remainder of their time together, when she got up he’d follow her, and pursue her again. “It felt like a fucking game,” she recalled to Babe. Even some self-described feminists had qualms with the Babe article—the fact that Babe published accusations about Ansari without getting comment from him, the fact that it published an account that lacked allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the fact that Grace described as sexual assault an encounter where she didn’t clearly say no—or some mix of all three. But as Lindy West wrote in a Times op-ed, enthusiastic consent, as a standard for sexual behavior, shouldn’t have been new to Ansari. West presents a litany of feminists who have been writing and speaking and organizing around enthusiastic consent, including Susan Brownmiller, Valenti, and Friedman, concluding with this message: “It may feel like the rules shifted overnight, and what your dad called the thrill of the chase is now what some people are calling assault. Unfortunately, no one—even plenty of men who call themselves feminists—wanted to listen to feminist women themselves. We tried to warn you. We wish you’d listened, too.”
And now, Bari Weiss, an editor in the Opinion section at The New York Times, is carrying the torch for Roiphe. “The article in Babe was met with digital hosannas by young feminists who insisted that consent is consent only if it is affirmative, active, continuous and—and this is the word most used—enthusiastic,” she wrote last week in response to the fallout from Ansari. “There is a useful term for what this woman experienced on her night with Mr. Ansari. It’s called ‘bad sex.’ It sucks.”
Perhaps, for Weiss, the definition of bad sex includes being stalked around a room, having fingers pushed aggressively into her mouth, and being ignored when you say you want to slow things down. But it doesn’t have to. “Bad sex” could mean bad breath or awkward moments. Enthusiastic consent imagines a future in which pressure and coercion aren’t part of bad sex at all.