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.