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The “C” Word

What consent means to men — and why they’re still too scared to talk about it.

Beejoli Shah
Dec 7, 2015 · 15 min read

By Beejoli Shah

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Illustrations by Nicole Rifkin

oo often these days, conversations around consent are shut down before they can even start. Violence against women is on the rise? Ban men. An ostensible feminist is actually an alleged assaulter? Blame male feminism. And if we shun men — in theory, in practice, in internet memes — how can we include them in the conversation about consent at all?

Over the last month, I spoke to men from all different backgrounds — from teens to retirees, lawyers and teachers to mens right’s activists — about where they stand on the practice of consent, outside of the politicized arguments. Even though most guys felt that the onus of consent falls more heavily on men than it does women, they thought everybody should be talking about it. But the problem: nobody seems to be doing so. Men are scared. So much so that some are simply abstaining from sex entirely “because you never know who might cry rape the next day,” as a USC frat member once confided. Fear — of arrest, prosecution, and even mere public shaming — is quickly becoming the primary reason to get on board with consent. While fear can be a powerful motivator, it doesn’t start conversations around consent — it ends them.

If sex is out in the open, consent should be, too. And if we want to move consent forward and out of the closet, we need to stop pretending to have these conversations. So, I asked a dozen guys about their grayest of hookups, the ones that raised the most question marks in their aftermath; how consent applies to them; and what they think of the system that’s often contradictory and labyrinthine. The result is an honest male depiction of 2015’s political buzzword: consent.

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Joe, 16

Student, San Jose, CA

The last time consent was mentioned at my school was when a team from Kaiser Permanente came. They did the obvious “sober yes” stuff, and I asked a question: “Can a woman (not just any partner) withdraw consent after the act?” to which they responded, yes.

I was dumbfounded. The answer was ridiculous. No uproar from the audience, everyone else seemed to accept this. I was somewhat shocked to hear that a person could withdraw consent after sex. To me, that says the person revoking consent didn’t make the right decision, or regretted it.

I understand people make decisions in the moment which they may be uncomfortable with later, but a fact of life is that you can’t directly influence the past; you can only influence what people think of the past. I am very worried about my actions later in life being misinterpreted or altered from another viewpoint. What I mean to say here is that I am worried of being falsely accused of sexual assault, or similar misconduct, in the future.

Jackson, 28

Attorney, New York

I’ve always been super conscious of myself — my height, my skin color — and what that meant going to a college that wasn’t predominantly black. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind, and that’s carried over into the context of hookups and consent. Back in the day, if I had any visual indicators that someone was incapacitated or about to be incapacitated, that was an automatic eject button. It wasn’t worth it for me to put myself in that position.

I’ve had situations before where there were mutual interactions in the hookup context, and the next morning there was a “Wait, what the hell happened, could you fill it in?” Those types of situations are super dangerous for a black male. We have very little recourse if someone says rape. Obviously there’s a he-said-she-said [argument], but it cuts against black males. So I’ve learned to be cautious, more so than my non-black friends have had to be.

Ramesh, 33

Ad Exec at Tech Company, San Francisco, CA

Consent in India, to be honest, was not discussed at all. As a teenager, sex was something everyone was probably doing but mainstream culture wasn’t prepared to talk about it. Things like safe sex and condoms barely made it to the dinner table. And it was considered quite forward to have sex ed in schools.

I don’t remember it coming up with friends either. Everyone was obsessed with A) how to have [sex] and B) how not to mess it up and C) who was having it. Consent was implied. If you were getting to first base and beyond, the implication was that your partner was probably okay with it.

I’ve seen partners and women being made to feel that “the guy is owed sex” more than once, both in marriages and in committed relationships… A friend was pressured to have sex with her then-boyfriend a LOT. I’m not sure I would consider it assault but it wasn’t consensual. The view was that sex was something men chased after and women withheld as a prize.

I’ve seen married friends of mine struggle with the dichotomy of the masculine role in sex: having to “take charge” (in terms of traditional stereotypical gender roles) versus “how do I know what is okay?” How do I push the boundaries without killing the “moment,” so to speak? It ties into social perceptions where men are seen as the initiators or the folks pushing for a new experience.

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Derek, 61

Attorney, Madison, WI

I have a daughter who graduated from college, and I’ve been married a few times. On one hand, I want to know who’s not asking for consent in hookups. But as a defense attorney, I can tell you that the biggest stigma for men in this country is to be seen as a sex offender — no man would willingly want to be labeled as one. I’m not saying all rape allegations are false, but shouldn’t we account for people who change their mind about the act the next day? How can we know what really happened?

I’m representing a student right now who took a year-long suspension from his college, even though his story checked out when he spoke with the police, because he didn’t want to run the risk of being expelled and having it on his permanent record instead. He would have won the case, but the stigma was too severe. With so much gray area, how can we be sure sex was non-consensual any more than we can think that it was consensual?

Morris, 25

Journalist, Brooklyn, NY

Consent — as a subject of college forums — was taught to me as the problem of a Big Man talking (or forcing) a woman into having sex, and not asking directly and non-judgmentally if she actually wants to. I’m an anxious and always fearful person so this formulation played into how I conceptualized the sex I had (especially in college). If I got drunk and slept with someone after a dance, I would often have this nagging fear that I didn’t ask properly or that the other person didn’t feel comfortable with it in the end. I have had sex with both men and women, and this feeling was way more present when I slept with women.

The issue wasn’t that I thought what transpired the earlier night was wholly initiated by me: it was this fear that I just didn’t really know what consent was and that no one in their right minds would sleep with me. In retrospect, this feeling was an amalgam of reactions to my sexual inexperience, those “consent is sexy” forums, and other administrative presentations stating that if any alcohol was ingested, consent is impossible. But even if this reaction seems unhealthy, I actually think its presence was a good thing. Perhaps fear isn’t the best way for such trepidations to materialize, but it indicates some empathy for the other person — some inkling that you are trying to understand what another person experienced.

Nicholas, 29

Marketing Executive, West Hollywood, CA

I came out really late, in my mid-20s, so in terms of consent versus knowing when to go for it, I usually waited for the other person to make the move first. When it came to dating, I first started with phone apps which helped boost my confidence, and later was able to ask men to go on dates. I’ve sometimes gone on a date with the notion of hooking up, but then realized that the other person wasn’t interested or I wasn’t interested and we’ve stopped, but I don’t think consent was ever discussed in words. It usually just starts with kissing or some sort of physical contact, and if someone starts undressing or grabbing the other person and that person doesn’t stop them, it’s typically fine.

With my boyfriend, however, we always discussed what we would do before we did anything. But we also met long distance and Skyped for a month before we even went on a first date.

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Suchit, 25

Teacher, Indianapolis, IN

As a seventh-grade science teacher, I teach genetics and fold sexual education and consent into that unit. I’ve only taught it once, and it was last year when I taught at an all-boys school. My foray into consent was brief. I defined it as a clear, verbal YES with no outside influences, such as alcohol or coercion. I kept it simple and drew a hard line, as I did not want to make it so complex that students would play with the gray.

A few weeks later, a student called me concerned that a girl he had sex with had become pregnant. The girl’s grandmother had called my student and threatened to call the police because the grandmother believed my student had raped her. My student, on the other hand, was convinced that mutual consent was reached, and that she had given an enthusiastic “yes” with no outside influence. I never spoke to the girl or her grandmother, so I have no way of knowing whether he was telling the truth or not, but I have no reason to believe he was being dishonest with me. This grew to be a complicated situation, and ultimately it turned out that the girl was not pregnant, but his own lens for interpreting the events was definitely influenced by what he learned about consent.

Consent is ALWAYS being under-discussed. If students are sexually harassing and assaulting other students — and they are — then it needs to be discussed more. Unfortunately, social conversations have taken a side seat to “tested topics,” as math and reading have taken up more and more minutes of the school day; healthy relationships, family planning, consumer practices, and the like have been de-prioritized.

Manny, 28

VP of a Small Business, Fayetteville, AR

I was homeschooled — hippie/commune style, not scary religious style — so we didn’t have a sex ed course, and there wasn’t much exposure to people I wasn’t related to. I mostly learned about relationship things from books and to a lesser extent movies. It was more sort of an old-fashioned sense of it, without any details past the hand-holding stage, so I was at a loss when I had my first relationship. I was petrified that I would do something I wasn’t supposed to do, so I was very standoffish and I think I came off as kind of a prude. Since I left home and started spending a lot of time online, I’ve learned a lot about consent and the culture surrounding it, mostly from websites like the Toast and Facebook groups. It makes me glad that I was so standoffish when I was younger, so I didn’t do anything that I’m ashamed of now.

Patrick, 40

Gym Owner, Los Angeles, CA

I was raised in a household with so much shame surrounding sex. I remember when my father walked in and I knew the talk was coming. He came into my room with a clipboard and a legal pad, closed the door, and said “Well, let’s talk about it, I guess.” I told him we don’t have to talk about it and his answer was, “Great!” and he got up and walked out and that was it. Are you kidding me? I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son, and frankly, sex is everywhere, so I can’t afford to wait to talk to them about sex until they’re “a little older.”

We talk about it now and we talk about it openly. It’s on TV, it’s on billboards, it’s everywhere they go, so we talk about it now because sex is everywhere. I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you’re old enough to ask a question, you’re old enough to hear the answer.

What I said to them both is, “You’re human. No matter what, there’s no reason to be embarrassed about anything, because 100 percent of humans do this. It’s fun and it’s awesome, and we teach them that, too — sex is a really great, cool experience to be enjoyed.”

With my daughter, we’re teaching her how to balance the images and videos she’s seeing — some of which are racy, some of which she might enjoy, and that’s okay too! — but we want to teach her that nobody is allowed to touch her, regardless of how she dresses or behaves, without her permission. With my son, we reminded him that he’s going to start hearing boys talk about this and that, and that he can still come to us. We told him very candidly about how to interact with women and respect their bodies, but we also want him to know that he’s allowed to have boundaries for his own body that should be respected as well — by him, and by any future partners.

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Bradley, 28

Writer, Los Angeles, CA

I can’t remember if it was in a sex ed setting or if it was from my parents, but I remember “no means no” — that phrasing, though that was the long and short of it. I wish I would’ve known at that time, “No” also means don’t have 10 beers and beg someone to have sex with you. It doesn’t mean put them in awkward positions in your home with the door closed. There are a lot of weird things guys do to get sex that are just as bad.

I’d say 99 percent of guys I know have been in that position. Maybe I’m just a scumbag, but I wasn’t taught early on explicitly what that was, and you have to learn a lot to shake off certain entitlements. Growing up, boys just think they can take what they want by nearly any means necessary. So, of course, there were some pretty embarrassing nights in college of being a shyster.

Pej, 32

Moderator of r/Men’s Rights, Reddit’s Largest Men’s Rights Activist Forum, Canada

Clearly women feeling violated is a problem. Men do not need to feel villainized in this discussion, but that is the effect of treating males as the default aggressor party. Removing gendered references from the discussion, and accepting that women can rape men (through unwanted envelopment, for example), are necessary precursors for men to become more involved in this discussion.

I have no proof of this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many heterosexual men subconsciously reject participation in the discussion because their own experiences with women contradict the arguments they are exposed to. I have experienced very forward, very sexually aggressive women for whom enthusiastic consent is irrelevant, and for whom withdrawal of consent means I am accused of being gay, hit, and otherwise abused (publicly/socially, too, with no consequences). This leaves me with the feeling that there are definitely people of all genders and orientations that struggle with conceptualization and acceptance of a person’s right to autonomy and security through consent.

Masaumi, 19

Student, New York

I don’t think it’s too late to learn [about consent], but I feel I’m past the age where people are going try to teach it to me — and no one has. I had gay sex after my first time smoking weed. It made us both super horny, as teenage guys. It was consensual at the time, but I felt slightly used afterwards… though still glad overall that it happened. I feel I could apply what I learned in the future, like thinking before having sex in an altered state of mind. I don’t think consent needs to be talked about in most sexual situations. I asked my boyfriend to stop and he did.

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Jonathan, 27

Venture Capitalist, Boston, MA

If you’re back at my apartment after a date, we’re probably gonna end up doing something. But if there is a line or friend zone that she doesn’t want to cross, she usually articulates it pretty clearly. At some points, you’re dealing with cues and “Yes, I want you to do that,” but I’ve never had an experience where a girl has said she wasn’t into what we ended up doing.

Fernando, 16

Student, Naples, FL

I haven’t gone far with a woman at all — I can’t remember the last time I even hugged a chick. I’ve brought up consent with some friends, but never female friends. I understand the whole idea about being equal and the idea that a man has to consent just like a woman does, but that idea doesn’t really make sense to me. I understand that it is sexist to think that a woman’s consent is more important than a man’s consent, but I don’t know how to think about it differently. I guess I am deciding this based on it being easier for a man to rape a woman than the inverse.

William, 34

Creative Director, San Diego, CA

I grew up in a rural town in North Carolina, and consent was NEVER discussed in our county public schools. We didn’t have “family planning” classes until sixth grade and that was the most tone-deaf, high-level overview of the biological process behind reproduction. It started at fertilization. We were separated by gender and it required, strangely enough, parental consent. In tenth grade they finally showed us how to put a condom on a banana, but that was presented as a way to stop AIDS, not as a contraceptive method.

My parents are rather conservative: my dad was a prominent member of the NC GOP, but we’re progressive regarding social issues. Growing up in the ’90s, in a conservative household, and in the rural South, I can’t say that my early understanding of consent was not tinged with privilege. I remember a lot of my 15–16-year-old concern was from a place of “When we break up, I don’t want her to claim I raped her.” That possibility was treated throughout the male social circles with a Red Scare-level fear, the word rape replacing communist. At the same time though, for me, it wasn’t only that. Not to say it didn’t scare me (an odd fear for a nearly undateable, pimply 15-year-old virgin) but I also never — and I wouldn’t be able to put this into words for a long time — understood men’s entitlement to sex. To me it was always “if she doesn’t want to have sex with you, you don’t get to have sex.” There wasn’t a debate, it was an inflexible universal law. Any concept of male consent was non-existent at this time.

I’ve changed a lot in the years since. I really started to see my female friends staying quiet in situations where consent was questionable, at best. I realized maybe this fear that we all had, of being falsely accused, was kind of bullshit.

Tate Lyon-Johnson, 21

Co-Director of UCLA’s Gender Health Committee, Los Angeles, CA

My junior and senior year of high school, I started getting involved in the drinking scene, and as soon as I did, I started noticing a very active rape culture. Boys getting girls drunk, often while not even being drunk themselves, just to get girls to have sex with them. I’d try to be a bystander, I’d try to break up sexual experiences between guys and obviously drunk girls, and I’d get a lot of pushback of “Hey man, you’re a faggot, get the fuck out of here.”

Even though I’m a cis, hetero male and care about consent, I get a lot of people — not women I hook up with, but from their friends, and other men — assuming I’m gay, because I’m a feminist, because I talk about consent. And I’m not gay, but it’s just another example of how men often use homophobia to shut down conversations about consent. It pops up every now and then and I just have to remind people, “No, I like vagina.”

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Some names have been changed for privacy.

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