The tea metaphor might be a good way to start a conversation, but just insisting that sexual consent is “simple” isn’t actually helpful.
To be clear, some parts of consent are straightforward. It’s not consensual if you’re physically forcing someone to have sex, coercing them with threats of violence, or continuing over their protests. These are not things I’m going to debate.
But some questions of consent are trickier. Like, what kinds of professional relationships rule out consensual romances? When does a difference in level of intellectual ability make consent impossible? To what degree can prescription medications impair the ability to consent?
Even if you have firm answers to all these questions, the real point is that there isn’t a clear consensus on the topics. And when we say consent is simple, we cut those conversations off.
Let’s look a little closer at the issue of alcohol and consent:
People set their own boundaries around alcohol and sex a lot of different places. Some people won’t have sex after they’ve been drinking at all, while other people are comfortable having sex regardless of how much they’ve had to drink. For some people it comes down to the number of drinks or if they talked about having sex before they started drinking.
Many people aren’t quite sure where their boundaries around alcohol and sex are. They might have some sense that there is a point where they’d be too drunk to have sex, or a point where someone else would be too drunk to have sex with. They might think it’s important if one person drank a lot more than the other. But they’d be hard pressed to say exactly where those lines are.
And some people have very clear ideas about where everyone should set these boundaries, but they still disagree with each other about it. Even if you look only at feminist, pro-consent sources, you’ll see people saying that you can’t consent if you’ve been drinking, that it makes a difference if you’re tipsy or drunk, or that it just depends.
So if you really want a simple answer on this one, I guess you can take your pick.
We need to talk about sexual consent. We need to talk about it in our classrooms, with our kids, with our friends, and with our partners. We need to talk about it because it’s a requirement for healthy sexual relationships. And we need to talk about consent because sometimes it’s confusing and ambiguous.
That’s not an excuse to lower the bar. We can’t just throw our hands up in the air, say it’s complicated, and decide that anything we’re not sure about is actually okay. This is a call to action. We can do better. We need to have difficult conversations about consent and continue working on how we navigate consent in our sexual relationships.