Letter to the Editor: Consent is a simple concept

C.K. Egbert

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Editor’s Note: This Letter to the Editor is in response to a column published in Friday’s print edition, titled “Know the true meaning of consent before you hook up

I would like to offer the following response to “knowing the true meaning of consent.”

First of all, it is indubitably a progressive development that California has signed an “affirmative consent” law. It is also true, as Patel notes, that we need to change our thinking about sexual consent.

But I’d like to provide some context on the idea that rape and sexual assault result from “misunderstanding.” We generally don’t “misunderstand” consent in other contexts. I haven’t bought something unless I’ve brought it to the counter and given the cashier my money. Just because I said I wanted a hamburger earlier in the day does not mean that Edzo’s has a complaint against me if I don’t drop by for lunch. I haven’t agreed to anything unless and until I’ve signed a statement saying — explicitly — what I’ve agreed to. I cannot consent to something if I’m mentally or physically incapacitated such that I cannot give consent. And if someone touches me on the street without my express permission, it is assault.

Why does it suddenly become an issue of “misunderstanding” in a sexual context? It is not because we suddenly fail to understand “consent.” It is not because we no longer are able to communicate and ask questions (notice that is a surefire way to ensure you aren’t misunderstanding someone — ask for clarification). It is because we have a double standard when it comes to sexuality: We victim-blame, we accept coercion (repeated requests, pressuring or assaulting someone who is drunk) and we accept that men are “entitled” to sex.

I can only consent when I have explicitly, in the moment and voluntarily (without coercion) consented. That means that it isn’t consent if I’m drunk or being threatened, manipulated or pressured. It means it isn’t consent if I said I wanted something earlier and changed my mind. It means it isn’t consent unless I’ve told you “yes.” If there is any doubt that there was consent, then there hasn’t been because consent is something that must be actively expressed rather than passively assumed (and if you don’t believe me, imagine how angry you would be if your friends assumed they could start charging things to your credit card without asking you first — because you didn’t say “no!”).

It’s really that simple.


C.K. Egbert
PhD candidate, Department of Philosophy
Northwestern University