An article by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education appeared just after my last blog post, about the gray areas surrounding the matter of consent to a sexual encounter. Wilson’s article speaks to very much the same topic. Even the article’s original title has been at issue: it was first listed as “When Does Unwanted Sex Become Rape?” but, at the actual site, the article’s title has been revised to “Colleges Wrestle with How to Define Rape.” The controversy over the title distills two ways of thinking about sexual assault. Some people, most of them supportive of an affirmative consent policy, would say that, without question, rape is ANY unwanted sex. Other people acknowledge the possibility of ambiguity, for men and women alike, about whether sex is wanted; for those people, unwanted sex isn’t necessarily rape.
The issue in some of the trickiest cases isn’t so much consent as it is the notion of wanted, a notion that precedes consent. Uncertainty over whether someone wants kissing to develop into intercourse is common; one member of a couple can easily make assumptions about the other member’s level of desire that could turn out to be wrong or, more perplexingly and more likely, not quite right. In the absence of spoken commentary or a clear physical indication that intercourse is wanted, one person may project his or her own desire on the other. In reality, however, the other person may simply be trying to avoid a confrontation or feel obliged to follow through on a promise that only seems to have been made.
Advocates of affirmative consent policies would argue that, in such situations, the only way to be sure that someone else wants what you want, and thus to avoid “rape,” is to hear the other person voice an unequivocal “yes” or its equivalent—for example, tearing off one’s clothes. But here again, the lack of a “yes” doesn’t always equate to a “no” or, for that matter, to a feeling of “I’m not quite there yet but perhaps could be / will be eventually.” A sensation of “definitely maybe” could well be a good reason to take things slowly and deliberately, rather than screech to a halt or douse with cold water. How to slow down, especially when both people have been racing to what seems a foregone conclusion or one person is unwittingly acting for both people is, in my view, the difficult question.
Studies suggest that many people don’t feel they’ve been violated until long after a sexual experience that hasn’t been clearly wanted. In the case of a sexual episode between a professor and a student, that period is likely to be longer, and the divide between once thinking the sex was wanted and, later, regretting the entanglement is likely to be bigger in this scenario than in most others.