Affirmative Consent and Safer, Hotter Sex.Affirmative Consent and Safer, Hotter Sex
Asking For It: The Ethics and Erotics of Sexual Consent. By Sut Jhally (Director) and Media Education Foundation (Producer); 38 min, $95.00-$125.00. Media Education Foundation, 2010, 60 Masonic St., Northampton, MA 01060. 413-584-8500; www. mediaed.org.
Reviewed by Tiffany M. Mueller and Zoe D. Peterson, Department of Psychology, University of Missouri-St. Louis, One University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121; E-mail: email@example.com
In this documentary film, an exploration of sexual consent challenges common assumptions about how partners communicate their willingness or unwillingness to engage in sexual activity. Consistent with their mission to generate "critical reflection" of sociopolitical issues, the Media Education Foundation presents the video as a resource for high school and college classes or extracurricular programs and workshops. The film was directed by Sut Jhally, director of several other well-respected and widely shown films for the classroom, including Dreamworlds 3: Desire, Sex & Power in Music Video (2007) and Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising's Image of Women (2000).
The film consists of nothing more than a lecture to a classroom of college students given by Dr. Harry Brod, professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa and author of multiple books on the topics of masculinity and men's studies. The lecture is interactive, inviting comments from the student audience, which provides the viewer with a sense that he or she is an active member of the class. There certainly are no attention-grabbing graphics or flashy production values in this video, but the content is important and interesting.
Dr. Brod begins his lecture by proposing the assumption that "no means no and yes means yes." He explains the process of philosophical inquiry to evaluate the truth of an assumption, and modestly beckons the students to follow him through an analysis of this assumption. To set up a foundation for illustrating his ethical standards for consent, Dr. Brod breaks down this assumption by asking the class to produce exceptions to the rules that "yes means yes" or that "no mean no." The students in the class contribute by providing many thoughtful, and sometimes controversial, exceptions to these rules. Furthermore, Dr. Brod asks the classroom to consider the prevailing standards for determining consent when there is no clear yes or no response. During this discussion, a number of issues that complicate understandings of consent are introduced by Dr. Brod and his students, including incapacitation due to alcohol or drugs, questions of mental or psychological competency, token resistance, power imbalances, verbal coercion, and varying interpretations of body language. Unfortunately, most of these issues receive little or no elaboration during the short film; however, they represent important concerns held by many young adults, and create an opportunity for further dialog in certain viewer contexts.
Following this discussion, the professor challenges the students, asking them, "What are the ethical standards we should hold each other to?," and "What standard for behavior do you endorse?" Dr. Brod then strongly asserts that the only ethical standard of consent that preserves safety, justice, and equality is the "affirmative consent standard," which requires sexual initiators to obtain explicit verbal consent. He provocatively states that any alternative to this standard gives others a right to your body unless you expressly stop them. Using the concept of "epistemological responsibility," Dr. Brod relieves individuals from the pressure of stopping sexual advances and transfers the duty of preventing sexual assault and rape to the individual initiating sex. He effectively employs driving and sports analogies to more clearly express his standard for sexual consent. In addition, Dr. Brod recognizes the gender neutrality of this standard of consent, but acknowledges specific applicability to heterosexual, male-initiated sexual encounters due to the high prevalence of sexual assault and rape that occur in this context.
An especially unique and refreshing element of this documentary is Dr. Brod's emphasis on the positive consequences of promoting an affirmative consent standard. Arguing that many sexual assault prevention efforts have been ineffective largely because of their anti-sex undertones, Dr. Brod offers an alternative perspective. He suggests that only in the presence of affirmative consent can partners enjoy a fully erotic experience characterized by intimacy, mutuality, and sexual communication. To men in the class, Dr. Brod explains that creating this safe environment will allow their female partners to feel the freedom to be as erotic as they want to be without fear of force or coercion, and that affirmative consent thus leads to "hotter sex."
Dr. Brod realistically warns students that explicitly and verbally obtaining consent may feel awkward initially, but points out that this momentary awkwardness pales when compared to the possibility of perpetrating a sexual assault. In addition, he cautions that women initially may not believe men who reassure them that they will not attempt any sexual contact without receiving explicit consent because the current norms have not been consistent with a standard of affirmative consent. Nevertheless, Dr. Brod optimistically states that, over time, individuals can not only improve their sexual relationships by adhering to this standard, but can also promote social change in their immediate environments and in the larger cultural context.
In response to comments from the students, Dr. Brod also addresses issues related to interpretation of body language in determining consent, and highlights that relying on nonverbal consent is almost always dangerous. He also encourages peers to hold each other accountable for preventing sexual assault. Finally, he argues that it is impossible to follow the affirmative consent standard when initiating sex while too incapacitated to obtain consent from a partner. In a gentle but startling confrontation, Dr. Brod tells the students that there is no way for them to know if they have sexually assaulted someone if they have ever initiated sexual activity when they were too drunk or high to obtain knowledge of consent.
Dr. Brod's straightforward tone has an inherent confidence, and his challenges are encouraging without the bitter taste of condemnation. He uses straightforward, yet non-patronizing, language with the audience. His analysis of the ethics of consent addresses multiple issues, and the deductive logic used to arrive at the standard of affirmative consent is reminiscent of a simple geometry proof. Although the film is by no means comprehensive in its examination of sexual consent, it opens opportunities for further discussion among viewers. Areas that are not covered by this video include such issues as how consent operates in different types of sexual relationships, the distinction between felt and expressed consent, and obtaining consent with individuals who have cognitive impairments. A related possible weakness is that Dr. Brod warns against sexual assault without clarifying definitional questions regarding nonconsensual sex (e.g., distinguishing between sexual assault and rape). However, most important, this film strongly promotes a safe and responsible approach to sexual consent without glossing over the challenges and complexities of consent and without taking a blaming or sex-negative stance. This film is recommended for sexual assault prevention education with young adults or as a resource for classes on gender and sexuality. It also could be a useful training video for sexual assault prevention advocates who would like to improve the effectiveness of their message.