The Consent Equation


I know that my son, Clyde, has not always appreciated having a budding social justice warrior for an older sister. I’m sure he didn’t fully appreciate having her come home from working her shift at Pride in the Pines when he was twelve and making him listen to her “sexuality is a spectrum” speech. And no eleven-year-old boy is ever really ready for his sister to casually mention that “virginity is just a social construct.” But the day that probably stands out the most in his mind is the time when he was nine and she burst into his room demanding he answer the question, “Can drunk girls consent?” And then, when he didn’t answer her quickly enough, answered the question herself with a sharp, “No, they can not.” Nor did he probably appreciate the lecture that followed when she explained to him that consent must always contain the following three elements: “continual, verbal, and enthusiastic.” At nine I’m pretty sure he was more interested in catching up on the latest Naruto release then in learning the finer points of navigating sexuality in a world of vastly unequal power dynamics.

Now, however, at the wise old age of sixteen, when such things are much more relevant, I’m sure he feels a little less mortified, and a lot more grateful. (Well, to be honest, probably no less mortified, and only a little more grateful.) But still, there must be some degree of gratitude there, if only for helping him thus far avoid any of the scandals that have befallen pretty much every celebrity ever, with the possible exception, of course, of Tom Hanks. (Please, don’t ever let me hear anything bad about Tom Hanks.)

Of course, I’d like to believe that Clyde (or any boy, really) has always been the type of person who already understands everything his sister once insisted he learn, with special emphasis placed on the importance of consent, but recent scandals would seem to insist otherwise. Apparently, there are some men (yes, I know: #notallmen) who seem to be under the impression that the “nuances” of consent are not, in fact, something simple enough to explain to a nine-year-old boy, but are rather some form of advanced math, a complicated story problem involving clothing, and alcohol, and buyer’s remorse. The truth of the matter is that consent is not even long division level of hard; it’s simple addition. You+ continual, verbal, and enthusiastic=consent.

This is so easy to understand, and so commonly accepted that Lenny Bruce worked it into his stand up act sixty years ago. (“You never touch it” he complains to his wife, who replies “Do you really want me to touch it if I don’t want to touch it?” When he answers her with a desperate “Yes!” the audience laughs. They laugh because, even back then, they knew what he was asking of her was wrong.)

Lenny (and Lenny’s wife, and Lenny’s audience) all understood what Louis C.K. and others seem to have forgotten, or pretend not to have known in the first place: not only does an absence of “no” does not mean “yes,” but a “yeah, I guess” doesn’t mean “yes” either. Because, really, the most important part of the consent trinity is enthusiastic. Without enthusiasm there is no consent. (And if you are so socially inept that you legitimately can’t tell the difference between enthusiastic and grudging, then it is probably in the public’s best interest not to let you wander freely about without some kind of an aide.)

We can’t all be lucky enough to have an older sister who firmly believes (rightfully so) that “the birds and the bees” should be updated to include “and asking nicely, please.” But, just maybe, we can all make up for lost time by channelling our own budding social justice warriors and explaining consent to the boys in our lives. Even if they would rather get caught up on the latest Naruto release.


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3 Responses to The Consent Equation

  1. Janine

    I don’t know if “consent” is taught in Sex Ed classes. My husband and I preferred to teach our children about the dignity of human sexuality ourselves. Perhaps the “Trinity Equation” needs to be included in freshmen orientation in high school and college classes.

    I have always been offended by the “seduction” poems in British Lit, which treat women as if they were objects that can be verbally manipulated.

    We need to go beyond consent. Young women need to protect themselves. Drinking with strangers at a frat party is unsafe. There are not always going to be men on bicycles nearby to rescue young women. Getting “blackout” drunk is a serious, dangerous “alcohol use disorder” health problem, which puts both young men and women at risk.

    Binge drinking at fraternity initiation is a cruel and abusive practice that sometimes results in death. Does a person’s character change while drinking? Or is it magnified?

    Many soldiers would never consider raping the wives of enemies, yet 100,000 women were raped at Nanking during WWII. ISIS captured sex slaves — is that practice in the Koran? It was offensive to read how women were treated as the “spoils of war” in The Odyssey.

    Why wasn’t Anita Hill believed? Why was Clarence Thomas still confirmed as a Supreme Court Judge? The #MeToo Twitter campaign has been more effective than our national election in “firing” abusers like Weinstein and Spacey.

  2. Melissa Marcus

    Great piece!!!! Bravo to you! And your daughter.



    Thank Clem for talking to Clyde about consent. I’m still enough of a romantic to think that sexual relations should be about love, and love requires mutual agreement and respect. May Clyde always treat women with the love and respect they deserve as fellow human beings that he cares about.

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