Tuesday Talks: Consent

Students and others discussing topics related to consent. 

“Tuesday Talks is a monthly dialogue series about current issues brought [by the] Office of Student Leadership & Community Engagement and Student Multicultural Affairs.”

The Talk on Tuesday, Feb. 19, was aimed at spreading an “awareness of social issues.” The coordinators believe in “creating a space to learn about what’s happening and discuss to facilitate learning.” The event began with establishing community guidelines including being open-minded about different points of view, asking for clarity, calling out false truths, giving everyone a choice to have a voice, raising your hand, and respecting privacy. After these guidelines were established, Professor Shoshanna Ehrlich, JD, a Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in the College of Liberal Arts, took the stage to gauge how the audience defines “consent.” Definitions included, “giving permission,” “a continuous dialogue between two parties,” “enthusiastic consent,” and “both parties are in agreement.” One person emphasized that people “need to understand that those who aren't sober cannot consent.” Another mentioned that, “asking someone rather than assuming, is crucial.”

Professor Ehrlich then delved into the history of consent and its various definitions, mentioning that historically, in order for something to be considered rape, it wasn't enough to say no because the myth existed that when a woman said no, she didn't mean it. If a woman wasn't a virgin, she lost the right to consent, and the real movement and ideology of “no means no,” emerged in the 1960s to 70s. The idea of consent shifted to affirmative in nature, and universities began to adopt Codes of Consent. After these definitions and history were established, Professor Ehrlich revealed how consent is defined under the law—specifically New York and California—where, “affirmative consent is a knowing, voluntary and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity.”

With this definition in mind, the coordinators then showed two classic movies, Star Wars and The Notebook, to highlight the nature of consent today in media and society. Viewers were shown a clip in which Han Solo and Princess Leia kiss. The dialogue between the two goes as follows: “you could be a little nicer,” spoken by Han Solo, to which he draws nearer to her and cups Princess Leia’s hands, to which she replies, “stop that.” The clip from The Notebook entailed Noah climbing up the Ferris Wheel to ask Allie out, where the dialogue between them when Noah asked her out went as follows: “No,” was Allie’s answer, to which Noah replied, “You leave me no other choice, then,” and then proceeds to pretend to fall off the wheel. After these two clips were shown, viewers were asked what they thought with a mindset of knowing the definition of consent.

The reactions were immediate. One viewer said, “growing up, I would have found the scene between Noah and Allie ‘cute,’ but today I am disgusted.” One person argued that the scene in Star Wars was “basically harassment.” Another pointed out how “consent goes both ways,” mentioning that once Allie had agreed to go out with Noah (under coercion), she proceeded to pull down his pants, even though he asked her not to. In general, the audience was in agreement that neither of the men asked the women in a manner of affirmative consent.

The coordinators then asked the audience to consider how media today has changed our vision of consent. The question prompted deep discussion, where people mentioned that, “there may be more discussion today, but it doesn’t mean the ways have changed at all.” One person said that sometimes consent is given out of fear, surmising, “am I going to tolerate this because I’m interested or because my life will be in danger if I don’t?” “Today,” the audience argued, “it’s easier to say yes because of potential backlash.” One man, out of the two, in the audience, noted that, “men are expected to be firm, not cry, and date as many women as possible,” arguing that the dangerous circumstances of consent, are in part, an effort that includes a sexist education of men.

The conversation then moved on to queer people, and how they may find it difficult to navigate relationships, especially with societal norms established regarding romance and consent. One person mentioned that, “it’s hard to be put in situations without a clear definition, because sexual scripts are so deeply written in our culture.” The discussion then moved to current movements such as #MeToo that heavily imply issues of consent today. One person mentioned that “it is a great privilege to be believed and validated,” and “the Kavanaugh case shows how women are not believed—this is an issue, today. Would I even be believed if I came forward?”

The discussion then shifted to the University of Massachusetts Boston’s campus. UMass Boston’s Code of Consent is currently under review. But it is as follows: “Consent is permission to engage in communication and/or a specific, mutually agreed upon sexual activity that is given freely, actively, and knowingly, using mutually understandable and unambiguous words or actions, or—in plain language—to agree to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, with each other:

  • Consent cannot be inferred by silence, passivity, or not resisting
  • Consent cannot be implied by a current or previous dating or sexual relationship
  • Consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to other forms of sexual activity
  • Consent is not indefinite; it is revocable and may be withdrawn at any time, using words or actions such that a reasonable person would understand a lack of continued consent
  • Consent cannot be given by any person who is under the age of 16
  • Consent cannot be given by a person who is:
    • Asleep
    • Incapacitated by drugs or alcohol
    • Unconsciousness
    • Mentally or physically incapacitated
    • Under duress, intimidation, threat, coercion, or force

It is the responsibility of the person seeking to initiate the sexual activity or conduct to affirmatively obtain consent, not the intended recipient of such conduct to deny such consent.”

The final discussion point was how many people had known, read, or seen the University’s Code of Consent, to which not one person raised their hand. This prompted discussion that the Code of Consent should be placed everywhere, especially in the dorms, on every floor. The conversation then shifted to the mandated reporting of sexual assault on campus, to which the participants were split on whether it prevented people from coming forward about sexual misconduct they had experienced to the university’s own protection. The event ended on a note of reflection and insight, where all the individuals adopted a sense of trust from the conversation; “I feel like I have a space safe to speak about sex and consent on campus, and this is very powerful,” one participant noted.

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