Affirmative consent is still a better idea

In recent weeks, dozens of powerful and famous women have come forward against equally powerful and famous men in industries including Hollywood, publishing, art, comedy and business.

Those accounts have emboldened others with fewer resources to post their own stories using the #MeToo hashtag or in other public forums. Allegations have shaken the leadership ranks at prominent institutions, including National Public Radio, ABC News and several state legislatures.[1]

I have three thoughts on the numerous recent revelations of sexual harassment and assault. First, the sheer volume of reports[2] and the fact that it’s about sex suggests a moral panic. That’s not by any means to say the allegations are false—I’m inclined to credit most of them—but rather that we need to be careful in our response. Cathy Young’s cautions about what conduct we really want to ruin people’s lives over[3] seem warranted and probably should be seen as a minimum.

But second, the apparent ubiquity of assault and harassment seems to me to be part of a larger picture involving the relationship between men and women generally. And it is in this context that we should probably see how women’s roles in courtship often seem reduced to that of a sexual gatekeeper. I’ve argued in the past that this is problematic:

One [vision of sexual consent] casts women in a traditional gender role as sexual gatekeepers. While all feminists insist that “no means no,” this view understands ambiguity to be just that. It effectively casts women as passive receivers of men’s advances and allows them to not take the initiative in sexual or in romantic matters. It allows women to mean yes without seeming aggressive or “forward.”[4]

When the onus is on men to initiate relationships, first, you have to expect some (probably all at one time or another) of us to get it wrong; second, women lose agency; and third, each half of the population, at best, poorly understands the situation of the other in seeking relationships.[5] Which is why “affirmative consent”[6] still seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Third, many of these allegations are against wealthy and successful (read ‘powerful’) men. There are a couple ways to interpret this and we should examine both interpretations carefully: One is that power is a problem. Over and over again, we see power over others abused. Another is that we’re only hearing about the ‘powerful’ men. While less powerful men may have fewer opportunities to engage in this conduct, I see no reason to believe that many—perhaps most—men are better behaved. Which would point to a more fundamental problem in how we hook up: An often observed tendency of women to prefer abusive (allegedly powerful and successful) men[7] seems like an obvious contributing factor.

I have lived in many places, countries, and cultures. This is a worldwide phenomenon. The behavior of men is simply a response (which is actually a quite logical one) to the changing behavior of women. Simply put, men are a breeding experiment run by women.[8]

We have a choice here: We can continue to bitch and moan about how men treat women and simultaneously continue to refuse to address the underlying problem or we can change how people are expected to get together. I recommend the latter. By making potential partners more equal and by raising an expectation that such partners must be equal and must always 1) be able to meaningfully consent, and 2) unambiguously offer that consent, “affirmative consent” would help to reduce this problem.[9]

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