The moral climate of college is warped. On the one hand, it is a bit like living in the Scarlet Letter. Students are urged to repent for their race, gender, sexual preferences, etc., and to acknowledge and fear invisible bogeymen like the Cisheterowhitepatriarchy, which infect people, entire academic departments, and society at large. At the same time, so preoccupied with these ethereal yet all-powerful social constructions of their own invention, progressivism’s true believers lose sight of the authentic evils in our world.
One of the most recent examples of this duality is The Student Life’s November 10 op-ed entitled “When Yes Means No.” The author, Tiara Sharma, asserts that the Claremont Colleges’ educational campaign against sexual assault on campus mistakenly designates some enthusiastic affirmative (such as “Yes!”) as the dividing line between consensual sex and rape. She faults “[p]olicies of affirmative consent” for “ignor[ing] the frequency with which individuals consent out of fear, coercion, and past trauma.”
The trouble, of course, is that the notion of affirmative consent being advanced on campuses across the country already accounts for these factors.
End Rape on Campus, one of the foremost national advocates for affirmative consent policies, praised the passage of a 2014 California law that defined consent as “a voluntary, affirmative, conscious, agreement to engage in sexual activity, that it can be revoked at any time, that a previous relationship does not constitute consent, and that coercion or threat of force can also not be used to establish consent.”
This statute reflects the legal and conventional definitions of consent, which both capture the idea that, to be valid, consent requires certain antecedent conditions to hold, chief among which is the condition of agency. In order to hold me to my own decisions, it must be evident that I—and not anyone else—directed them.
If a robber holds me at gunpoint and asks me to sign over my property to him, and I do so, no one would argue that my signature constitutes a consenting act. Despite my signature on the page, it is clear to any reasonable person that it is the robber’s weapon, and not my own will, that provides the decisive force. The challenge, of course, particularly in complicated cases involving sex, is locating the border between coercive and consensual acts.
Sharma seems to agree that when an individual is coerced, he/she cannot consent, regardless of whether he/she does state the contrary. At this point, however, her argument veers away from reality into the land of progressive fantasy. She expends hundreds of words explaining how the “cis-heteropatriarchy can, and actually does, thrive within consensual sex,” and how “even the ‘most’ consensual of sexual interactions … can perpetuate their own gendered power structures of dominance and submission.”
The purpose of this word salad, it seems, is to explain that even run-of-the-mill sexual encounters are, in a sense, deeply coercive because they all, without exception, serve as “a vehicle” for multiple intersecting institutions of oppression—such as the cis-heteropatriarchy. These institutions are so powerful and pervasive, she thinks, that they unavoidably diminish freedom of human choice. But if we take these tyrannous superstructures actually to coerce individual action, we must also accept that any human decision that implicates these structures—from engaging in sexual contact to choosing a profession—is performed under duress and thus cannot ever meet the standard of consent.
To her credit, Sharma, dimly sensing the unsettling possibilities this argument raises, takes care to say that “this is not to say that all sex is rape, nor to take agency from those who find sex empowering.” Unfortunately, this is exactly the point to which her argument inevitably leads: When determinate coercive forces and “violent power dynamics” of institutions of oppression pervade every sexual encounter, there is no room left for agency. On Sharma’s premise, there is simply no way for a person to consent to sex, for duress is everywhere and unavoidable.
Perhaps Sharma was well-intentioned in writing her piece. In any case, her self-proclaimed “complete reconfiguration of the current paradigm” minimizes the evil of sexual assault in favor of propagating the progressive myth of unrelenting institutional oppression.
Consider the following: If it is the case that vast institutions of oppression render human agency inert, one could argue plausibly that rapists who have a claim to some kind of marginalization or status of victimhood are actually not responsible for committing rape.
And in fact, many rapists do have a claim to this status. For example, sexual predators tend to have been victims of abusive home environments as children. Sad as this fact may be, it ought not erase the wrongfulness of their act—yet Sharma’s argument provides a clear pathway to doing just that, excusing and absolving their responsibility on account of their helplessness in the face of overwhelming misfortune. Such a conclusion is morally repugnant; we must reject it, as well as any arguments, like hers, that necessitate it.
We suggest that Sharma abandon her project to crush a fashionable bogeyman and instead take up the more difficult task of developing resources for victims, as well as concrete steps to take in order to reduce sexual assault on campus. As satisfying as it may be to inveigh against institutional oppression and to make victims out of the participants in any and every sexual encounter, these arguments ultimately only marginalize the trauma of real victims: the women and men who carry the unfathomable pain, shame, and sorrow of having their power of choice forcibly withdrawn and destroyed against their will—not by the discarnate themes of a gender studies thesis, but by a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger.
Photo: Flickr / Elvert Barnes