Education after Steubenville: The 4 Rules of Sexual Consent

The conviction of two young men for rape of an unconscious 16 year-old women in Steubenville, Ohio should lead us to much-needed discussion about attitudes towards sexual assault and the type of education and social changes we need to end it.

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media coverage of the verdict was atrocious: sympathy was expressed not for the victim but the rapists. Fortunately, there were many excellent blog posts in response, for example, Megan Carpentier’s post in The Guardian.

There are many things required to end sexual assault. But, to name just one thing, when I speak on university campuses and in schools, I’m often struck by the confusion about what is and what isn’t sexual consent.  That, plus continued beliefs in men’s sexual entitlement and a culture of silence around many forms of gender-based violence is the terrible recipe that too-often leads to sexual assault.

In those campus and school talks, I focus on what I call the four rules of consent. In part, they were shaped by a seminar by friend and colleague Harry Brod who, like me, has been inspired by feminist activists and thinkers working to end violence against women. (Check out his video on sexual consent.)

The text and images below are reprinted from my booklet, Mantalk, and also appeared in Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. Although addressed to men and focusing on male-female relationships, they obviously apply to all of us whoever we are with.


The Four Rules of Sexual Consent

We have a phrase for any type of sexual act when one person doesn’t want to do what the other person is doing with them: it’s sexual assault.

Consent is when both people agree to do the same thing and let the other person know. There are four rules of consent:

Rule 1: When it comes to sex, only yes means yes. “Maybe,” doesn’t mean yes. “I guess so,” doesn’t mean yes. “Let’s see what happens,” doesn’t mean yes. And “no” never, ever means yes. Unless you want to be committing date rape, you’ve gotta hear a “yes” to have consent and, likewise, there has to be a “yes” on your side too.

Sample: “Hey, do you want to tear off our clothes and have sex?” “Yeah, that sounds cool.” That’s consent.

Rule 2: It’s your responsibility to know if you have consent. If a cop pulls you over when you’re speeding it doesn’t help to say, “Officer, I didn’t know there was a speed limit here.” Ditto with sex, whether it’s kissing someone, feeling them up, or going all the way. It’s your responsibility to learn the other person’s limit and it’s their responsibility to learn yours. You can’t just “believe” they want to do what you’re doing, you’ve got to know for sure. And remember, it’s not her responsibility to say “no”; it’s your responsibility to know she says “yes,” and vice-versa. Some people say, “Well, how can you know for sure?” My friend Harry responds, “Man, how could you not want to know? Can you imagine waking up some morning and wondering if you’re a date rapist?” Or, to put it differently, how could you not want to have good sex?

Rule 3: Nothing you’ve already done gives you permission to do the next thing. You’re kissing like mad; she’s totally into it; that must mean it’s okay to get your hand under her shirt. Wrong. You’ve got your clothes off and you’re all over each other; that must mean it’s okay to have intercourse. Wrong.

The truth is that, unless you’re involved in a regular relationship and have already worked out a set of rules, every time you go to a new “level” you’ve got to get consent.

Some people say, “That sucks. That totally breaks the flow.”

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s a bit of truth in that. On the other hand, by both knowing you’re doing what you want, there’ll be a thousand times more sexual energy than if one person is getting off and the other would prefer to be watching reruns on TV or is uncomfortable or scared.

Even better, because you’ll know for sure and because both of you have to talk about what you like or don’t like, we guys become much better in bed.

Rule 4: If you’re drunk out of your mind, you can’t give or get consent. If either of you is too drunk or too stoned to completely know what you’re doing, then it’s impossible to have informed consent. You can’t give it and you don’t know if you’ve truly got it. Afterwards, neither of you know if you’re a date rapist.

If you’re with someone and you make a decision together to get wasted and have sex, that’s not assault because consent happened when you were sober. (Of course, either you can still change your mind and, if you express that, withdraw your consent.) But, if it’s the other way around, there can’t be consent. It’s the law.

 

15 Comments on “Education after Steubenville: The 4 Rules of Sexual Consent

    1. This type of question is indeed one of the challenges. Consent is an ongoing process in any sexual encounter. It can be withdrawn at any moment. And the conditions might change. Awareness work on these issues is, in part, to help people understand the consequences of their actions. You’re interested in someone you meet at a party. Understanding that if you become drunk you can not really give or get consent would then, I would hope, encourage you not to get hammered.

  1. Hi Michael!

    Thank you for this post and thank you for your latest book, the Guys Guide to Feminism. I work with young men, middle school – college age, in violence prevention (with special concentration on preventing violence against women) and as you mention in this article, there is definitely much confusion on consent. Since purchasing your book, I have found your four rules of consent to be extremely helpful. The way in which you have laid out consent in four concise, easy to understand rules has made it much easier for me to communicate consent and easier for them to understand.

    I consider your four rules of consent to be the basic foundation upon which a deeper, more mature understanding of consent can be built. While these cut and dry rules may not apply word-for-word to a mature relationship between partners, in my experience, these certainly do apply to today’s young men as many have no basic understanding of consent. Some of the young men with whom I work have, under the legal definition, committed sexual assault thinking they were only “flirting” or “moving the relationship to the next level.” One must have a basic foundation of consent before being able to move into a more mature relationship where both partners are aware of the boundaries without having to be so cut and dry with consent. Your four rules provide this basic understanding of consent for young men and for this, I am thankful!

  2. What if a person only gives non-verbal consent? If they only use body language to determine what the other person wants, does it still count as true consent?

    1. Legally, it depends on the jurisdiction. In Canada, consent needs to be explicit. Morally, everywhere, I believe it is your responsibility, as a male or female, to absolutely know you have consent, not just think that a certain bit of body language conferred consent. thanks!

  3. I don’t think that consent to any contact implies consent for all contact, but saying that it implies consent to NO additional contact goes too far. A touch that is slightly different from what is presently being engaged in shouldn’t be an automatic policy violation if it is poorly received. It’s a question of scope and boundaries rather than individual acts. If a given action is reasonably within the scope of the consent that has already been given, then it shouldn’t be a policy violation even if it is poorly received, so long as it ceases at the first sign of discomfort.

    Requiring someone to ask for consent in between kisses just goes a bit too far. As does requiring someone to ask for consent every time they move their hand a few inches. Asking for separate consent for each individual body part just isn’t realistic. Incremental progression is the norm in sexual encounters. I don’t think its necessary to ask for advance permission for every little minor escalation of contact. Major escalations? Sure, but there’s arguably hundreds of steps in a normal sexual interaction, and it would be pretty silly to expect hundreds of separate requests for consent. Kissing implies consent to further kissing, and further kissing implies consent to light petting. Light petting implies consent to heavy petting, and on and on.

    I think it’s more an issue of moving slowly and being sensitive to your partner’s signals than anything else. If a limit is made clear, then you respect it, but otherwise sexual situations have a way of naturally moving forward in a incremental fashion. And I think it’s unreasonable to say that some consent never implies further consent. Because such a position really does require someone to ask for specific consent to each individual gesture, and that would necessitate thousands of verbal requests for consent in a single interaction.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that a physical encounter should be one kiss, one negotiation, one touch, another negotiation! What I was speaking about what knowing you each have consent for whatever type of sexual activity you’re engaged in.

      1. But doesn’t a sustained period of kissing usually lead to wandering hands? I agree that you should ask before you go under anyone clothing (unless they take it off, themselves, while the two of you are making out), but I think simply making out with someone is more of an intuitive activity.

        Go slow. Be sensitive. Don’t make any sudden moves. But if the two of you are aggressively kissing and you want to grab a butt or a boob, over the clothes, I think that’s generally okay so long as you go slow and give them a chance to respond before it happens. Non-verbally feeling out the boundaries is how this usually works.

    2. If you’re making out and things are getting heated you simply say “How far do you want to go?” Bam! Now the other person can respond “Just kissing”, “let’s have sex” or “let’s slow down”. Wow. 2 sentences isn’t going to kill the mood. one from you. one from her. you’re done.
      If you get a “I’m not sure” then its time to stop making out and have a discussion.

      This is pretty damn simple people and its called CONSENT

  4. “The truth is that, unless you’re involved in a regular relationship and have already worked out a set of rules, every time you go to a new “level” you’ve got to get consent.”

    What does this even mean? What exactly counts as a new “level?” Where is the line separating one from the other? There’s a pretty clear line between “contact” and “penetration,” but things become much murkier when you start talking about “forms” of contact.

    Are people meant to ask in between kisses? Are they meant to stop and ask every time someone wishes to move their hand a few inches? there’s arguably hundreds of steps in a typical sexual interaction. Must someone bring things to a screeching halt to awkwardly ask for consent to continue hundreds of times during a single interaction?

    This rule has the potential to turn sex into a grueling chore that neither party will enjoy.

    1. Roberto,
      I feel like your statement that asking between kisses would be a chore. Its not. If you’re making out and things are getting heated you simply say “How far do you want to go?” Bam! Now the other person can respond “Just kissing”, “let’s have sex” or “let’s slow down”. Wow. 2 sentences isn’t going to kill the mood. one from you. one from her. you’re done.
      If you get a “I’m not sure” then its time to stop making out and have a discussion.

      I really don’t see what’s so difficult about this. If I was making out with someone and they asked I would respect them more and know that I could trust them. In fact I might trust going further with them then I would if they hadn’t asked.

      Men who think consent is a hassle are men I don’t care to sleep with. Goodbye.

  5. Hi Michael,

    As someone who works at a crisis centre, I feel I have to disagree with the following statement:

    “If you’re with someone and you make a decision together to get wasted and have sex, that’s not assault because consent happened when you were sober. But, if it’s the other way around, there can’t be consent. It’s the law.”

    What you are describing here is prior consent, which is, at best, a hazy issue within the Criminal Code of Canada (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/05/27/f-supreme-court-consent-interpretation.html).

    More importantly, though, this advice could give the impression that once I consent when sober, my consent/non-consent wouldn’t matter once I’m drunk/high; that I would not be able to change my mind. This like of thinking could possibly be quite dangerous if not interpreted correctly.

    1. Thanks, Jenn, for your thoughtful remarks. What I was getting at is the question I sometimes get when I’m speaking on a university/college campus or in a high school: “You mean you can’t have sex when you’re drunk without worrying it is sexual assaul?” So here I’m clarifying that the issue is around the nature of consent not about whether you’re allowed to drink and have sex. Of course, it’s absolutely true that someone can change their mind and express that and needs to be listened to (or else it is assault). When I’m speaking about this, I do add these other points which I hoped were clear here from the overall thrust of these short paragraphs. However, in case not, I’ve tweaked the text so it won’t be misunderstood. Thanks again! Michael

  6. Thank you for this post. We need to keep the conversation about this issue going, we must make society change. Here are my thoughts, I hope you’ll read them. sommanita.tumblr.com/post/45755708718/rape-culture

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