Commentary

The Binary of Consent

D

uring Fall Term, I was one of 72 Lowers who participated in the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program (M.V.P.). M.V.P. is a discussion-based program that offers Saturday-morning training sessions on gender-based violence prevention, underscoring topics such as consent, healthy relationships, passive bystanders, and double standards. Now that M.V.P. has come to an end, I am a bit nostalgic because I truly enjoyed the program and feel as though I learned a considerable amount from the classes. But as I reflect, there was one activity M.V.P. teachers taught us that concerned me: the Line of Consent.

We were told the Line of Consent is used as a method for gauging how much consent is present in a given situation. The activity involved drawing a diagonal line on a piece of paper, with the top end of the line representing “full consent” and the bottom end being “assault.” They described various scenarios and asked us to decide where to place them on the line. According to the rules of the activity, a couple who had been dating for years engaging in sexual activity without any verbal communication placed fairly high on the line, while two friends making out at a party with alcohol involved was closer to the bottom. But, as the activity progressed, several of my peers and I realized that there was something glaringly wrong with the Line of Consent. How could there be various degrees of consent? When we expressed our objection to the activity, it was quickly dismissed as merely an opinion. Different levels of consent can exist, the facilitators reasoned, because the kind of relationship between two people affect the amount of trust they have in each other.

Let me say it unequivocally: there is no such thing as a Line of Consent. In a given situation, consent is either present or it is not. One cannot have 80 percent consent for one action and 45 percent for another. The idea that there are levels of assent contradicts the very definition of consent: continued, unambiguous agreement without the influence of substances. The Line of Consent is especially worrying due to the dangerous message it sends about how the boundaries of consent can be pushed. If one thinks that kissing requires “less consent” than unwanted touching, for instance, their idea of what is and what is not acceptable changes. A meaningful discussion regarding gender-based violence and sexual assault cannot occur without a set of clear definitions, and the meaning of consent is not one that can be disputed.

The existence of the Line of Consent also reveals what is sorely lacking from Andover’s attempts to combat ambiguous consent. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to nod our heads and chant “yes means yes” when characters in a made-up situation are simply that, characters. But when these characters put on names, faces, and personalities, it becomes more difficult. We must realize that sexual assault do not necessarily occur due to a lack of information – they can happen because students will and do sometimes prioritize consent less when directly faced with a situation that requires it.

The battle against gender-based violence is absolutely worth fighting for. This is why it is imperative that bystander-education training, such as the one M.V.P. offers, should be taught to all students, because although the meaning of consent can seem as simple as “yes means yes,” it never always is that simple. 

Dec 16, 2016