It’s Time to Learn a Thing or Two about Consent

Imagine a scenario where a university science department hosts a speaker and that man wants to go out dancing after the faculty dinner. No one else wants to, so the responsibility of shepherding the VIP falls to the lone woman in the group. (This happens all the time in professional settings—could just as easily
play out at a literary festival, on a film shoot, or any number of other places.) The visitor, a luminary in their shared discipline, proceeds to corner her in a booth at the bar and repeatedly accosts her, even putting his hands on her body. She makes it clear she’s not interested but still has to return him to his hotel, where she must rebuff a further solicitation to come up to his room. She doesn’t tell her colleagues about the experience because she knows that she’s the one who’ll be judged (as oversensitive, incapable), not him, and she doesn’t want to jeopardize her hard-won standing. Except that the encounter stays with her—uncomfortable feelings and resentment, perhaps even outright fear of being near the man again. She quietly warns other women to steer clear.

If you’re tired of hearing this story, consider a second scenario: several women tell their stories and the luminary actually listens. He tries to consider events from the other perspective. Some equally brave women come forward with stories of totally consensual encounters. He comes to realize that although he’s committed no crime against anyone, he’s caused many women harm. He acknowledges this and makes a commitment to be better at listening to and reading cues so that when someone makes it clear she’s not interested in a sexual encounter he stops trying to initiate one. Now it’s his standing that’s at stake.

As humanists we should consider not only how often we’ve accepted the first scenario, but why the second is still so unlikely and how we’d respond if it did actually play out.

Seven years ago a Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast cohost was pilloried for asking men to think about how their actions might be inappropriate or physically threatening in certain contexts. In her case, it was being invited at 4 a.m. by a guy in an elevator to have coffee in his hotel room, having earlier 
in the day sat on a conference panel where she discussed rape threats she’d received for talking about feminist issues on her podcast. “Guys, don’t do that,” she said in a later video blog. (This is essentially what the feminist zeitgeist is saying right now. And with its star power and sizable legal fund, Time’s Up puts it a bit more forcefully as, guys, you’re no longer going to get away with doing that.)

Back then I was horrified to hear about the threats this young woman was receiving, but I was incapable of connecting their effect to what she felt in the elevator. With a consciousness I didn’t have then it’s so obvious now—sharing that you’re physically threatened for talking feminism and having no idea who in the audience is sympathetic or hostile, hours later finding yourself in a confined space alone with an attendee… I’m aghast that I didn’t see it then. Imagine if the early-morning coffee lover had simply come out and said, “I get it now—sorry about that.”

Sexual assault is not the same thing as sexual misconduct, and crossing the line can be far less predatory than harassment. But it all falls on a spectrum of bad behavior that our culture has for too long condoned.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently reminded me of the scene in Rocky when the earnest, hulking hero compels his very resistant love interest to come up to his apartment. Rocky’s down to his undershirt on top and Adrian’s still in her hat and coat. She says she’s uncomfortable, but that doesn’t stop him from backing her into a corner and forcing a kiss. “If you wonder where some men got the idea that ‘no’ means ‘maybe’ and that a squirming woman just needs a thuggish tug toward her inner vamp,” Bruni noted, “one answer is Rocky and a long line of movies with similar suggestions.” Likewise, popular music has long had us tapping our toes to predatory and 
misogynistic messages. (For a chill, check out the lyrics to the Beatles song “Run for Your Life.”)

But now the #MeToo era is upon us, and the song, or scene, simply cannot 
remain the same. And why on earth would we want it to? Why do some in the humanist/skeptic community resist this tidal wave of change? Some women of a certain age convey the sentiment that they had to deal with sexism and managed to survive and even thrive, so the younger set needs to suck it up and stop making such a big deal out of handsy men. There’s another aspect to the resistance that I think is somewhat unique to the humanist community. It’s always been a fringe movement, even within the counterculture. Those who’ve indulged in freewheeling sexual practices may also be resisting judgment or lamenting what they perceive to be an end to the halcyon days of come-ons, illicit sex, and partner swapping. But come on, it’s time to learn a thing or two about consent.

As I said to an acquaintance who complained about organized humanism’s tedi­ous pandering to political correctness, one humanist’s tedious pandering is recognition of another’s genuine pain.