This year, I am not signing the “Consent is Mac” pledge. I don’t think consent is the most effective paradigm to reduce sexual violence, and I believe that Macalester can do better.
“Consent is Mac” is part of a larger trend of presenting consent as easy. We’ve all read the think pieces and comics on Facebook: “Getting consent is exactly like eating this sandwich!,” “consent in twelve easy steps” or “consent for dinosaurs.” The facileness of these articles should concern us: sexual contact and interpersonal emotional negotiation are fundamentally not straightforward, and any media, from Buzzfeed to Macalester’s Title IX module, that tries to convince us otherwise absolves us from confronting the complexity of intimate interactions.
The false oversimplification of consent has larger political and social implications. In my English classes, I have learned how form itself creates content: our messages are only as sound as the structures that convey them. On a semantic level, the structure of the phrase “get consent” dehumanizes the person consenting because the verb “get” signals instrumentalization. A subject gets an object to achieve a goal, and no matter how much the object consents, it is still not the goal itself. We “get” things as a prerequisite for the thing we really want: “I need to get lettuce to make a salad;” “you must get twenty coins to level up.” The phrase “get consent” patterns intimacy along the same paradigm by making sex the goal and other people just tools to get it.
In that way, sexual contact is an excellent test of altruism: even when you want something very badly, can you still listen? Can you still be conscientious of another person’s experience, or do your own desires incapacitate your compassion? It is very, very hard to be attentive to another person when you have the option to use them for your own pleasure. This is why active listening is, in my opinion, one of the most humane pursuits to which we can dedicate ourselves. As liberal arts students, as “global citizens” and as conscientious people, we should be holding each other to a higher standard than simply getting consent so that we can instrumentalize each other within the bounds of legality.
For all our jokes about Macalester’s love of the term “hegemony,” anyone with the most cursory understanding of the term knows that consent is not the opposite of coercion, but rather the vehicle through which coercion occurs. The power dynamics at play in any sexual encounter do not disappear because a person consents; instead, a person consents precisely because of how power is working in the situation. The only antidote to coercion is compassion; the only antidote to sexual violence is honest altruism. And honest altruism is not inculcated through the simple checkbox of “getting consent.”
I do not think anyone deserves fear, shame or violence to constitute part of their sexual experience or history; I understand the instinct to prevent assault through basic education about consent. But a binary metaphor will never be a truly effective tool in a constitutionally complex situation, and it certainly does not meet the standard of respect that all people deserve. Mandating that people “get consent” is the absolute lowest bar for legally acceptable behavior, but like many bare-minimum social requirements, it absolves people from the work of actual compassion. The consent paradigm certainly has utility for preventing sexual violence in the wider world, but the Macalester community should promote a more effective understanding of how to be a responsible sexual actor — someone who can embody the liberal arts belief in holistic personal and interpersonal development, engaged dialogue and a refusal to fall into the easy trap of instrumentalizing those around us for selfish gains. Consent is certainly better than nothing. But if we ever hope to live up to our core values, consent cannot be Mac.