Consent: A Black and White Issue

We Need to Talk About This

For+many+of+us%2C+consent+remains+a+murky+concept.+However%2C+at+its+core%2C+its+definition+is+as+black+and+white+as+any+other%3B+the+only+difference+is+that+we+don%27t+teach+it+that+way.

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For many of us, consent remains a murky concept. However, at its core, its definition is as black and white as any other; the only difference is that we don't teach it that way.

By Jac McCarty, Boulder High School

Consent. It’s an idea that, more often than not, adheres to the time-tested saying of ‘you know it when you see it.’

Many cases are clear-cut. Black and white. A woman saying no. Powder slipped into a drink. Other times, it’s a bit more nebulous. Times where lines start to blur and individuals are left wondering if there’s a difference between saying ‘no’ and not explicitly saying ‘yes.’ This distinction is in many ways encapsulated by the recent allegations against Boulder High senior Curran English.

Police first arrested English on Dec. 6, after a fellow student accused him of sexually assaulting her in her mother’s car. In a police-monitored phone call (as detailed by The Daily Camera in Dec. 2019), English reportedly said about the incident in question: “If you told me to stop, you know I would’ve.” 

This situation is of a sort that begs the question: what is consent? 

According to Lindsey Breslin, a sexual assault hotline supervisor at Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), the answer is a bit more involved than most people might think. “There’s several different components to consent […] People have to be capable of understanding the nature of the sexual activity. What that’s going to be. Consent has to be freely given, which means [that] someone’s not been pressured, not being manipulated, coerced or physically forced to give consent.” 

Breslin says consent is also inherently reversible. “I could agree to some sexual activity right now and in 10 minutes, I could change my mind and say I no longer want to engage.” 

Perhaps most relevant to the case at hand, however, is the concept of enthusiasm. “Consent,” says Breslin, “is not the absence of a no.”

A large part of understanding consent, she says, lies within reading the other person’s body language. “Sometimes people, when they’re experiencing a sexual assault—they might freeze, their body language might change. And people have to pay attention to other people’s body language and stop what they’re doing and say, ‘Hey, are you okay? Are you still wanting to do this?’”

The surest sign that you have consent, at least according to Breslin, is the presence of a “positive yes” to questions like this one.

While the definition of consent is often said to be nebulous, according to a round of surveys conducted on Boulder High students, there is, in fact, a mutually understood meaning. When interviewed, nearly all answers defined consent with this concept of a “positive yes.” Said one senior, who chose to remain anonymous, consent is “[g]etting verbal permission from someone to continue what you are doing.” 

However, while students may know the theory of consent through mandatory middle and high school health classes and social media osmosis, sexual assault allegations like those surrounding BVSD students like Curran English and Aidan Atkinson have made it clear that this theory may not always hold up in practice. 

Clearly, something needs to change about the way we learn about consent, whether it’s through additional reinforcement in later high school classes or through mandatory seminars. At its core, consent is not a “shade of gray” issue; it’s only interpreted that way. As a community, we need to start talking about this. As a community, we need to make clear the many layers surrounding consent, so that it can be perceived as the black-and-white issue that it really is.

And Boulder High is taking steps.

Our administration has recently been in communication with Peers Building Justice (PBJ), a partnership between MESA and Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN). While PBJ has most commonly performed educational services for us in the context of Health classes, Dr. Hill informed the school in a mass email that “we will be increasing our work with MESA to expand this educational opportunity beyond the health class.” 

PBJ representatives are set to make an appearance sometime this month, but further educational seminars beyond the Health classroom have yet to be scheduled. 

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

Safe2Tell Hotline: 1-877-542-7233

Moving to End Sexual Assault Hotline: 303-443-7300

This story was originally published on The Owl on January 25, 2020.