The evolution of consent revolves around the idea that our society labels and understands consent in a different way than in the past. These changes can be shown through curriculum, outreach and laws.
In order to describe consent, Christina Pierpaoli-Parker, Ph.D. student of clinical psychology at the University of Alabama, turns to the F.R.I.E.S. acronym from Planned Parenthood. The letters stand for freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. However, Pierpaoli adds one more aspect to consider.
“I think the sixth aspect of consent involves that psychological aspect of freedom, pleasure and ownership,” Pierpaoli-Parker said. “Enthusiasm focuses on the desire, but this sixth component focuses on the consequences and meaning of the experience.”
Planned Parenthood notes that “enthusiasm” should mean that a sexual partner is “happy, excited or energized” about engaging in the deed. The nonprofit also notes that it’s never a bad idea to stop if a sexual partner seems uncertain about giving consent and that asking for consent for each sexual act is crucial to a healthy sexual encounter.
“If you walk away from a sexual encounter feeling shameful, guilty or confused in some way, maybe you gave consent, but something about it felt incomplete, misaligned or unclear,” Pierpaoli-Parker said. “Safe and satisfying sexual experiences involve consent as well as components of celebration and ownership, not shamefulness, secrecy, and guilt.”
While acknowledging that consent can be given in multiple ways, Alex Hird, a freshman majoring in public health, said that at its root, consent could be defined most simply as “agreeing to something.”
HashtagNYU posted a video on YouTube encouraging viewers to think of the action in simpler terms: You ask a question, and you proceed based on the response. Interpreting responses, though, can be where consent gets murky.
The Women and Gender Resource Center executive director and sexual violence survivor advocate, Lamea Shaaban-Magaña, said that the “absence of a ‘no’ does not equal a ‘yes.’”
“Sometimes we become afraid, and in that fear, we become unable to articulate words, run or fight,” Shaaban-Magaña said. “Fear is cognitive, but it is also effective. It’s a feeling of something being threatening to us, but it is also the thought of something being threatening to us.”
In Alabama, the proposed legislation, House Bill 496, would expand the definition of forcible compulsion and consent for Alabama rape cases. HB 496 would also change the part of the existing law that only recognizes sexual offenses “committed only on a member of the perpetrator’s opposite sex.” The bill also plans to remove language describing oral and anal sex between unmarried, consenting people as criminalized “deviate sexual intercourse.” If passed, the bill will expand its description of the inability to consent by removing the demand that a victim be “physically helpless or mentally incapacitated,” instead calling for the victim to be “incapacitated.”
“Just years ago we were using [consent] in the context of sexual assault prevention,” Shaaban-Magaña said. “I think that we missed the mark a little bit there, because I think that prevention is stopping something before it happens. In the case of rapists, they are not interested in getting consent.”
Shaaban-Magaña also highlighted the difference in the curriculum being taught about consent.
“I don’t think that if you looked at the outreach in the ‘50s or ‘60s, there would have been not a lot about consent,” Shaaban-Magaña said. “So roll into the ‘80s, ‘90s and even early 2000s, consent was the framework or paradigm that people were talking about.”
To Shaaban-Magaña’s point, marital rape was largely legal in the US until the late-’70s, when a Massachusetts case began a slow evolution of thought for many Americans. The idea that marriage does not equal consent was an enormous change to the way that the justice system handled rape cases, though the fight to end marital rape exceptions still goes on. As late as 2019, a woman in Minnesota campaigned to remove the state’s exception for rape between married partners from the law books.
“Our society has always, in some form or fashion, recognized this concept of consent,” Pierpaoli-Parker said. “Our views of consent have evolved to embrace more explicit rather than implicit forms of consent, active versus passive forms of consent-giving. Our generation perceives consent as an actual, active exchange of information. Previous generations may not have perceived it that way. Another difference includes an emphasis on discussing sexual desire and female pleasure rather than assuming it.”