Before getting in bed, classmates-turned-lovers Marianne and Connell take each other’s clothing off piece by piece. The two take a moment to check in, asking, “Is that good?” as their kissing intensifies. Marianne also takes the opportunity to ask Connell how many other girls he has been with; her mind is eased because he answers honestly. When asked to grab a condom, Connell asks, “Is that what you want?” and obliges. Mindful of it being Marianne’s first time, Connell reminds her, “If you want to stop or anything, we can obviously stop,” and that it “won’t be awkward” if she does want that. This scene—in Hulu’s Normal People—demonstrates to its young adult audience that consent is organic and effortless.
But Normal People does much more than normalize consent. The 2020 drama covers on-again off-again relationships, class and power dynamics, and challenges in achieving intimacy through texting and social media. It depicts what a healthy, uninhibited sexual relationship looks like, with an emphasis on mutual satisfaction. And it deserves our praise as a breath of fresh air— particularly among a generation that grew up hearing about sex in the context of its legalities.
Consent education emerged in the early 1990s when the radical slogan “no means no” was first popularized on college campuses. Over the next decade, universities codified the model of “affirmative consent,” requiring that permission be given clearly during a sexual interaction. By the 2010s, we had turned away from “no means no” and rallied behind “yes means yes;” In 2014, California enacted a law by the same name. Under this legal standard, the absence of a “no” does not constitute agreement to anything—a clear affirmation is necessary.
It was around this time that the on-campus feminist movement witnessed two key events: Donald Trump (recall his “grab ’em by the pussy” remark) won the 2016 presidential election and Harvey Weinstein was exposed for his decades-long series of sexual assault. In response to the loud echoes of #MeToo, college campuses swapped the “affirmative consent” model for today’s “enthusiastic” one. This approach attempted to make consent even less ambiguous through its modern definition as “upbeat in sentiment as well as expression.”
But the addition of adjectives or definitions to our consent-based sexual education model has not reduced the unhappiness observed among sexually active young people. Research shows that American college students experience surprisingly high levels of dissatisfaction and weariness over sexual and relational norms. The problem, as some have realized, may be with consent itself.
When was the last time you (or a friend of yours) felt the need to mention consent while describing a positive sexual interaction? The answer is likely never. Consent, as a term, is rarely used to discuss passionate or fulfilling interpersonal relations. This is because even the most qualified models of consent have the lowest possible standard as their working assumption: “Did I get permission such that my actions are not expressly against this person’s will?”
Dave Chapelle’s controversial “love contract” hints at an uncomfortable truth: Consent is a legal metric, not a social or ethical one. Consent education teaches us accordingly: Here’s how to get in bed without crossing legal boundaries. But the lead-up to a great sexual experience calls for more than an enthusiastic yes. In other words: All hot sex is consensual but not all consensual sex is hot.
There is widely-felt agreement in a post-sexual-revolution culture that sex is good. This assumption also includes the understanding that we do not need to be in a relationship or marriage to have it; that how much of it we do have is personal; that our preferences are valid and not to be judged by others. But to fully achieve such liberation, we need a new ethic—consent is not enough.
For men, the lack of clear sexual and relational norms apart from consent has made low-stakes interactions feel more daunting. Harvard Business Review conducted a survey exploring the #MeToo movement’s impacts that revealed “adverse reactions.” One survey member replied: “Men and women are not talking to each other.” And 51 percent of men indicated changes in their overall comfortability with women since the movement began in 2017; nearly 40 percent reported having increased reservations toward female colleagues at work; and 34 percent reported increased hesitancy while dating. After a national reckoning over rape and harassment, it is understandable that many women would have trouble finding empathy for men scared to engage in basic dating rituals. Yet, on some level, this anxiety-ridden atmosphere makes sense.
As a country, we constantly talk about the wrong behavior, but as a culture, we never talk about what the right behaviors actually are. We owe this profound negativity to our consent paradigm: The more we rely on it, the more we fail to differentiate between the social and legal realities of sex. College consent education typically involves completing an online module, listening to a speaker at orientation, or, in some lucky cases, talking to peer educators in dorms. But this programming consistently overlooks the nuances of sex: power differentials, intimacy, and sexual preferences.
Many of the most popular television shows for young adults, like Euphoria and Sex Education, depict aggressive sexual encounters in great detail. There is a reason for this; more young people are having rough sex than ever before. In a 2021 survey of students at a large Midwestern university, 79 percent of the respondents with a current sexual partner said they engage in acts of choking, slapping, or spanking during sex. But consent education does not teach us how to add a new sexual element. It does not cover kinks and how to share or enjoy them. And it does not provide a good blueprint for when a specific act escalates out of one’s comfort zone.
I am in no way suggesting removing consent education altogether. But this conversation is necessary precisely because of its failure to do its job. The Center for Disease Control’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey recently revealed that a disturbing 14 percent of female high school students said they had been forced into sex without giving consent. The queer community is victimized at an even higher rate: One in five LGBTQ+ students said they had been forced into sex.
Educators should teach consent as a life skill—not a sex skill—beginning in early childhood. Its basic terminology is essential to every relationship; people always have the right to set boundaries about their bodies, possessions, and actions. Jack should be taught to receive clear verbal permission from Jill before rummaging through her backpack. And if Jill touches Jane’s hair without asking for consent, she should be placed in time-out. Framed in this way, consent would be a universal tool for navigating all interpersonal situations, including and beyond sexual interactions.
If consent is taught as a life skill, sex can finally be taught as a form of connection and bonding for young adults. Making the focus ‘being firm about consent’ misses a critical question about what our sexual expectations for one another should and could be. We only ask that educators be willing and equipped to have these necessary—and sexy—conversations.