I spent Saturday afternoon in a darkened theater, surrounded by giggling college freshmen, watching a play about sexual assault. I was back at my alma mater, and not much had changed.
Correction: A few things had. When I was a freshman in 2006, Princeton’s orientation-week sex-ed program was called “Sex on a Saturday Night,” and upperclassmen sometimes attended just to heckle. By 2018 it had been renamed “The Way You Move” — still awkward, but less salacious — and it was a decidedly more solemn affair.
That said, the basic contours remained the same: Student actors dramatized a weekend night out, replete with budding romances and too much beer. There was “pregame” drinking, a goofy dance party and then, startlingly, an alcohol-enabled rape.
That harrowing scene was followed by a somber debriefing and an introduction to the college’s peer advisers for sexual health. Having sex with a blacked-out classmate was not okay, because she could not consent. An administrator took pains to define the term and to discuss the “gray area” between a clear yes and an absolute no — the gray area was described as a contaminated space, where to engage in sexual activity was to assume varying amounts of risk.
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And this was where it began to strike me as odd, in a way that it hadn’t back when I was one of the 18-year-olds in the audience. Something was missing from the conversation, which seemed awfully coldblooded. The discussion was all about consent, but it was only about consent. Consent is not a bad thing, of course — a profusion of sexual-harassment cases has taught us that much — but consent is not enough.
Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has prompted a healthy reevaluation of our sexual mores. But as more complicated cases come to light — a bad date with Aziz Ansari is harder to parse than Harvey Weinstein allegedly attacking women in hotel rooms — it has become increasingly clear that the rethinking is not complete. Though we’re much better at calling out bad behavior, we haven’t come to an agreement on what’s good.
Consent is the line we use to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable, but it’s thin and often detached from a real understanding of the human person. Whereas consent is a helpful legal framework for risk avoidance, it too often allows us to bypass questions of respect, relationship and care. Is the worst thing about taking advantage of a drunken classmate really the fact that you didn’t get her to mouth the word “yes” first?
Even among the consent regime’s fiercest partisans, the realization that something is missing has been quietly gaining steam. Feminist writer Jaclyn Friedman, coeditor of the anthology “Yes Means Yes,” recently wrote as much in Refinery29: “On the way to codification we’ve replaced some of the old rape myths with this new one: That consent is just a hurdle you have to clear in order to Get The Sex.”
She continues that real consent “requires us to see our sex partners — whether they be anonymous hookups or life partners — not simply as instrumental to our own pleasure but as co-equal collaborators, equally human and important, equally harmable, equally free and equally sovereign.” It’s not enough simply to note the existence of a gray area that requires risk avoidance, independent from any ethical concerns.
After the presentation ended and the freshmen filed out, I ventured backstage to talk to the student actors. Had the play felt like enough, in their opinion? Wasn’t it a little incomplete?
“Yeah,” a junior agreed. “The logic is sort of Cartesian.” (Oh, college!) “Do this, not that. Don’t break the rules. But given the time constraints …” She shrugged.
She was right, of course. A one-hour play — even when combined with a well-intended administrative extrapolation — cannot impart a full understanding of human dignity. Moral consciousness is built over a span of years, maybe decades. Empathy and intimacy must be learned. And developing true humanity — the ability to view relationships as shared rather than transactional, to see others as deserving of respect and goodwill — is the work of a lifetime.
No doubt the creators of these college skits now realize that they’re a backstop at best and know that they don’t deliver a holistic sexual education or moral sensibility.
Because college is too late. One would hope that parents and primary schools are doing their part, long before they release their subjects out into the world. And maybe, too, in dorm rooms or philosophy seminars, questions of ethics and empathy will be discussed in more detail by the students themselves. That might be the task for this next generation of sex-havers — to develop a sexual ethic that is not just a set of rules, but that also truly respects the person.
In the meantime, my advice to the Class of 2022 is simple, though in practice I know it’s going to take some work: Yes, get consent. But try to be human as well.