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The True Meaning of Consent

An Argentinian company recently released a new type of condom that tries to illustrate the importance of consent. Called the “Consent Pack” (creative, right), it requires four hands, and thus two people, to open it by pressing four buttons on the top and side of the box at the same time. Given the recent rise in brands making stances on different social issues and positive press that follows, it is likely that this company was expecting the same result. However, backlash quickly followed the announcement, and rightfully so. While good in theory, this idea has many flaws and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what consent is.

For starters, this concept is incredibly ableist. It is wrong to assume that every sexual interaction is going to involve two people with two hands each; that is simply not the case. People were also worried that this would be used as proof that consent was obtained in sexual assault cases, thereby saving rapists from convictions and jail time. It also assumes that people who are committing sexual assault have the care and take the time to put on a condom, which does not tend to happen.

Luckily, these condoms were never meant to be widely sold and were just spread in a few bars in Buenos Aires. The thing is, even though they were never intended to be a solution and were simply an attempt to raise awareness, these condoms miss the mark on what consent actually is and set a problematic precedent.

Before we talk about what went wrong, let’s talk a little about what consent really is. Consent is always freely and enthusiastically given, without coercion or pressure. It is able to be retracted at any point, and consent for one activity is not consent for another. There are many ways to give consent, whether it be verbally or through clear and distinct physical cues, like a nod. It is never assumed due to what someone was wearing or due to the fact that they have given their consent before. Even people that are in relationships or marriages must give consent every time a sexual encounter occurs. An incapacitated and inebriated person is not able to give consent. It is all about communication and being honest with your partner, and more importantly, respecting the boundaries they may set.

The consent condom misses key aspects of this definition. It assumes that if the two people have consented to opening the condom then they consent to whatever happens afterwards and are not able to change their minds later on, which is just not the case. If, for instance, the condom is opened but then one of the people does not use it—despite saying they would—consent was not given because they did not follow the agreed upon boundaries. This concept negates the fact that a person can change their mind at any time and revoke their consent. While consent beforehand is obviously important, there must be a continuous dialogue on the importance of consent during and after, as well.

These condoms also just seem wrong to me because they make the whole process like signing a legally binding contract. Consent should not be something you are obtaining because you don’t want to risk being accused of rape later on. It shouldn’t be something you want proof of to try to protect yourself. It should be something you really care about getting because you respect your partner and want to make sure they feel safe, comfortable, and happy with anything that happens.

The consent condom, while a great way to start a dialogue, ends up trivializing the whole concept of consent, painting it as something that can be solved quickly and easily. This is problematic because it can stunt the conversation around sex, spread misinformation, and make it seem like something that is not an issue any more.

It is clear that there is still so much ignorance out there. I mean, in a 2017 survey, only 67% of men thought that intercourse in which a partner was pressured to give consent was sexual assault. Even more scary, 16% of respondents did not consider sexual intercourse in which one partner did not give consent to be rape. This is so frightening and just shows how important this discourse is. The answer to preventing sexual assault will not come in a little box that needs four hands to open; it is a much more nuanced and complicated issue that we, especially as college students, must continue to discuss and work on.

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