Yes means yes: BYU Philosophy Club hosts discussion on consent ethics

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BYU Philosophy Club members and other students listen as BYU English professor Jason Kerr discusses the legal and moral ways to understand consent at a club meeting on Nov. 14. (Lexie Flickinger)

BYU English professor Jason Kerr discussed the ethics of consent with the BYU Philosophy Club on Nov. 14. He shared different models of consent and the different elements required to establish consent.

“A sexual encounter can be really beautiful, a profound moment of contact between two human beings, or it can also be one of the most dehumanizing forms of violence,” Kerr said.

Kerr explained that since the early 13th century the basic standard of consent was a person can’t use violent force in a sexual interaction. In order to legally prosecute perpetrators, victims had to immediately report the assault and have physical proof of violence. In more recent years, new models have emerged allowing people to discuss the more nuanced and complex elements of consent, according to Kerr.

Kerr talked about the no means no model and the yes means yes model, also known as the enthusiastic consent model. He discussed both model’s issues.

“Part of the problem is it’s a very common psychological response to freeze up in a moment of trauma or assault, so your body can shut down and disassociate from the situation,” Kerr said of the no means no model. “But under this legal regime that’s implied consent.”

While the yes means yes model can be more difficult to prosecute legally, Kerr said he believes it is the morally favorable model.

“Each progressive stage of the process when you move from kissing to taking clothes off, you need a yes. If you don’t get a yes to the new escalation, then it becomes violence,” Kerr said. The yes means yes model eliminates much of the ambiguity associated with obtaining consent.

Kerr said consent must be voluntary and intentional. A person giving consent must have the capacity to understand and consent, as well as the autonomy to say no.

The definition of consent given in BYU’s official Title IX Sexual Misconduct Policy most closely fits the yes means yes model.

The policy reads, “Consent should not simply be assumed from silence, the absence of resistance or past consent with the same or another person. Even if a person has given his or her consent to engage in sexual activity, consent to engage in further sexual activity can be withdrawn at any time.”

The policy affirms that in order to consent a person must not be coerced, forced or threatened into sexual activities. A person must also be able to consent, according to the policy. “Consent cannot be given by someone who lacks capacity to consent (e.g., because of age, disability, unconsciousness, or use of drugs or alcohol),” the policy states.

BYU Philosophy Club vice president Amy Jacobs talked about vulnerability involved with consent, even in committed relationships.

“Sexuality is access to someone, especially a very vulnerable part of someone,” Jacobs said. “There always has to be some sort of consent before every single act.”

Jacobs shared that sexual relations without consent is not just a betrayal of vulnerability — doing so ignores that person’s autonomy, or right to personal choice and control.

“No one has a right to my body,” Jacobs said. “When you think about what is at stake — someone having access to my body without me giving them that access — I don’t think it’s ever worth it to just assume. It’s my whole sense of autonomy.”

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