Consensual sex needs not just a ‘yes,’ but an ‘emphatic yes’

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Olympic Condoms

Get ready to add another term to the lexicon of negotiation between sexual partners: Enthusiastic yes.

By that I don't mean "Yes! Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes!"

What I'm talking about here is the declaration before any clothes are shed.

The turmoil generated last fall by troglodyte frosh-week "rape chants" continues to ripple across Canadian university campuses.

StudentsNS, an alliance of Nova Scotia post-secondary students, has set up a website promoting the idea that consent to have sex should go beyond a casual affirmation to embrace, if you'll pardon the expression, something more emphatic.

"Sex without enthusiastic consent is not sex at all. It's sexual assault or rape," says the site morethanyes.ca.

[ Related: Saint Mary's pro-rape chant sparks 20 new recommendations ]

The culture around sex on campus has been under national microscope since reports surfaced from St. Mary's University in Halifax about a frosh-week chant that condoned non-consensual sex and sex with underage partners.

A similar chant used by University of British Columbia business students also came under fire, while a string of apparently random, still unsolved sexual assaults on the sprawling campus has raised the fear level among female students.

And recently an engineering students' society at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., was criticized for a songbook filled with sexist, violent and degrading lyrics.

"Real consent is mutual and sure," says the StudentsNS-sponsored website. "It is not muted, frail, hesitant, or afraid. It is never uncertain, assumed, or silent."

Some people might reasonably ask how easy it will be to achieve absolute clarity in something as complex as a sexual encounter.

We've pretty much settled on the idea that no means no — not 'I need more persuasion.' A New Brunswick government web site spells out the legal parameters around consensual sex fairly clearly.

[ Related: McMaster students’ group hit by controversy over sexist chants ]

But what's the difference between a yes and an emphatic yes?

"What to get it on with me?"

"Yeah."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Your place or mine?"

"I mean, really, you want to do it? I don't want to talk you into anything if you're ambivalent."

"Yes, dammit! Where's your car?"

"Great! Would you mind just signing this? Your consent is in boldface capital letters. Wait, I need someone to witness it."

No one should play down the terrible nature of sexual assault, but clearly there's work to be done, especially when it comes to attitudes among some young people.

McGill University is holding a forum on consent Wednesday, fallout from an alleged sexual assault involving members of the school's football team in 2011. Critics had blasted what they called a "dismissive" approach from university officials to the incident, the Montreal Gazette reported.

The topic of what constitutes a yes to sex is on the agenda.

“There is a lot of confusion about consent,” André Costopoulos, McGill’s dean of students, told the Gazette. “People need to be clear that no means no, but even then it raises the question whether you need a yes, or an emphatic yes.”

The transactional nature of human sexual encounters could make it challenging to find a consensus on how reach an emphatic yes.