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Consenting to Sex: Yes, No, Maybe?

Bianca M. Velez

"Age of consent" laws are ostensibly aimed at protecting young women. But do these laws make sense when what they tell young women is that they are incapable of watching their own backs?

Last month, I took my first women’s studies
course (Intro to Women & Gender Studies or WGS) as part of the winter term.
I’ll admit: there wasn’t much I didn’t already know.  There was one topic, however, that particularly interested me,
mainly because I had not previously had the space to broach it–the issue of consent.

In the context of a WGS course, the question of
consent was presented during a conversation around physical violence against
women. Clearly consent is an issue when too large a number of women are forced
or coerced into having sex, or are raped. What stuck with me, however, was a
different issue surrounding consent, one concerning young people in mutually consensual relationships.

My partner is 8-and-a-half years my senior. We began dating when I was 17, which,
thankfully, is the “age of consent” in New York. But what does that mean? I had
been consenting – and yes, at times, not clearly consenting – to sex for over a
year at that point. If my partner was able to “coerce” me into having sex
because of his “seniority”, couldn’t he control every aspect of my life? 
Is that what consent laws
are trying to get at?

But what does that say about my maturity, my
sense of self, my sexuality, and responsibility to myself as a young woman? My
biggest frustration with my family when I first starting dating my partner was
their lack of respect towards me. How is it that, because I chose to date
someone 8-and-a-half years my
senior, all the good qualities I had went out the window? I was no longer a
responsible, headstrong,
independent, smart young woman, but the
object of a “sexual predator.”

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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I understand how people can be
uncomfortable with the idea of a 17-year-old
dating a 25-year-old. But there
are many joys and positive outcomes from the relationship, and instead of being
less independent, less responsible, or less smart, I’ve only matured and grown
into an even more powerful young woman. And I continue to love – and have sex
with – the man I met 2 years ago, when a consent law just barely missed us.

So how do consent laws make sense when what they
tell young women is that they are incapable of watching their own backs so
someone else has to do it for them? Telling girls that they lack the sense to
willingly have sex is a way to control their sexual experiences. Who wants
young women to have pleasurable sex?

Whether they are with partners their own age or older, young women are told that
their sexual appetites will never be satiated because only men are allowed to pursue sex for pleasure; the
sexual desires of young women are invalidated both because they are young and because they are
female. And men exploit young women’s desire to their advantage. How is a girl supposed to get her rocks off listening
to that? More importantly, how will young women know the difference between
consented and un-consented sex if their sexual experiences are so
controlled by both society’s and the law’s ideals of consent?

Of course, society continues to silence and
wrongfully instruct young women in other ways than consent laws. But what we’re telling these girls is
not only who they should or shouldn’t sleep with, but who they can and can’t
love. This for me is completely unacceptable, not to mention that consent is a
very hetero-normative idea. There are no laws defending young women, and young men,
who experience same-sex unconsented encounters, nor is there protection for our
trans brothers and sisters.

We must protect must all people from sexual predators,
but protecting them does not mean controlling their lives. I didn’t allow my
life to be controlled and ended up with the best gift I’ve ever received.