The movie “Friends with Benefits” was probably the last place where I expected to find lessons about consent.
In the movie, Justin Timberlake plays an art director for a small Internet company in Los Angeles and Mila Kunis is an executive recruiter for a leading headhunter in New York. Mila is trying to recruit Justin for a post in GQ magazine in New York.
When Justin moves to New York for the job, Mila is the only person he knows in the city and they become fast friends. One night, while hanging out at Jamie’s apartment watching a romcom (romantic comedy), the two start talking about relationships. Jamie has a past of wonky relationships and Dylan has a history for being emotionally unavailable. Both agree that relationships are complicated and sex is much easier. With this conclusion, they both agree to have sex without any commitments and be friends with benefits.
And that is Lesson #1 about consent: it is mutual, it is freely given by both parties involved and it must be given before going on to the next level – whatever that level is.
After some time, Mila realizes that she wants to start dating again and tells Justin they have to end their friends with benefits relationship and just be friends.
Mila begins dating another guy and after a series of dates, they go to the next level. Only there is no next level for the guy; he tells Mila that he wasn’t looking for anything more than just sex.
Mila is furious and confides in Dylan. He tries to be a sympathetic friend. It’s the 4th of July weekend and he says she shouldn’t be alone in the city moping. He invites her to spend the long weekend with his family in California who he will be visiting.
As most movies go, it is in this setting of comfort and family that emotional feelings come to the surface. The two become intimate – in the true sense of the word. They talk, they canoodle and they kiss. But that’s it.
Justin hopes for more and in nothing but his boxers and a robe, goes into a funky dance routine to show off his bod and what Mila would be missing. Mila doesn’t budge; she’s getting over the pain of another failed relationship. She’s still vulnerable, scared and not ready to have sex with anyone.
That is Lesson #2 about consent: Giving it once does not make for all-access pass. Just because a girl has sex with you once does mean she’ll want to or agree to have sex with you again. It may be she just wants your company (all the things that existed before you two had sex or all those other things two people do when they aren’t having sex.) She may just want to talk and hold each other close and not have it automatically lead to sex.
It is a grey area and one that is not easy to navigate. It’s an area where it’s easy to take past actions as assumptions and simply act on these assumptions.
And that is lesson #3 about consent: it must be asked for and given each and every time.
You can ask for it implicitly by seductively dancing in front of her and tempting her with your body or asked her directly by asking, “Are you ok with this?”. This question is not to be taken as a rhetorical one; one that was asked and answered by previous actions or conversations.
The one asking the question also needs to be ready to get a NO as a response and do the only thing left to be done when one gets that response – back off, walk away and take a cold shower.
In the end, consent is centered on the basic respect for another person’s boundaries, which may change in the course of a relationship or even in the middle of a sexual encounter. Who hasn’t been in the middle of hot making out session but just wanted it to stop there? No explanations are needed as to why, sometimes you don’t even understand why, but you just want it to stop.
Tell them not to rape
Of late, there has been a lot of talk about rape. Well, if you think about it, rape always discussed: its various forms in different countries, as a consequence of natural disaster and conflict, its by-products of victim-blaming, its legal framework and its roots in a misogynistic culture of entitlement propagated by both men and women.
Another part of the conversation is how we should be telling boys not to rape instead of telling women what not to wear or how not to act.
What if we pursued that conversation a bit more and included a conversation about consent: what it is, how it needs to be given before anything can happen, and the implications of its absence?
Then maybe, just maybe, we will more women who will not that sexual access is a not a right, but saying NO at any point in time is. Maybe, just maybe, we will have more men who more cognizant about the need to respect boundaries and will understand that NO has no other meaning but NO.