Is Consent Complicated Than We Think? An Analysis

I was recently watching a series on Netflix – The Bold Type.  It is a series about the journey of three young women who work at a fashion magazine called Scarlet and whose main goal is women empowerment. The series covered different types of issues women face in modern days and one of such issues was consensual sex. A woman named Kristen writes an article about how she was pressurized to have sex by one of her colleagues named Jeff, which later goes viral. A writer from the scarlet magazine – Alex was asked to do a follow-up on the story. While interviewing Kristen, he finds out the Jeff she mentioned in the article was none other than himself. Confused Alex, says to Kristen that it was consensual. Although Kristen agrees to it, she expresses the pressure she felt to have sex with him because Alex, an already established writer offers to read Kristen’s pitch who was still an amateur writer making her feel it was conditional i.e., Kristen felt Alex would read her pitch if she slept with him. Listening to it Alex explains that he always offers other writers to read their pitches and it wasn’t intentional. Kristen denies and insists that Alex knew why he offered to read her pitches at that particular time. Devasted Alex, goes to Sutton, one of his colleagues with who he had one nightstand with and asks her if she felt pressurized by him. Sutton answers no but explains to him that it is not always easy for a girl to say no and every girl faces such situations. Later, Alex publishes the follow-up story by admitting he is Jeff. After, he gets backlash from his readers but receives a message from Kristen that she is happy to make an ally.

The whole issue about being pressurized caught my eye and I immediately started researching the topic. I read many reviews about the episode and most of the reviewers supported Kristen and concluded that a man should be careful while making a move as he can unintentionally pressurize a woman to have sex. Although I agree that men can pressurize women to have sex, I do believe there is a thin line between feeling the pressure by themselves and being pressurized. It is undeniable that Kristen felt the pressure but let us stop for a second and ask ourselves why did Kristen feel the pressure? Was it because of Alex pressurized Kristen? Or Was it because Kristen felt pressure because of her assumptions? To understand this, let us break the entire issue step by step by basic questions and answers.

Let us first understand what is consensual sex? Sex is said to be consensual when it is active, a process, a choice and is based on equal power. In simpler words, when a woman, who is not in any vulnerable position (asleep, drunk) around the man, and says yes when she has a choice of yes or no, then the sex is consensual. Few things to keep in mind to understand consensual sex is ‘only yes means yes’ and ‘just because it was a yes once doesn’t mean it is always a yes’. Having said that, it is clear that any sex where a woman is not comfortable doesn’t come under consensual sex even if it seems like one. Coming back to the Alex-Kristen issue, by the explanation, was Kristen had an option of yes or no? Yes, Kristen had a choice. Was she in any vulnerable position? No. So, was their sex consensual? Again no, because Kristen was not comfortable with having sex. She only agreed to it because she felt the pressure.

This brings us to our second question. When do women feel pressured to have sex? In many situations, women feel pressured to have sex especially when the man behaves in a way that he is not willing to take a no. For Instance, imagine a girl who is casually dating a guy or a woman who is in a committed relationship. If the man ignores and continues to show that he wants sex by his gestures despite the woman giving cues that she doesn’t, then it is clear that she is being pressurized by him. In another situation, a woman feels pressurized when she is threatened or conditioned to have sex. For example, a woman being threatened by her superior to have sex at the cost of her job or being conditioned to have sex for a raise or promotion. In such situations, women have significant things to lose if they do not do what they asked for. Unfortunately, many women in such situations feel it is a better option to say yes than experiencing the consequences after saying no. Now if we look at the Alex-Kristen situation, Alex neither threatened Kristen nor had any power over her job or in any aspect of her life. Although Alex was an established writer, he was an employee who was equal in position with Kristen. Moving further, Did Alex put conditions for having sex? Here the answer gets very tricky because it was a no for Alex and a yes for Kristen. It was wrongful of Alex to offer help at that particular time giving an impression to Kristen that it was conditional but he explains it wasn’t intentional which Kristen denies. So, let us assume for a second that Alex indeed put conditions to have sex. Did Kristen have anything to lose if she said no? No. As mentioned above, Alex had no power over Kristen’s life and she had a choice of `yes or no. Despite it, Kristen felt the pressure to have sex with Alex. Why?

In some situations, women say yes because they are scared or they feel an obligation to make their partner happy. Although in the current situation Kristen did not feel an obligation to make Alex happy, it is completely understandable if she said yes because she was scared that the offer was conditioned but one should also consider that being afraid doesn’t always mean a man is pressurizing to have sex. It is also possible for a woman to assume such conditions. In this particular situation, I feel Kristen felt the pressure and said yes because of her assumptions rather than because of Alex. Having said that, it is right to say that Kristen felt the pressure but it is also wrong to say that Alex pressurized Kristen.

Zeroing it down, consensual sex is not always consensual and it is always hard to verify consent in such situations because each case is different. Some men pressurize women, some women falsely blame men, and sometimes both individuals do mistakes. It is wrong either if the victim did not get justice or if the innocents are blamed and jailed thus, making consent complicated to prove. In the Alex-Kristen situation, Alex unintentionally offered help at the wrong time giving Kristen a wrong impression, and Kristen assumed and said yes when she had a chance to say no. One should keep in mind that it is never the right thing to generalize and blame a particular gender. Hence, to avoid all such situations the initiator should ensure consent before making a move, the only way to do so is to ask and communicate and the other should not assume and openly say no especially when they have a chance to say so.


Sravani Mangalampalli.