I have always understood the "classic" case of rape or sexual assault. The victim says "no" and the perpetrator continues to do sexual things. It is rightly a very serious crime. I have been a bit mystified by the turmoil in recent years around people (usually women) who had the ability to say "no" to someone (usually a man), but didn't say "no", but have felt they were not only treated poorly but are victims of a crime. The Title IX offices on college campuses seem to enthusiastically support such reports and often find the accused men guilty.
The New York Times published on May 10, 2018 a collection <"45 Stories of Sex and Consent on Campus">. I'm an older guy who never was into the hookup culture, even the 1970s version, that being when I became an adult. I learned a lot from the stories.
The most common situation had these elements: a man and a woman are friendly, in a space where sex and romance are definite possibilities. They end up in private somewhere. The man makes a variety of advances (kissing, fondling, removing clothing). The woman enjoys or at least doesn't mind these up to a certain point, but then decides she doesn't want more and says "no", but after a pause the man tries again and again. Eventually the woman gets tired of saying "no" and lets the sex happen -- but resents it.
I have an idea for what a woman could say in that situation. It's roughly, "Hey, you're a nice guy, but when it comes to sexual things sometimes I want to go only so far. And that's where we are right now. You did that before and I said "no". I really mean it, and I'm counting on you to not make any more sexual advances, OK? I'm not just counting on it, but that's the way it HAS to be." I imagine that speech can be given calmly and with a smile. If a third attempt happens, the next step is to physically get out of the situation. If that's not possible, explain that what he's doing is illegal sexual assault of the kind that can get you put in prison.
In my dating life, I certainly listened carefully for "no" and watched for body language indicating discomfort. If a woman had needed to give me the speech I suggest I would feel embarrassed that she needed to, but I would certainly have respected it.
Perhaps other men would react differently. Maybe they will be hostile in the moment. But it's the longer term that seems most to drive the fear among these women -- that they will be thought of as a tease or a bitch and will get a poor reputation.
This opens up the broader question of norms and expectations. My immediate response is that men who would talk ill of a woman for saying a firm "no" are just not the kind of men that women would want to know. They should limit their attention to the men who would respect that.
But perhaps it's hard to identify such men. Or perhaps they just aren't very sexy? A few of the Times stories were of women complaining of a man asking every step of the way for permission. They found it unromantic. Reading between the lines, it was more than that -- they found the men themselves to be unattractive and perhaps even ridiculous. So it seems that men are called upon to walk a fine line -- and even worse, it's not a known fine line but depends on the woman. Imagine a scale from 1 to 10 of just how explicit a woman should be for a man to stop. Perhaps 1 is where a man should ask permission before each step and also stop if the woman's body language is not passionate and enthusiastic to each advance. Perhaps 10 requires the woman to yell or physically struggle. In an ideally harmonious society, men and women would all have the same value in mind -- let's call it 5. The cases that dominate the New York Times piece seem to be about women who think the right value is 3 and men who think the right value is 7 (or maybe as small a difference as 4.5 and 5.5). But when the woman thinks the right value is 7 and the man thinks it is 3, there is another kind of mismatch. A man could get a bad reputation from having a higher value on the scale than the woman, but also for having a lower value. The one fault is being too aggressive and insistent, and the other is being a wimp. No one is going to file a complaint against a wimp, but it's important to note how much such a reputation could hurt an actual man living in the real world.
There are two ways to make a mistake, and they are not that far apart. For comic relief, see <this XKCD comic>.
People in society can debate the right value on the 10-point scale. Feminist activists will pick a low value -- let's call it a 2. Maybe some women are arguing publicly for a 7, but their voices are far softer than the feminist voices.
What do most women really want? The 2016 US Presidential Election provided telling data. One could not imagine a starker contrast between the candidates with regards to the feminist agenda. An unrepentant pussy-grabber versus the first woman nominee -- one who also had her own strong track record on women's issues. And yet the majority of white women voted for Trump. To be fair, that doesn't mean they preferred his position, but they at the very least found some other issue more important. And for that to be true, one might think that a lot of them didn't think Trump was all that bad with regard to how he treated women. Maybe in contrast to the feminist's recommended 2, they think a value of 7 or 8 is right, and if Trump is a 9, it's not that far off.
At a certain point the law comes in to protect victims (and campus Title IX policies are for this purpose equivalent to the law). But how people relate to each other is a complicated business, and generally society allows for plenty of misunderstanding, hurt feelings and indignation before thinking that law is the proper remedy.
In evaluating the New York Times examples, I felt like very few of them described male behavior that should be deemed illegal. If a woman was not willing to give the speech I suggest, she should have no legal case.
There are exceptions -- one clear one is if someone is unconscious. Perhaps even if they are very, very drunk. But it should be a high bar.
It is relevant how women get into these situations. If you get very drunk at a party where others are very drunk and there is a lot of sexual activity going on, you are putting yourself in harm's way regarding insistent advances. This does not in any way excuse rape, but I think it properly requires a higher standard of proof and a more clear "no". If you spend the night in the same apartment with someone you don't know very well, you're also not keeping as safe as you might. If you're not willing to give my proposed speech, maybe better not to get into that position. "Blaming the victim" is the slogan that may come to mind, but that's not my point -- it is just that legal recourse requires a higher standard of proof and a clearer "no". I will unashamedly say that circumstances are relevant.
If it's important to you to only have sex that you will feel good about and not regret, and you can't tell fairly far in advance whether you're willing to have sex, and you aren't able to clearly say "no", maybe some more old-fashioned techniques are in order. Don't get drunk. Talk about expectations in advance. Go on multiple dates and do not agree to be alone in private with a man until you have established an intention to have a committed relationship. Maybe even hold off sex until marriage.
I think "affirmative consent" is one interesting proposal for where to draw the line -- maybe at position 2 on the dial. I would favor a slightly higher number, but it's part of the debate. But the standard for the law (or college disciplinary procedures) should be much higher. "No" should be what a woman said immediately before something a man did for it to be a crime.
It is also clear that many women do not actually want the number set as low as 2. We can also wonder about women's ambivalence on the subject of sex. It's a common enough idea that people's opinion in the light of day is that they shouldn't have sex at a particular time and place, but that passions and drives being what they are, part of them does want sex. One reason some people get drunk in sexual situations is to lower inhibitions and feel like drunkenness partially absolves them of the consequences of their choices. When a woman sobers up, she could blame herself, but she also may blame the man. Perhaps that blame is well-deserved within the woman's own set of values and expectations. Perhaps he was a jerk. But there is no call for law or a college disciplinary procedure to get involved.
So far we have been discussing adults. But the case of underage partners is also of interest. You would expect underage girls to be more susceptible to the various hazards involved in this situation. They are less likely to be assertive, they are less likely to be astute in judging a man's intentions or the complexities of a social situation more generally. They may be more subject to physical pain. They also will likely have little experience with how the emotional aftermath of various sexual experiences can play out and be more susceptible to regret.
Sex at any age has the potential for emotional turmoil. But for adults, the danger is offset because it is also a vital part of the good life. Feeling good about your place in the world may depend to a significant degree on whether you are having good sex. Young teens may also crave sex, but "I'll get to this when I'm a little older" is a reasonable story to tell oneself. And in any event they have (or should have) the ability to have sex with peers.
That combination of factors is why I favor an age of consent. Men should be deterred from sexual activity with such girls for fear of the consequences. I toy with the idea that if an underage girl does not come to feel that she was wronged, then prosecutors should not pursue the case. But that is not the same as a lower age of consent. Regret matters. Consent can be withdrawn retroactively because it was insufficiently informed and all a man had was "willingness". Legal sanctions are appropriate.
But for adults the situation ought to be very different. If a woman is not extremely drunk, and she does not take the opportunity to object to a man's sexual advance at the time he makes it, then she has consented, from the legal point of view.
Of course the situation can arise in any other pairing of genders of the possible perpetrator and possible victim.