According to an Ancient Greek philosopher called Zeno, it's impossible to move from point A to point B. Absurd? Sounds like it, but listen to Zeno's reasoning. Imagine a man trying to walk from from Oxford to Christchurch. Simple enough, you might think. But wait, says Zeno. Before he gets to Christchurch, he'll have to walk halfway to Christchurch. And before he gets halfway to Christchurch, he'll half to walk halfway to halfway to Christchurch. And before he gets there...
When you think about it, it looks like there's actually a lot of separate stages to the Oxford-Christchurch tramp. Infinitely many, actually, since there's no stage that's short enough that you won't have to traverse half of it. But if there's an infinite series of stages, how can you ever hope to get from Oxford to Christchurch? An infinite series of trips is going to take a long time.
But there's more. Which stage do you start with? If it's walking one 12th of the total distance, you'll actually have to walk one 24th first. But before you walk one 24th, you'll have to tackle one 48th...Not only is it going to take you a long time to cover an infinite series of mini-trips through Canterbury. You won't even be able to start!
I often think of Zeno when people talk about ongoing consent. The idea of ongoing consent is that couples should check in with each other regularly to make sure that the other person still wants to have sex, even once sex has started. It's not enough just assume that the other person still wants you inside them because they wanted you inside them five minutes ago; you should ask them again to make sure.
In some ways, something like ongoing consent has always been a tacit feature of our sexual mores. Most people would say that if you get a sense that the person you're having sex with doesn't want it or isn't enjoying it, you should stop and check in with them. And, of course, it's not enough to assume that someone wants you to penetrate them just because they've been making out with you for the past few minutes (even with their clothes off).
If you combine ongoing consent with affirmative consent, though - the idea that people need to explicitly voice their consent - things get absurd pretty quickly. Or, strictly speaking, they get impossible. An exaggeration? No, a demonstrable truth. Too see why, let's go Zeno on this.
Imagine a man and a woman after a date. At some point the man, who's fully up to date with modern ideas about consent, asks the woman, 'Do you want to have sex with me?' The woman answers, 'Yes.' So they start having sex. As our up-to-date chap knows, though, he needs to check back in. So 10 seconds later, he asks the woman, 'Are you still happy for us to be having sex?'
If that's not absurd enough for you already, wait. Because, of course, he shouldn't have assumed that his lady friend was consenting during the ten seconds that passed between his first question and his second. He should really have asked at the five second mark too. But why assume that she was still consenting for the first five seconds? And so on, ad infinitum (literally).
It quickly becomes clear that our woke bloke has all the same problems as our Cantabrian tramper. He actually has to ask for the woman's consent an infinite number of times, which sounds a bit tiring (and might put a bit of a dampener on the mood). But he also can't ask for consent the first time, since before the first question there'll always be some infinitesimal amount of time when he's been monstrously complacent and made assumptions about the woman's consent.
Ongoing affirmative action is, in the final analysis, impossible. Not just in an exaggerated, colloquial sense, but in the strictest logical fashion. 'Hold on though,' I hear you say. 'Nobody's saying that the man should have to check in an infinite number of times. That's clearly absurd. But maybe a reasonable number of times during sex would be nice.'
The problem is, of course, that at the moment it's the woman (or the set of women on social media) who get to decide what a reasonable number of times is. There's an infinite number of points in time at which women can now claim that a man has failed to ask for consent, and is therefore committing sexual assault.
'Sure,' you say, 'but no reasonable person is going to make an accusation of that sort.' Well, maybe no reasonable person...But what about the student who got in trouble for waking his boyfriend with a kiss? What about Sam Kriss, who was denounced for assuming he could kiss a woman he'd slept with on the previous date without asking, and even though she didn't say anything to object?
If the idea of ongoing affirmative consent becomes an established norm, cases like this will continue to spring up whenever someone feels like they should. On other words, the new concept licenses anyone to say they'd withdrawn consent even when they didn't say or do anything to signal that, but just because their partner hadn't explicitly checked in with them in one of the infinite number of moments that they'd been together.
As anyone knows who's ever been on a date, once the kissing starts, both parties usually assume that the other person won't mind more kissing, until they're given a clear stop signal. And that's actually a perfectly reasonable way of proceeding, since it is actually more likely that someone will want you to kiss them if you've just been making out.
And if you're in a relationship, you can usually assume that your partner has consented to you trying to have sex with them in a way that someone you see walking down the street hasn't. That's perfectly rational, since you know they like you in that way.
Of course, that doesn't mean you can have sex with them against their will, but what we usually mean by 'against their will' is 'when they've clearly signalled that they don't want it,' not 'when we haven't asked them if they still want it in the last two seconds.'
It's no wonder that affirmative consent isn't part of the law anywhere outside of California, and that cases based on these ideas get struck down by proper courts. We should stick with our old idea of consent: keep alive to the other person's signals, but if you don't get a clear stop sign, and they're going along with what you're up to and seem to be enjoying it, you can carry on.
The alternative, eagerly advocated by a minority of campus feminists, isn't just absurd: it's impossible. As Zeno would have seen in about half a second.
Sam Butler is an English settler in New Zealand, a writer and anti-intellectual.