Actually, consent is complicated

“I’m going to kiss you now,” Tom says as he moves in to embrace the flustered Amber, a fellow first-year student at Princeton University.

Actually, a play about sexual consent.

Actually, a play about sexual consent.

This is one of the opening lines in Actually, a two-person play by Anna Ziegler at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Known for producing provocative and culturally thought-provoking pieces, they did not disappoint with Actually. As a sexual health educator and public speaker on sexual consent (including on college campuses), I was excited to see this play about consent and had planned on sharing my reflections on it. I hadn’t planned, however, to be so unsettled by the play that I would struggle to write this blog. The writing and acting were so good that its raw truth jarred me.

Consent is often portrayed as a black and white topic. Yes means yes. No means no. If the woman is drunk, she can’t consent and it is rape. Rapists are bad people. While the simplicity of these beliefs and approaches make people feel safer, they do little to change social norms because they don’t embrace the complexity of consent and sexual interactions. Actually painfully and poignantly paints a complicated and emotional picture, in the context of Amber charging Tom with rape as they go before the university’s judiciary committee.

Because, what does it mean if:

  • Both are good and kind people, and would never want to hurt the other?

  • Both are drunk and don’t remember some of the evening’s details?

  • Both like each other and are mutually sexually attracted?

  • Both view sex in this circumstance as a pathway to feeling powerful?
    The woman really enjoys their kissing and is interested in having sex with the man?

  • The man has sex with a lot of different women and believes they are all willing participants?

  • The woman wants sex and doesn’t want sex, at the same time?

  • The woman explicitly remembers stopping sexual intercourse and being forced back into it, and the man adamantly doesn’t remember it happening that way?

These are all part of the complex and realistic circumstances in Actually.

The playwright brings even greater nuance and realism to this piece by weaving in a tapestry of sociocultural factors. The woman, privileged by her upbringing in a white family with socioeconomic advantages, was disempowered by feeling invisible at times and by a first sexual experience that took away her voice. And the man, privileged with confidence in sexual contexts as an attractive male, was disempowered socioeconomically and raised by a single mom, and further disadvantaged by a society that demonizes black men.

Also thrown into the mix are emotional nuances such as childhood parental loss, personal insecurities about appearance, a mom’s cancer diagnosis, pressure from others to fit in, and unwanted same-sex attention. From my sex educator’s perspective, neither character learned how to have meaningful and vulnerable conversations around intimacy and sexual consent, or to understand how males and females are raised quite differently around sexual topics. Maybe this is too many relevant factors? Perhaps, but Actually demonstrates how we each have endless ingredients that influence our daily interactions, interpretations, and experiences, and that many of these are relevant in our intimate interactions. Life, particularly sexuality, isn’t black and white.

This complicated mess of personal and societal factors represents the reality of sexual hookups and the massive grey area around sexual consent. This is why Actually was so unsettling, but so brilliantly important in today’s crisis of consent. I am constantly dismayed by how women’s voices are stifled regarding their sexual needs and boundaries, and women are still often blamed or not believed regarding sexual coercion. However, as despairingly portrayed in this play, we need better dialogue around and understanding of the complexity and struggles of both people in intimate circumstances. Our morality-based reactions reduce people to black and white, good or bad, believable or not believable.

Actually challenges this simplistic morality by putting the meaning of truth in question. The audience is left without a concrete answer. And, actually, that’s a good thing.

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego Sociologist, Sexologist, and Intimacy Speaker