Recently, my alma mater, the University of Southern California (USC), made news – with a mandatory course on consent that initially erred by asking students about their sexual histories and with a “consent carnival” on how to navigate sexual encounters under California’s “Yes Means Yes” law.
After returning from Kenya – where I work with medical and legal colleagues through Physicians for Human Rights to end impunity for sexual violence – I was glad to see USC taking the topic of consent seriously. Recently, USC and other colleges and universities have been under fire for failing to adequately respond to the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses.
Through my work, I’ve realized how ubiquitous sexual violence is – from our college campuses to our homes to areas of conflict and unrest. This trip to Kenya focused on the psychological impact of sexual violence on survivors, and we met with professionals from multiple sectors to strengthen efforts to collect forensic psychological evidence of sexual violence. Consent was at the center of many of our discussions.
As a physician who works in the areas of human rights, animal protection, and ethics, I’m constantly thinking about the meaning and importance of consent – for people and animals. When we better clarify concepts like consent, it becomes easier to sort out difficult moral questions, engage in difficult but important conversations, and create change.
Consent has three necessary elements – understanding, voluntariness, and permission. As students leading the USC consent carnival spelled out, consent is affirmative, coherent, willing, ongoing, and mutual – not just one but all of these criteria.
As I described to doctors, nurses, law enforcement professionals, and prosecutors in Kenya, I’ve come to think of sexual violence – from sexual harassment to different forms of rape – as a violation of personal sovereignty. Sexual violence is not just about physical force. The violence is in the disregard for consent – including who can and cannot give consent – and the bodily trespasses that follow. If someone is deemed incapable of providing consent, it’s not possible to obtain consent – it’s as simple as that.
When we dive deeply into what consent means for humans, there are also implications for other beings.
Like many vulnerable humans, animals are capable, though often deprived, of making informed decisions about their lives. Animals can express assent and dissent, but we rarely respect their personal sovereignty in ways that acknowledge their aptitude for making choices. Play and cooperation among animals are examples of how animals can express consent with one another, but we don’t speak the languages of other animals, and they typically don’t speak ours. Even when they express dissent to us, their feelings are often ignored.
The ways animals are exploited in research, entertainment, food and clothing production, and other areas of human society clearly defy their sovereignty – much like human exploitation does, suggesting that something much deeper is at work here. In addition to the physical violence animals suffer through, they also suffer from fear, anxiety, and depression – like we do – when their personal sovereignty is violated.
Though there is a balance between respecting the independence of people and animals and protecting vulnerable beings who cannot easily make informed choices for themselves, it’s critically important for our laws and actions to recognize the individual sovereignty of both people and animals around the world. This moral imperative has implications from California to Kenya.
Ultimately, how we treat the most vulnerable among us has repercussions for how we treat everyone. More and more, we’re beginning to understand the links between how people treat animals, how adults treat children, and how men treat women.
When so many of us have something to gain by violating animals’ sovereignty, it is worth remembering what we could all gain by treating animals better. After all, consider all the ways in which you are protected from mental and physical injury simply because your personal sovereignty is valued. Imagine a world without it.
And, now, imagine a world where everyone’s personal sovereignty is respected – where animals aren’t in cages, women aren’t afraid to walk home alone at night, and children are protected from abuse.
Which world looks better?