Consent Matters

MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING for this entire post, including links.

A lot has happened in the last six months. The relationship I had been in for two and a half years ended. I lost my job. I stopped blogging. I spent three months in Paris, before running out of money and coming back to Toronto to crash on my sister’s couch and beg local businesses to hire me. I tried, and failed, to start blogging again. And then, to top it all off, two days ago a prominent third-wave feminist argued in a televised debate that I was not “really” raped.

I started this post several days ago, before the Wolf/Friedman debate took place. Like many feminists, I’ve been following the Assange case for a while, but I deliberately avoided discussing it. Better writers than me (and I should include a thank you to Sady Doyle, who is absolutely incredible writer and, from what I’ve seen, a pretty fucking amazing human being) have taken it on, and personally, I didn’t have the energy or the courage to engage with something so huge and so polarized. What I did want to write about, however, was Edmonton’s recent anti-rape campaign, which was briefly covered on a few blogs some weeks ago. The Don’t Be That Guy campaign is one of the first I’ve seen to fight sexual assault by placing the responsibility on men not to rape, rather than on women to avoid all contact with alcohol/taxi cabs/skirts/other human beings to protect themselves. Specifically, the campaign tells men that taking advantage of intoxicated women is rape. It may not seem like much, but it’s a pretty big step forward, and I am grateful that it exists.

Image: A woman lying unconscious on a sofa, with several liquor bottles in front of her. Text below reads: Just because she isn't saying no doesn't mean she's saying yes.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who aren’t. Men have a tendency to be uncomfortable with this approach to the subject of sexual assault because they feel like the notion that men need to be taught not to rape essentially implies that all men are rapists. I was browsing a blog by a dude named Miguel Bloomfontosis, who makes this exact argument in a post about the Don’t Be That Guy campaign. Bloomfontosis (rightly) points out that the majority of rapes are premeditated and committed by serial rapists. These guys, he says, are psychos, and won’t be deterred by a couple of PSAs. In his opinion, all this campaign does is stigmatize male sexuality as inherently predatory. The campaign, in his opinion, “communicates that rape is something an average, decent guy might tend to do if he becomes disinhibited and has a moment of poor judgment” and “contributes to a culture that narrows the range in which a man can express his sexuality, to the detriment of the sexually isolated man, but not so much to the detriment of the predator.”

I disagree with this guy’s argument, but he got me thinking. Specifically, he got me thinking about the way we tend to look at rape as a black-and-white issue, and how this might contribute to rape culture. And then, in spite of myself, I started thinking about Julian Assange.

The feminist approach to rape culture often treads a fine line: we – most of us, anyway – think that rapists are basically worthless pieces of shit, but we also acknowledge that their actions are, in part, the product of a degree of cultural conditioning. We cannot help but hate rapists. I know I can’t. But we also must acknowledge that rapists are human beings – vile, terrifying human beings, for sure, but human beings nonetheless – and that their actions do not take place in a cultural vacuum. Their actions are excused, enabled and sometimes encouraged by a society that does not value people’s boundaries, and that does not fully acknowledge the importance of sexual consent.

Men like Bloomfontosis want to treat rape as a black-and-white issue, because that’s how it appears from their vantage point. They live in this culture too, and it hasn’t turned them into rapists. Dudes who rape are Bad People, and nothing is going to change that. But the uncomfortable truth is that the line between Good People and Evil Rapists is not as clear as this worldview dictates. For one thing, there isn’t just one type of rape. Despite what you might here on certain parts of the internet, it isn’t “real” rape when the perpetrator is a stranger in a dark alley with a knife, and “imaginary” rape the rest of the time. Moreover, sexual assault is not an isolated phenomenon. Our culture encourages a whole range of violations of people’s boundaries and bodily integrity, of which rape is only the most serious. And the worst part? You have probably committed some of those violations. I know I have.

We may agree – by and large – that rape is bad and that rapists are bad people. But sadly, a lot of us don’t see a problem with violating people’s boundaries in less serious ways. Hitting on someone after they’ve made it clear they’re not interested, for example. Touching someone’s hair or face without their permission. Pressuring your partner to do something they’re not into. Cat-calling women on the street. These things are so commonplace that many of us fail to acknowledge that they are wrong. That they exist on the same continuum as rape, and that they need to be taken seriously.

We cannot stop rape until we understand that people have the right to set their own boundaries and have those boundaries respected. And I have been deliberately gender-neutral up until this point – because this does apply to everyone – but the fact is that our society dismisses and disregards women’s boundaries far more often than men. And even moreso when the women in question are otherwise marginalized – when they are trans women, or women of colour, or women with disabilities. People who belong to marginalized groups are told, throughout our lives, that our bodies are not our own and that we don’t have a say in what happens to them. And people with more privilege – men in particular – are taught that we owe them access to our bodies, whether we like it or not. Many of us are lucky enough to escape being sexually assaulted, but we deal with these smaller violations on a continuous basis. Often these violations are committed by people who have no idea that what they are doing is wrong, because it has not occurred to them that our bodies are our own. This is rape culture.

Rape culture gives rapists the privilege of not identifying their behaviour as sexually violent. I’m not saying that rape is just a “misunderstanding”. Quite the opposite: I fully acknowledge that the majority of rapists are repeat offenders and conscious predators. But I also know that they do not self-identify as rapists. They don’t have to; they can get off on hurting and controlling other people – people whose boundaries our society values so little – without consciously acknowledging that this is wrong. How could it be, when it fits so neatly with our society’s values?

If there’s one thing that the media shitstorm surrounding Assange is proven, it is that we cannot agree on what constitutes rape. We have so-called feminists arguing that penetrating a woman in her sleep isn’t rape because she didn’t say “no”. Now, I’m not saying Assange is guilty – only he and his alleged victims know that for sure – but what was described there? That’s rape. And if he did that, he is a rapist. If Naomi Wolf can go on TV and state that that isn’t really rape because it’s “ambiguous”, then I think it’s safe to say that we all need to be educated about the nature of consent.

And that’s where campaigns like Don’t Be That Guy come in. True, we can’t stop psychopaths from being psychopaths, but we can talk about what rape is, and why it’s wrong. Sure, we can probably all agree that sex with an unconscious woman is rape. But what if, say, that woman is your girlfriend? What if she’s a girl who flirted with you then passed out on your bed? What if she said yes, then changed her mind? What if she agreed to sex with a condom, and you didn’t wear one? To most of us, I hope, these are all unambiguous rape scenarios. But there are people – a lot of people, unfortunately – who would disagree. These people are everywhere. Some of these people are rapists, and this rhetoric allows them to never acknowledge the impact of their actions, let alone be brought to justice. Most, of course, never rape, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t part of rape culture. They sit on juries, they write op-ed pieces, they go on Keith Olbermann’s show and laugh at rape survivors – and then they dismiss all criticism of these actions with “well I’m not a rapist, so it’s okay.” Fair enough, people. You’re not rapists. You’re just making it really easy for other people to rape and get away with it.

True, rape is often committed by psychopaths. But a person does not have to be a psychopath to engage in sexual activity where consent is not always clear. A person does not have to be evil to violate someone’s boundaries. If we assume that all rapists are moustache-twirling villains, we fail to acknowledge that they might be our friends, our brothers, our fathers. We fail to acknowledge that someone can have great ideas – someone like, say, Julian Assange – and also be a rapist. We fail to acknowledge that we all engage in behaviours that perpetuate rape culture. When we build a simplistic picture of rape – and of rapists – in our minds, it becomes easy to dismiss any instance of rape or assault that doesn’t fit within our worldview.

We need campaigns that emphasize the importance of consent, because many of us are exposed every day to a culture that tells us that consent isn’t a big deal. That it’s a buzzkill. That it’s something feminists made up to hate on men. The Edmonton campaign doesn’t address consent in all its forms because it was created to deal with the very specific problem of acquaintance rape facilitated by alcohol, but plenty more do. My personal favourite is the Consent is Sexy campaign, which addresses a whole range of ways in which consent – and, specifically, informed consent and communication – is an integral part of sex and relationships. Also worth checking out is this comic, which deals with many of the same issues, with bonus snarky Twilight references and tiny dinosaurs. Both emphasize the importance of consent not just for preventing rape, but for making sure that sex is safe and fun for everyone.

Image: A young white man looking at a young white woman. Text reads: Why is it sexy? When you ask for her consent is shows you respect her, care about how she feels, care about what she wants. Giving him consent shows you want him as much as he wants you. Consent is about confident, open, real communication. And respecting boundaries. The practice of consent will naturally create a more caring, more responsive, respectful love life. And that's sexy. Talk about it. Respect yourself. Respect your partner.

Rape is not a force of nature. It is a choice that a human being makes, and that our culture excuses, erases and ultimately condones. We need things like the Don’t Be That Guy campaign to show people that this is stopping, that from this point on we are taking this seriously. That we know what rape is, and who is responsible for it. That we will no longer blame the victim. One campaign can’t do this alone; it needs to be a part of broader cultural change. But we need campaigns like this to show everyone that we are making this change happen.

In the midst of the Assange case, Swedish feminists started a Twitter campaign called #talkaboutit (#prataomdet in Swedish), in which they encourage all women to talk about their experiences of sexual violence, ambiguous or otherwise. Silence is what rape culture uses to build the myths that let our rapists walk free, and we are done. In conclusion, then, I am going to talk about it.

I was reluctant to talk about Assange in part because his alleged crimes sound almost exactly like what happened to me. have never spoken about this directly, and I am still not able to do so in more specific terms than this. I will say, though, that it took me several years to acknowledge that what happened was rape, largely because I had never been told that my boundaries were worth respecting. I doubt that the man who raped me will ever acknowledge it as such, but I do hope that campaigns like Consent is Sexy, Don’t Be That Guy, and the many others that will follow do force other men to think critically about their attitudes towards women, consent and bodily integrity.

All men do not need to be taught how not to rape, but all people need to be taught about consent. We need to be taught what it means, in all its complexity. We need to be taught why it matters, for ourselves and for others. Our culture fails to teach this, and in doing so normalizes the violation of boundaries. This is rape culture, and I am so, so grateful that there are people out there fighting it.

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Comments

  • chris  On December 24, 2010 at 12:24 am

    I just wrote a blog about a lot of this, and thought you might be interested, especially regarding the Wolf-Friedman debate recently on Democracy Now, and the issue of consent. It’s called The Politics of Consent, The Politics of Feminism.

    thanks for a very interesting post.

  • zes  On December 29, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you for this. I just had a conversation with a close friend about how she likes to grab her 18-month-old nephew and kiss all over his face. Nothing wrong with this as he clearly likes it, sometimes he laughs and says “Again!” But we were talking about how we hated it when our uncles and aunts expected us to kiss them as kids, how kids’ boundaries are often violated even by well-meaning people. She said, and I quote, “Even if he didn’t like it, I would do it. I want to kiss him because he’s so cute.” I was clear I didn’t mean you should let your child refuse to bathe or have the doctor examine them (though I said you should talk to the child to explain what’s going to happen and why, and be respectful), I just meant the fact that you want to show physical affection to the child doesn’t trump the child wanting otherwise. Having disagreed, she said, verbatim, “I don’t care what he thinks”. I said, “But he is a person! He has a right to say no.” She said only his parents had that right. I said, “At what age should children be allowed to have their bodily integrity respected in your view?” She said, “8 or 9.”

    I just left the room because I am so disgusted. An otherwise really nice woman is complicit in training our children that what a more powerful person wants for their body matters more than what they want. Then we wonder why, when an uncomfortable situation arises later in life, they are not equipped to identify it, defend themselves, call for help, or leave. Any of these could be the difference between getting out of the situation before something awful happens, and not being able to do so. Consent must be taught young, and respected young too.

  • Day  On February 6, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    I’ve had this argument a lot, and it’s occurred to me that perhaps we should have a concept–even a legal concept–called “negligent rape.” Sexual violation is horrifying in all incarnations. I’m anxious to see it fully recognized, buy I don’t blame the people who think it’s important to distinguish. This would be a category similar to statutory rape. Or, potentially, some cases of statutory rape would be a subset of negligent rape.

    The point is, it might be easier for people to accept that it is all rape–and be willing to describe it all as rape–if we have language that delineates clearly.

  • jlandrith  On February 23, 2011 at 1:08 am

    Rape culture also promotes the concept that physical arousal for both men and women means that they “wanted it” when they were raped. Unfortunately, both men AND women support this victim-blaming form of rape denial. An inclusive campaign on consent should include points on this as well.

    As a male rape survivor, I am quite familiar with consent issues and can tell you that there are quite a few women (personal experience speaking) who believe that men are incapable of turning down sexual advances and will employ manipulation, coercion, threats and other forms of control to get what they want. In my case, alcohol, drugged drink and threats were used to gain my compliance.

    Any large scale campaign focusing on consent needs to include both genders or it is missing the point. As a male survivor of a female rapist, ignoring women who also need this education is empowering/excusing a whole class of rapists and predators based solely on gender. I cannot support such a campaign.

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Trackbacks

  • […] Words and concepts are only our best approximation of reality; we look for the closest fit to describe our world.  Human sexuality is complicated and subtle, and so the fit between words and reality is always going to be a bit jerry-rigged in this area.  The concept of the “rape continuum” was described recently in the blog “Radical Bookworm,” in the post “Consent Matters”: […]

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