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Consent and Rape Culture


The way we talk about consent in our society doesn’t seem to be working.

This post can be considered an expansion of yesterday’s article. Focusing specifically on issues of consent, it’s necessary to first establish just what “consent” means. The way it is framed in discussions of sexual assault and rape, it is treated as a question with a binary answer. “Yes, I consent to sex” or “No, I don’t.” That’s not to say no one explores consent in a more nuanced fashion, but those approaches often fall by the wayside. In the interest of not sharing a similar fate, I’ll try to keep this simple.

In the US, men are raised to see sex as a game: have sex with as many women as you can, as often as you can. Every woman you have sex with is a victory. Conversely, women are taught not to have sex too readily. The reasons for the latter vary. Women have to worry about getting pregnant, but also about being called “cheap” or “slutty.” That men are supposed to aggressively pursue sex and women are supposed to withhold it until a man proves his worthiness sets up an obvious conflict. That sex is seen as a win for a man and a loss for a woman is a clear double standard.

Most men would probably say that they’d never do anything like Brock Turner did–that they’d never molest an unconscious woman who is unable to consent or defend herself. If you ask a man directly, “Would you ever rape a woman?” he will almost certainly say “no.” But it turns out that many men have a poor understanding of what rape is, and this makes having conversations about consent difficult. After all, you only have to obtain consent to avoid being a rapist, right? That may seem like a laughable statement, but that’s the kind of confusing and preposterous logic a simple, binary conception of consent gets us.

It is better, then, to think of consent as both a continuum and a process. Imagine a man and a woman who don’t know each other well but have some potential for a sexual encounter. Typically speaking, the woman has certain boundaries she is unwilling to cross, and the man’s goal is to either obtain his sexual gratification if it’s within the woman’s boundaries, or identify and break down those boundaries if what he wants lies beyond them. But these boundaries are not fixed–they can be moved by getting to know each other better, establishing a comfortable environment, increasing arousal, lowering inhibitions, and on and on. Intuitively, men and women generally know this, but may not often put it into words. Men typically reduce it to the idea of turning a “no” into a “yes.” Depending on the circumstances, this doesn’t have to be negative or abusive behavior, but the methods used are critical. Getting a woman so drunk she can’t reasonably consent (or taking advantage of a woman in such a state), pressuring or guilting or cajoling her every time she puts up resistance, and anything that extends into emotional blackmail, use (or threats) of physical force, or deception–these are all forms of abuse. Turning a “no” into a “yes” using such means is rape.

But what about other methods? What are valid ways of obtaining consent, and what aren’t? Can consent consist of anything other than a vocalized “yes”? The strawman is often raised of men having to get women to sign forms, or sending text messages saying that she consented to sex, supposedly for the legal protection of a man she is about to be intimate with. In reality, consent need not be such an explicit business. If your partner is eager to have sex, it shouldn’t be hard to tell. But a partner who is reluctant should be fairly obvious, too. Such reluctance should, in general, not be taken as a challenge to break down those barriers in order to “win the game,” so to speak. There is such a thing as playing hard to get, and that can be a fun (and erotic) exercise, but then it becomes crucial to recognize when playful resistance becomes the real deal–and to stop immediately.

It is far too much the case that women have to learn how to keep themselves safe, to learn which men they can trust, to avoid situations in which they might be assaulted, and to approach potential sexual encounters in such a way that they can enjoy themselves without risking being raped. In my experience, men don’t seem to commit a lot of mental bandwidth to these issues–it’s just a matter of conquest and pushing boundaries, and if a woman has “buyer’s remorse” after, oh well. But men must bear much more of this responsibility to recognize the dynamics of these situations and hold to firm standards regarding what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. Getting laid isn’t worth doing something reckless or stupid that could land you in prison. If there is any question as to whether your partner is consenting, assume that she is not. Consent can take many forms, but a lack of it should be pretty self-evident.

I mention all this because there has been swift condemnation of Brock Turner by a great many people–including a lot of men. Turner certainly deserves the scorn, but as I stated yesterday, men need to be more accountable to one another, and also to themselves. Rape isn’t something that happens to women, it’s something men do to women. (Aside: men can be raped, too, and this is without bringing non-binary gender identities into the mix; I am speaking to the general heteronormative male/female case here.) Given Turner’s behavior, he knew he was doing something wrong–he ran when others came by and saw what he was doing. And yet, he did it in the first place, which means he thought he could get away with it. It would be nice to think only the stereotypical deranged serial rapist who lurks in shadows and snatches women off the street does things like this, but the fact of the matter is that clean-cut young white men with no prior record do it, too, and it’s necessary to ask why. It is because men are trained to prioritize our own sexual adventure and gratification over the basic dignity of women–more than that, it’s because men are trained to rob women of their dignity. To take a woman’s virginity is seen as a triumph. He has taken something of value, and she is now “damaged goods.” It’s not harmless locker room talk, it’s a hateful, sexist worldview in which women can never be equal to men. Sex is seen as something women give men, under the threat that a man may simply take it when denied.

The only thing that makes Brock Turner exceptional is that he got caught and convicted. His light sentence is frankly a better-than-average outcome for a sexual assault case–and we should be appalled that this is so. Men must come to understand that rape is more than holding a woman down and forcing yourself upon her. It consists of a wide spectrum of behaviors that serve the goal of expressing power and ownership over women’s bodies.

What will turning that “no” into a “yes” cost her, and what will it cost you? If you aren’t asking, you’re part of the problem.

Photo by zoonabar