Defining Consent: A new way to fight date rape

Written By Raisa Slutsky-Moore, Mount Holyoke College Class of 2011, Contributing Writer to the Mount Holyoke News.  This article is posted here with Raisa’s permission.  The original can be found here: http://themhnews.org/2010/10/op-ed/defining-consent-a-new-way-to-fight-date-rape.

TRIGGER WARNING: The following opinion piece discusses scenarios involving rape.

I AM SICK OF MY FRIENDS GETTING RAPED. Sometimes literally sick. I think that a lot of people are with me on this, but I don’t hear from them often enough. These days I feel more and more like those of us female-bodied folks who haven’t been raped are the lucky few, not the majority. The scary-enough statistics, even the oft-cited and disputed “1 in 4,” seem ridiculously understated—with the women I’ve been closest to in the past couple years, it’s closer to 1 in 2. I’m starting to assume all women are survivors until I’m told otherwise, and I should probably open this up to include people of all genders. Staying up all night feeling upset and scared and fragile and alone because I can’t talk to anyone about how I feel without violating confidence is starting to feel familiar. I don’t know how normal an experience mine is, but from this perspective it doesn’t make sense that people are not speaking up all the time. There are plenty of venues where discussions do happen all the time, but where is the mainstream outrage?

I’ve written this to report from my particular corner of this struggle and share my current strategy—fighting nonconsensual sex with consent. I’m not an expert, just someone who’s learning. If I felt that there was enough being said, I’d leave it to those who have more figured out, but I don’t—and I think there are enough people for whom this might be useful. I also think it’s incredibly important that I speak out as an ally. Part of this is practical. From my experiences as a queer person fighting homophobia, I know that using your own story to fight oppression is often painful and exhausting, so it’s important that allies speak out. Another part of this is selfish—being close to those who are directly affected can be incredibly difficult, and I want to voice this experience for myself and for others like me.

THIS IS NOT SIMPLE. We can’t just hunt down all the mythical monster Rapists living amongst us and be done with it; we have to re-examine our thinking. Even though I’ve often heard the U.S. Department of Justice statistic that approximately two thirds of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, our culture’s discourse around rape—broadcast by TV dramas and news coverage of sensational and violent incidents—continues to focus on the “stranger in a dark alley” scenario. Not only does this idea give the racist patriarchy power over women through fear while conveniently encouraging fear of those who are different, it hides the possibility of fighting rape proactively and culturally—which we can do by participating in and advocating a cultural shift of how we think about sex.

In June, I stumbled upon a zine called Learning Good Consent and realized something that I should have known all along—it should not be the responsibility of the person feeling more vulnerable to say no and put on the brakes; that person should be the one with their foot on the gas. Sex should not be something someone does to someone else, a destination to continue towards if the road is left clear. It is a collection of acts, and each should be treated as a different act, not just a more advanced version of another. Different acts are different for different people, so we should check in every time we do something new to see if we both want it and like it, even for intimacies not usually thought of as sex. Contrary to what all of the silent sex scenes we see in the media tell us, we cannot read each others’ minds, and even if we consider ourselves fairly good at reading each others’ bodies, sometimes the two actually have different things to say. So ask. Consent is not the absence of no. Consent is a clearly and joyfully communicated “yes, please!”

I’ve been re-examining myself in this context. Few of the sexual interactions I’ve had have been completely consensual under my new definition. Verbal check-ins are relatively new for me, and I’ve certainly been part of poorly communicated encounters that would have been different without alcohol. I’ve discovered months into a sexual relationship that the first time we had sex neither of us wanted to do more than make out and go to sleep. Consent gets complicated when you delve into it this far. I can’t say that anyone raped anyone else in the last situation, but we both failed to communicate well and check in. If I define consent as both people wanting what happens to happen, it wasn’t consensual.

COMMUNICATION IS ALSO NUANCED. There’s a big difference between “Is this OK?” and “Do you want me to…?”—if I’m indifferent I’ll say “sure” to the first question, but something weaker to the second. It’s an even bigger step to “What do you want me to do?” which is harder to go along with out of obligation because it isn’t a leading question. I’m not good enough at talking to be able to answer that question most of the time yet. I think that, especially as a woman, it’s been difficult to get past the socialization that I’m not supposed to (have to) tell my partner what I do and don’t want. I don’t know exactly how this silence got inside of me—but sometimes even when words are loud in my head, even when I feel others concern for me, I can’t say them.

Sex feels very different with more talking and instructions— maybe even less sexy. But as the Philly Stands Up collective explains in their essay “The Basics” from Learning Good Consent, “Discussions about consent echo similar ones folks were having at the beginning of the AIDS crisis—the initial resistance to using condoms gave way as it became clear safer sex could keep people alive.” If we can someday make highly communicated, highly consensual sex the norm, we won’t put each other in positions in which we need to say “no,” and it will be inconceivable to accidentally cross peoples’ boundaries and/or commit date rape. This might not visibly save lives, but it will allow a lot of us to feel more alive.
I KNOW I’M DREAMING BIG. This is a radical reimagination of sex, which could strip power from it and have a huge effect on gender relations. There would be serious resistance to overcome, and I don’t necessarily believe we’ll ever make this new kind of sex the norm. Nevertheless, it’s a goal I believe in walking towards—away from the silence which is our projected norm now. Silence allows the assault to continue unnamed and unchallenged, and we can’t settle for this. We need to talk all the time, everywhere about what’s wrong, how people are being hurt through unconsensual sex in different ways at different levels, and we need to talk, too, about what’s right, what we want, and what feels good. If we can challenge our cultural silence, we can challenge rape, and we need to, because right now we are silently losing more of our lives and our energy than we even know.

Ask Yourself: (Source: Support Zine as reprinted in Learning Good Consent)
– How do you define consent? Do you know people or have you been with people who define consent differently than you do?
– How might someone express that what is happening is not OK?
– Do you look for verbal signs or are there other signs?
– Do you think it is possible to misinterpret silence as consent?
– Have you ever asked someone what kinds of signs you should look for if they have a hard time verbalizing when something feels wrong?
– Do you seek consent the same way when you’re drunk as when you’re sober?
– Do you think it is important to talk the next day with the person you’ve been sexual with if there has been drinking involved? If not, is it because it’s uncomfortable or because you think something might have happened that shouldn’t have? Or is it because you think that’s just the way things go?
– Do you ever feel obligated to have sex?
– Do you ever feel obligated to initiate sex?
– Do you think that if one person wants to have safe sex and the other person doesn’t really care, it is the responsibility of the person who has concerns to provide safe sex supplies and/or make sure they are used?
– How consensual do you think it is to have unprotected sex with someone who wants to have protected sex?

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