I’m gonna start by promising to warn you if I ever give details of rape cases – not like, legal details, but details of what kinds of inhumane things people do to each other – because although I think my skin has gotten thicker since I’ve become a feminist and read a lot more about rape than I certainly ever had before, I still have my moments when I read something that I just can’t take. Happened last night, I’m still trying not to think about it, which is one of those zen-like impossible tasks – focusing on not focusing on something.
So. Rape is sex without consent. Unfortunately, we can’t all agree on what consent it. Some people think “without consent” means “NOOOOO! [kick] [scream] [punch] [scratch]“. Some people think “without consent” means “No.” Some think it means the lack of “Yes.” (Also called “affirmative consent.”) Some think it means the lack of “mmmmm yeaaaaaaah.” (Also called “enthusiastic consent.”) I fall in between yes and mmmmm yeaaaaaaah. The first two are of course examples of lack of consent, but I think the consent needed for sex is affirmative, ie, that without some form of yes, it’s rape. That’s why we say “without consent” instead of “with kicking and screaming.” I don’t think the yes needs to fit a particular predetermined shape – initiating something is a form of affirmative consent; saying “I love it when you do that” (without a “but…”) is affirmative consent; nodding in response to a question mark look is affirmative consent. Not doing or saying anything is not affirmative consent. If you want to have sex with someone who will be completely neutral, they make dolls for that.
Now I’m going to have a question and answer session with myself in which I try to think of all the problems people have with affirmative consent and all the reasons why we should abide by it anyway. The “you” I’m talking to is assumed to be the one initiating the sexual activity. “Sex” means any sexual activity; I’m not into privileging penis-in-vagina (or as I like to think of it sometimes, vagina-around-penis) sex.
Problem number 1: “But stopping and asking about everything kills the mood.”
Solution: mmmmm yeaaaaaaaaah does not kill the mood. Raising your eyebrows as your reach towards a body part in a nonverbal question does not kill the mood. Asking if he/she likes it does not kill the mood. Talking about boundaries before things get heated up doesn’t kill the mood because the mood isn’t on yet, but it does make the sex better once you get to it. If you’re awkward, I’m sorry, but that’s not an excuse for sexual assault.
Problem number 2: “But sometimes girls say no when they mean yes.” I can’t remember ever having seen this argument applied to a male, but if that were the case, the same solutions could apply.
a) If she says no because she’s not comfortable enough with her sexuality to say yes, some talking is in order, as well as some serious societal change, but that part will take longer and you don’t have to wait for it to have sex. Women should not have to be the gatekeeper just because society tells them to; women should not feel like it’s bad for them to want or show that they want sex.
b) If she says no because that’s how she flirts, keep flirting with her, but don’t do what she’s protesting against. I think in most cases like this, she expects her no to actually work, and to be kind of teasing, but only temporarily. Play until she stops saying no and gives you some kind of yes, which will probably be nonverbal. Or see c).
c) If she gets off on the idea of you doing something to her as she’s still protesting, you need a safety word. This is ok to act out, but only if you do it safely, and having agreed on it beforehand.
d) If none of the above apply, she might be laughing while she says no just to take the edge off of her rejection of your advances. Sometimes, we mean no. But it can be hard to say that. Enter problem number 3.
Problem number 3: “It’s their responsibility to say no.” If they’re smart, this comes with the pretend-feminist: “after all, women have agency, right?”
Solution: Stop being an asshole. Yes, of course we should all be strong enough to say no whenever we need to, but some of us aren’t. Yes, those of us who aren’t should work on it rather than just accept it. But that’s beside the point, because this is about your responsibilities. If you’re going to touch something that doesn’t belong to you, you get permission FIRST. That includes other people’s bodies. To act otherwise is to say, I’m just going to assume everyone wants to have sex with me, by default, and if they don’t, they’ll have to alert me that something out of the ordinary is happening. That’s called entitlement, and it’s assholey. It’s also assholey to do whatever you can get away with instead of caring more about not violating another person than about getting off.
Problem number 4: “It’s different now that we’ve been together for a while.”
Solution: Actually, that’s true. The first time you do some sexual act with a person, boundaries have to be made more explicit than they do the 57th time. By then, some assumptions are ok. But consent still matters. Look for cooperation and other simple nonverbal signs of consent; in their absence, check if everything’s ok, if he/she wants to stop, etc. Couldn’t hurt to talk to each other about what kind of consent you require for what kinds of activities. And of course, “no” or a safety word must always be respected. No relationship is a free pass to sex whenever you want it, and no one ever loses their right to withhold or revoke consent for any reason, at any time. Your partner’s body is not your possession. That’s why God gave us masturbation.*
Problem number 5: How can affirmative consent be applied to the ability to withdraw consent at any time?
Solution: Withdrawing consent does have to be a little bit more on the saying no side, because you can’t be constantly asking and saying yes throughout sex, but any good partner should check if things are ok if the other person seems to stop liking it at some point. This especially applies if you know your partner has been sexually assaulted before, as they can get flashbacks during sex but may not be able to tell you to stop.
Now, back to this issue of not being able to say no when you want to say no: am I the only one this happens to? I mean you hear arguments like, if someone cooperates with sex but it’s because they’re at gunpoint, it’s still rape, they just couldn’t say no because they were fearing for their life. That’s obviously true. But I’ve never been held at gunpoint. I just have this problem where if I’m not asked verbally, I can’t say no verbally, if I don’t know the guy very well. At least not until either I have a chance to talk myself into doing so, or the guy surprises me/pisses me off enough that STOP! just flies out of my mouth. I’m not talking about intercourse here, just guys touching me. I know I’m capable of being direct if they are (real conversation: guy: Do I have a chance with you? me: No.), and I’m capable of saying no in nonverbal ways, but somehow it seems like there’s a barrier between indirect communication and direct – verbal “stop doing that” – communication that I am so loathe to cross that it feels like I’m incapable of it. I think the barrier is the fact that it means being openly in conflict with him, whereas if I can just walk away or move his hand or drop a hint, somehow it feels like we can still pretend we’re on the same side. I figure it must have something to do with socialization, both in my particular culture and (sheltered) subculture, and as a female (sugar and spice and everything nice=good, bitch=bad). Of course, I think these guys should give me some sort of out, form some sort of question, before getting all touchy with me, instead of either not caring how I feel about it or assuming that if I smile at them it means I want sex, or that if I don’t punch them in the nose it means everything’s ok. But for my own peace of mind, and to have something to do in the meantime before all men learn what consent means, I’d like to figure out a way to get myself past this problem. You’d think being such a feminist…
*Fun Bible verse of the day: 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. It’s Paul disagreeing with me on whether or not your body belongs to your partner and whether or not it’s ok to say no when you don’t want to have sex. It is at least equal to both partners. For the record, I think going on a sex strike in order to get something is probably really unhealthy for a relationship, but not having sex you don’t want is probably very healthy; sex shouldn’t be something you resent. I think it’s a terrible idea to make someone feel guilty for setting boundaries in their sex life. I also think Paul likes to ignore the possibility of a troubled marriage; some spouses are abusive, some spouses have medical problems, some people have histories of being sexually abused. Can you imagine telling a woman whose husband rapes her that God will be disappointed if she refuses him sex? Gosh, that sounds like it means he’s ok to rape her, since she’s not supposed to say no anyway. I’m sure no one has ever interpreted it that way, though. That’s why marital rape has always been a crime. “In a study of battered women, Bowker (1983) found that they ranked clergy members as the least helpful of those to whom they had turned for assistance. The emphasis of some religious institutions on wives’ responsibility “to obey their husbands” and the sinfulness of women’s refusal to have sexual intercourse with their husbands, perpetuate the problem of marital rape.”