Rape Culture and Consent

This is a follow-up to the article I posted the other day about Max Temkin. Some have taken the time to dissect the responses by Max and Magz. But if there’s a silver lining in this, it’s that there’s an authentic discussion happening right now about consent, mostly with ourselves as we try to sort out our past. Many men are asking themselves if they’ve raped. They aren’t sure any more.

I spoke with a number of people since then about the topic and I also got to ask questions and also give answers. I wanted to share those questions and answers in this post to keep the discussion flowing and help make it as productive as possible. While the questions that have been asked seem to mostly come from cisgendered males and females, what follows applies to any human being engaging in sexual relationships regardless of gender. Also, this is going to be a longer post so I’ve tried to break it into sections to make for easier skim reading. Still, context is everything.

What Is Consent?

The question of what consent looks like is popular, especially among men I recently talked to about it. But there were even women who asked me the same question. I think this speaks volumes about the state of sexual relations in our societies that consent can’t be easily known or understood. The answer to the question is entrenched in definitions of manhood and female virtue (purity/virginity). As a society, we tend to view consent as a mystical concept, one shrouded in romance. The man will know when to make the right move, the woman will resist to protect her virtue, the man will persist and eventually win her over. They’ll both find themselves overcome with “consent”, or at least this is the mythology surrounding it.

The problem with a culture as prudish as ours is that talking about sex is never seen as the solution. Men and women are supposed to know what to do, and both of them should know without having to talk about sex. Talking ruins the moment. “The moment” is supposed to just happen naturally. And “natural” is the whole sequence I describe above, where instinct is supposed to dictate what happens next. In this framework, consent isn’t even part of the sex equation. Men have it no matter what, and women are always seen as acting the part of the virgin .

So it’s really no wonder so many people are wondering “well what is consent?”,  so many young men asking “how am I supposed to know?”. It betrays a cultural mindset about sex in which consent is just a discussion to be had after the fact.

But I’d argue consent is essential to sexual well-being, for all of us who want and enjoy sex. For the typical male, it doesn’t feel good wondering whether she wanted it or not. For women, it’s devastating. And all it takes to spare both from this torture is for them to have a conversation about sex. Simple. It erases all questions of consent.

I’m going to go on a limb and state that you can’t have awesome sex without consent. So much of what we enjoy about sex is bound up in the pleasure of the other. In our society, men are raised to be ignorant of this. We are taught that the most crucial elements of sex are hard-ons and ejaculation. If those two things happen, then things went as they should. We’re never told about the pleasures of consent, of being pursued,the sweetness of seduction and the satisfaction of being with someone you respect and who also respects you. These things can never be taken. They have to be given. Sex is infinitely more satisfying when these things are present.

I wrote not long ago about what consent means to me, which you can catch up on here. To summarize,in no particular order, I wrote that (among other things) consent is:

  • Seduction. Wooing and being wooed is a satisfying game of sexual tension. It piques sexual interest.
  • Temporary. Giving consent today doesn’t mean I give it tomorrow. It doesn’t even mean I’ll give it in the next 5 minutes. We’re free to change our minds at any time.
  • Respect. People are moody and consent may not be a simple yes or no. It’s complicated. But if you seek their satisfaction and respect their autonomy, you can’t go wrong.
  • Patience. We’re not always ready to have sex, even when we want to have sex. Just because I want it doesn’t mean I must give it.
  • Trust. No one would give themselves willingly to someone they don’t trust. This can only happen when you value their well-being as your own.

These things are all very inter-dependent if that’s not obvious already. You can barely have one without the others and trust is the main barrier to sexual intercourse.

Part of the excitement of eventually having sex with someone you like is going through these motions with them. You rile each other up, rouse sexual interest, make promises and delay delivery; give and then take, or even just giving (having sex to satisfy your partner even if you don’t crave it yourself). Consent is complicated, but it’s the key to healthy and fulfilling sexual relationships. I’ll take that even further and say that sexual satisfaction is only achievable with consent.

What if She Doesn’t Say Yes or No?

“What if she just let’s it happen, without protest, without physically resisting? Isn’t that the same as telling me to get on with it?” If you’re asking these questions, I’m really glad you’re interested in the answers. But I’m afraid you’re missing the point.

Consent isn’t the absence of no. It’s also not the absence of resistance or protests. Consent also isn’t the presence of a “yes”. Let me explain.

A woman isn’t a prop. You don’t insert coins and wait for a “yes” or “no” to pop up before proceeding. She’s a person. Instead of seeking a yes or no, ask her how she’s feeling. Ask her what she wants to do. Tell her what you want to do, how you’re feeling. Put simply, respect her.

When we lose control of our bodies or our autonomy is being challenged, we’re no longer speaking on behalf of what we want, but on behalf of what we think we need to do to survive a situation. What she might say if she didn’t feel pressured, coerced, or threatened is different than what she might say when she feels comfortable, respected, and safe. Having some guy breathing down her neck and using his strength to gain an advantageous position isn’t the best of circumstances to let him know that you don’t want him touching you. How vulnerable we feel in the moment is kind of important and men who would ignore this in order to pursue a simplistic yes or no are rapists in waiting. They need to re-evaluate their approach. Most importantly, they need to NOT engage in sexual acts until they understand their partner’s wants and needs.

I’ll go further and say that not doing so shows a criminal mindset, no matter how benign the intentions may seem. If you’re thinking of the situation as “what can I get away with”, consent doesn’t matter to you. If you’re playing the consent game with “what if” scenarios about dubious “yes” or “no” responses under varying situations, you’re missing the point. Consent is about taking care of your partner by respecting their vulnerability and not putting them in a difficult situation. It’s your responsibility to seek consent throughout the process, not just at the start.

On the flip side, it’s important for the woman involved to communicate her wants and needs as well. As long as both parties have control of their bodies and their autonomy is not being threatened, they have an equal responsibility to communicate their wants and needs to one another. But once one begins to dominate the space of the other, putting them in a position where they feel pressured or insecure, that person loses their ability to act autonomously. If you’re asking for sex from a position of advantage, whether apparent or not, you’re doing it wrong. Start over and balance the situation so you’re communicating as autonomous equals.

To give an example, I’m not a huge guy, but I’m tall. I understand that my height dominates intimate spaces. So I try really hard to make myself less imposing as the situation requires, knowing also that women are taught to make themselves smaller in the presence of men. Recognizing these kinds of things can help you safely navigate intimate spaces with one another, so that you’re both feeling empowered by the sexual encounter, not disempowered. This makes room for mutual consent.

But She’s Teasing Me!

It’s your nth date with a woman you find fiercely attractive. You’ve been seducing each other for weeks and you’ve even fooled around on a couple of occasions. But whenever comes to sexual intercourse, she turns you down. Then one night things are getting hot and heavy at your apartment. It’s 1 in the morning and all signs seem to indicate that she’s there for sex. But as soon as you try to advance it, she seems to lose interest. In fact, you can tell she’s trying to keep things right where they are – just some heavy touching and kissing. But you want more and you feel like she’s been leading you on. Besides, IT’S 1 AM.For what other reason could she be there? She knows you want to have sex …right? I mean you haven’t outright said it but IT’S OBVIOUS …right? Should you get more aggressive? Maybe that’s what she’s waiting for! For you to take charge, maybe that turns her on. You decide to try it and while you meet a very faint hint of resistance, overall she seems to give in to you. You never hear a no and while she’s not resisting, she’s not exactly prying your pants off either.

This is dangerous territory and this guy may well be on his way to raping. If you’re wondering abut the nature of a sexual act after it happens, then you’ve probably done something wrong. But could this have gone differently?

You notice she’s not quite embracing you as you advance to undressing her. She’s not saying no either and overall she’s not pushing you away. It looks more like hesitation, but you can’t be sure. Even though it’s 1 am and even though you’re both laying in the dark together in your bed, you’re not feeling your passion returned. Instead of advancing the situation, you ask her what she wants and you let her know what you want. You decide that unless she shares what’s on her mind, you should just keep things where they are without advancing to intercourse.

Consent should never be ambiguous. You should always know with certainty.

Yes, teasing can leave you frustrated and horny. Some people will lead you on and never deliver. That’s their perogative. At no point does teasing and leading entitle you to sex. Never.

On the upside, teasing can be exciting, even if she never sleeps with you. The key is for you to accept that sex is highly unlikely, and then move on.

Consent in Hook-up Culture

Consent is complicated. There’s no 10-step program to achieving consent from your partner. I think when we look at it as a means to an end, nothing good or fulfilling can come of it. In some cases, it can be devastating. Even when hooking-up for a single evening, it doesn’t require disrespecting your partner. People can be sexual creatures, they can want sex without wanting anything else from you. Plenty of people have learned how to have sexual relationships without betraying trust or disrespecting their partners.

Consent is intuitive when you think of your partner as a human being and respect their autonomy. Objectification makes it difficult to see each other that way. In our culture we look for exterior details to turn us on, so maybe a typical guy is only looking for women wearing clothing that grabs his sexual interest. When he approaches her, he’s less likely to care what she says unless her words are “let’s have sex”. He looks at her clothing as an advertisment of availability. We’ve all heard the horror stories that result from this mindset.

At the same time, men and women are allowed to dress sexually provocative, are allowed to send messages with their clothing. The problem is that we look for clothing to do all the talking, to do all the messaging. We forget there’s a human in there and that we should talk to them first. There’s nothing wrong with liking what she’s wearing – but you should respect her all the same. She’s not her clothes.

People hook-up all the time, so it’s not like people can’t pursue sex without a permanent relationship. But even temporary relationships require trust. Any kind of relationship requires trust (and there are many layers of trust, which I won’t get into here).

In the end, we’re dealing with people and we shouldn’t forget that.We have to treat consent with the same high regard that we treat our desires for sex. I think so much of the ambiguity of figuring out consent is the implicit assumption that we’re not dealing with a person who can talk to us and explain their sexual wants to us. If you’re not sure, it’s as simple as asking and starting a conversation about what you both want, need and like.

Scree Tags: #sex #rapeculture #consent

9 thoughts on “Rape Culture and Consent

  1. Pingback: Another Card Against Humanity: Rape Culture and Max Temkin | XP Chronicles

  2. I don’t really get the problem here. Unless there is a “yes” to proceed, verbally without possibility of alcohol or drugs or other mind clouding stuff, then I ain’t going where I’m not invited. Logic must always defeat passion.

    Maybe it’s just easier for me since I’m not Mr. Social to begin with and have a crap load of insta-nopes when it comes to attraction. Drinks? Smokes? Has Tattoos (any, regardless of size)? See you later. If Angelina Jolie decided to hook up with me while I was single, that would be fine but she would need to do all the “work” and search for consent, not the other way around.

    • I see where you’re coming from, but think of it less as consent being a difficult thing itself, and more that culture serves as an obstacle to sex. It teaches young men and women different and harmful things. That said, the individuals involved are fully responsible for their own actions. We have decisions to make for ourselves and relying on “the way it is” is a terrible excuse for any behavior.

      I think young men and women are particularly vulnerable though. There’s a lot of social pressure to conform, and the standards we want them to conform to aren’t good.

  3. Pingback: Romance and consent | The World of Lilith T. Bell

  4. One of the things that needs to change in our sexual culture is the feeling that women have to play hard to get otherwise they are sluts. We like to be convinced, as you said its part of the mythology, but its not helpful in the current landscape where we (rightfully) question consent and its existence. I can admit I’m one of them, its cultural and not helpful, but I can’t imagine never approaching it passively again. A lot of us would be having a lot less sex. Of course that would fix it right? We’d have to confront the issue and stop it. Or be celibate. 🙂

    • I think youre right, that consent is as much about sexual freedom as it is about sexual empowerment. I like that angle a lot, that’s very insightful.

      What you say about wanting to be convinced is just another example of the complexity of consent. It’s not simple at all, even if it’s easy. Consent isn’t difficult, it just requires that we communicate with much, much more than simple “yes” or “no” questions.

  5. This is somewhat a continuation of my own comment to your previous post. But in those cases (as in this case) in which the victim has no interest in prosecution, what should the rapist do? Obviously complete absolution / redemption / etc. is impossible. They have crossed that line. But is suicide the only option, or is there a socially useful purpose to which rapists can be put?

    • Thats a great question and I think the answer is that the survivor doesn’t need to press charges in order to prompt their rapist to repent and make amends. I understand that in those cases the survivor often doens’t tell anyone and that the rapist remains ignorant of events and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. But if the perpetrator has any doubts whatsoever, they need to come forward and ask about the welfare of the person they just had sexual contact with. They could easily seek to work with the person for closure and absolution.

      • Thank you for your reply. About three years back I asked my ex-partner whether it was ok for my to talk about my behaviour and how she would choose define her experience. She said she felt her boundaries had been pushed and that she had felt really uncomfortable. She also said that I was fine to tell anyone about what happened in whatever language I so chose and that she felt I no longer owed her anything and that she had long moved on from the relationship.

        I sent another message stating that I would absolutely be willing to turn myself in and that I would plead guilty at the first opportunity. She said she didn’t see what legal action there would be to take and that I was taking the matter way, way, way too seriously.

        Since then, three years back, we have not talked. She also said that I should put all my guilty energy into being constructive / productive, so I have volunteered with a British charity raising awareness around consent and also done voluntary work at a community hospital. Just small things but hopefully useful.

        Anyway, thanks again for your reply.

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