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

Another Card Against Humanity: Rape Culture and Max Temkin

I’d heard about this story over the weekend and was even reminded of it by a totally unrelated article by Talarian in which he talks about what an awesome time he had a Gaymer this weekend. For those not in the know, game developer Max Temkin was accused this weekend of raping a dorm mate back when he was in college. This would have been ten years ago. The woman never reported it (as is common) and he’s never been convicted of such a crime.

We’ll never know for sure, but I also think it’s not important to know “for sure”. This is a good opportunity for us all, especially men, to talk about what rape culture is and how many of us have been Max Temkin in a dorm with a woman we wanted to have sex with. A room in which consent was blurry for us, but in which sex happened anyway. I know many men have been in this or a similar situation myself included, so I’ll talk about my own experience with it in the hopes that other men will step up and confront their own.

One thing that really stands out to me is that, in his great fear and panic, Max wrote a response that I thought was pretty manipulative. I read it and didn’t quite know what to think about, but it didn’t feel right. Sure, I expected him to defend himself but it felt like a hollow defense, like he was cloaking himself in the goodwill he’s earned as a game developer with all the appeals to feminism and such. In a way, I believe his story, which basically boils down to he wasn’t/isn’t sure that they mutually agreed to sex. He had sex with her even though he didn’t know how she felt about it (which is quite damning enough).  I think his response was inspired more by fear and panic than by the candor and honesty the situation deserved. Admitting you may have raped someone has to be among the hardest confessions one can make. I think this is an issue he should have gone first to his accuser about, dealt with it there, and made long public statements after the fact. His running to the public to explain away the heinous accusation might be understandable, but when you’re dealing with traumatic events, you should take your accuser serious enough to deal with the situation on a personal and private level. Appealing to your fans just makes you look manipulative.

My Story

So what about me, what about my experiences with consent? Bear with me, if you can, because while my situation was somewhat different I feel it’s also common among young men.

I used to be afraid of girls. Not in the “she’s got cooties” sort of way, but as many of you may be aware I lived in an abusive house with an abusive father, which I eventually ran away from. I spent all of my teen years with the crippling fear that most men were like him on the inside and there was a monster in me waiting for an opportunity to lash out. This had a direct impact on my relationships with girls, whom I tried to just stay away from. That was the best way to keep the monster in the closet, or at least that was the rationale I used as a teen.

Well, I eventually became close with one young woman after high school, when we were both early adults. We liked each other a lot, but I was totally avoiding talking about sex or having it with her. I think back now and laugh a little at how absurd I was. Still, we wanted to have sex, but because of my insecurity we didn’t talk about it for a long time. That all changed one day.

We were making out and it was time to talk about sex. She wasn’t backing down either this time and she pressed the discussion. I wasn’t entirely comfortable, but I knew her, I trusted her and she trusted me. So we had the loathsome conversation …and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought (of course). I remember feeling relieved and amazed at how easy it was. We didn’t have sex that day, but we saw each other naked for the first time and that was plenty exciting. We talked, we fooled around, but we didn’t have sex.

The day came though. I remember having all of these ideas in my head that day about what men are supposed to do and how I was supposed to do things, and what I was supposed to know from what she DIDN’T say and all that confusion. I wanted to be prepared to handle things like a man, an experienced one …even though I had no experience. Then while we were making out, she said something to me that jolted me back into reality. She said “you’re not listening”. Until that moment I hadn’t really heard a word she said. She pushed me away, left the room and I sat there wondering what the hell just happened. A few minutes later she came back into the room, fixed her clothes and told me to leave. I didn’t protest, but I did apologize and started to leave. We had known each other a long time though, and she knew I didn’t have anywhere to go for the night. So before I got out the door she stopped me, sat me down and asked what the hell was going on with me. She was, rightfully, angry. I’d spoiled the night.

I told her I’d never had sex before, to which she replied she already knew that (she did). I told her I heard things about it and I just started doing those things, thinking that was the “way it should be”. And as I talked to her I realized I had become someone else in those heated moments of making out and it scared her. I wasn’t the person she had made out with before and I was acting different. I was being aggressive and ignoring her. If she had been any other girl, we would have never had that conversation. But she was someone I already knew from the neighborhood, had grown up with, and had a close relationship. All of those things made that conversation more likely. If I imagine that she was just some dorm mate in college who I knew only for a few hot weeks and a couple of hot nights, that memory becomes a bit more scary. How far would I have gone?

Young Men in a Rape Culture

Rape culture for men usually means fuzzy boundaries when it comes to consent, but certainly not in the way Max tried to describe it. Rape culture is made possible by the irrelevance of consent. It’s nice, but not necessary. Men are expected to behave certain ways and when they live up to those ways, they are pardoned and even praised for it. That is the essence of rape culture: Consent is assumed.

I have long thought back on those early days of my sexual life and wondered how many boys and men I’ve known who raped. These would be guys I cared about, broke bread with, and who were like brothers to me. Nice people, well-mannered, but also raised by a culture that tells them they aren’t men if they don’t behave certain ways, to ignore silly girls who are fickle and need to be told what they want in one way or another. They wouldn’t know they’d raped someone until accused, and even then they might respond the same way Max has by citing their credibility and feigning complete ignorance of consent. That’s rape culture when men can be so totally unaware that the person they’re laying with doesn’t want them there and they don’t have to care.

Young dudes tend to have a “get it while you can” attitude toward sex. They work hard to get a girl to want to sleep with them, and then they try to make it happen before she changes her mind. This eagerness to take sex any way we can get it is the reason many of us aren’t sure anymore that we haven’t raped in the past. The thing is, unless you remember unbridled enthusiasm to have sex with you, you can’t be sure that she wanted things to happen. You’ll always be unsure about that time. The result is that young men are rushing into sex blindly, because they’re afraid they won’t get it otherwise.

Exacerbating the issue is the pressure young men feel to have sex. It’s considered a rite of passage to manhood, and young guys are literally desperate to have sex so that they can proudly wear the title of Man. The very recent Elliot Rodgers is a prime example of this mentality. Our young men think something’s wrong with them if they’re virgins. If we believe the “rules” about manhood and virginity, we certainly believe the “rules” about consent which popularly, but falsely, accuse women of being incapable of making their own decisions about sex. We’re taught that women need to be lured, persuaded, and they often need a push in the “right” direction. How many of you were insecure and unsure young men who struggled with the whole dating thing in your early adulthood?

To top all of that off there’s the vast gray zone between being labeled a rapist and not being a rapist. The stigma of the word makes it really hard for young men to own up to non-consensual sex. Rape sounds like such a violent word, and when men reflect on events and note the stark absence of violence, they may admit it was non-consensual, but they will not call it a rape. Even though those things are equivalent. Men who don’t take their victims by violence or overt coercion struggle to identify the event as an act of rape. For them, rapist means something else, something that’s clearly wrong, something that’s obvious. For them, rape can’t simply be having sex with someone who isn’t struggling against you, sex with someone who just lays there without participating, sex with someone who hasn’t shown interest, but who appears to allow it to happen. I think most of the time, these are what typical rapes look like.

Max either still doesn’t understand what happened, or he really does understand and is in sheer terror that his mistake has come back to haunt him.

The language he uses makes it unclear which one it is, but it’s illustrative nonetheless of how young men participate in rape culture. According to Max, the norms surrounding hooking up make it unclear to young men whether they’ve done something wrong.

  • “brief relationship”
  • “never had sex” and then later implies they did (the “hookup” he mentions)
  • “broke things off” abruptly because he was 19 and that’s what 19 year olds do
  • “awkward college hookup”

These little phrases describe a “normal” situation in his mind. They were young, awkward, and unsure of themselves. The break off indicates he had a sexual interest in her, but nothing beyond that so after he got what he wanted (consensual or not) he started ignoring her. When he ignored her apparent calls after the incident, this was a normal 19 year old thing to do. All of these behaviors he attributes to the norms of young sexually active men, which is to say he blames the culture. In the end he calls the accusation “baseless gossip” for which “there is no proof”.

I understand that people like Max, during early adulthood, probably made some terrible mistakes. I have to think that so many of us who have reached our 30s look back to the women we’ve been with when we hear new rape allegations and denials such as this. Details about it being a date and that the men thought everything was consensual make us relate to the guy, as they remind us of nights we’ve had which sound similar. Then we wonder “did I rape?” and we try to wrestle with the definition, try to insert “male” and “female” behavior into the equation to see if that one fateful night was consensual. Some of us realize, but will never confess publicly, that we raped someone. If a woman rightfully accuses you and believes that you’re her rapist, then you are (I say rightfully because there are people who are malicious and lie about such terrible things, but again, if you can remember that night and NOT remember clear consent, you ought to believe her and talk about it with her).

It is entirely possible she read something completely different than I did into an awkward college hookup. If any part of that was traumatic for her, I am sincerely sorry, and I wish we would have had a chance to address it privately. – Max Temkin

Emphasis mine. There’s no situation in my mind in which two people are getting sexual and you’re both reading something different into it. That makes no sense to me generally, even if he is innocent in this particular case. If you’re with a woman and you don’t know if she’s on the same page as you, then you don’t have her consent. Rape culture teaches young men that women must be aggressively pursued and to therefore ignore this lack of interest or participation as “normal”.

Max seems to not fully doubt that a rape may have occurred. The language he uses makes me believe he has his own doubts about what happened that night. And because he has doubts, it was the wrong move to go to public statements, wrapping himself in feminism and suggesting that rape culture causes him to be unsure of what consent looks like. It matters a lot that he himself has doubts .

Guys, if you’re with someone and you can’t tell if she consents, STOP. You should never look back on a sexual encounter and think “I’m not sure if they were on the same page as me”. That’s all kinds of fucked up!

It’s not too late for him to deal with this issue privately, as they both deserve. Hopefully he understands that his first efforts to contact her might have been very scary for her, and that it may take some time to get around to this very important conversation for both of them. But I think he at least owes her his patience and understanding, and he should keep trying the private route and leave these public pleas out of it. They aren’t actually helping his situation or hers.

Maybe having this internet break will make him do right by his accuser. Whatever happens next, only he and she can deal with it and make it right.

UPDATE: Follow-up article on Rape Culture and Consent