Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Say Yes, I Say No: The Politics of Sexual Agreement and Sexist Aggression

image is from here

I have argued in the past and will continue to that the contemporary understanding of "consent" is woefully and dangerously inadequate to appreciate how a lot of male supremacist sex happens that doesn't involve anyone saying no, but also doesn't indicate an enthusiastic yes. I see a better social model in heterosexual contexts promoting females approaching males, and females controlling how and what happens sexually, including when kissing lbegins, whether it begins, and whatever else transpires: including fondling or more overt forms of genital-contact sex.

There's far too much assumption about people being sexual NOT being abuse survivors, and how being an abuse survivor can, but doesn't necessarily, create significant challenges for people to say "no" to something sexual when asked, approached, or aggressed against. I know there was a period for me when I assumed that if a man wanted something from me sexually, that meant I had to supply it. Thank gawd that period is long gone! What would have been better? A socially normalised and encouraged requirement that sex happen only when both or all partners express either an "enthusiastic yes" or overtly affirmative indications of will, interest, and welcome of another's sexual interest manifesting in intimate behavior.

What follows is an excellent cross post from Ms. Marx's blog. THANK YOU Ms. Marx, for allowing me to publish it here as well. You can click on the title just below to link back to her site.

Enthusiastic Consent and how "yes means yes" can replace "no means no"

I have seen a lot of news stories on consent in the past few week, and in light of the Take Back the Night march that took place here Thursday, I thought I should post about this issue now. And I should start with a trigger warning for discussion around consent and sexual assault.

The most recent news story about consent was with regards to a really terrible incident that happened in British Columbia last week. It is all over the news here, but for readers who haven't heard, a 16 year old girl was drugged and then raped by several boys and men at a party, and pictures of the incident have been spreading online, beginning on facebook. That isn't even the part that has me most outraged. The part that really makes me angry is the very public response to the photos online and even on the news. She is being called names like "whore" and "slut." Some are saying that she asked for it, or that she is exaggerating- it wasn't really rape. Some commenters have even made jokes about it, including "Cmon, whose not down for a gang bang." Someone went so far as to suggest that she is making up the rape accusation because she regrets having slept with all of these people. I can't even begin to imagine what this girl is going through right now (ok, maybe I can begin to imagine), but I am shocked at this response. Having a glass of champagne that happens to be laced with a drug of some sort does not mean that you are consenting to having sex. It also does not mean that you are asking for it. And just because women are often cautioned not to accept drinks from men does not mean that she should have known better. This is NOT her fault.

But I have some ideas about why it is happening. I can think of two reasons, one being the relative anonymity provided by the internet... I'm sure most of these commenters do not know her and do not expect to be identified, and many are just expanding on previous comments. But the more important reason- the reason we can do something about- is the fact that we live in a culture where violence against women is accepted and even celebrated.

Just look at this T-shirt (posted on socimages)

See, non-consensual sex is fine! As long as she doesn't actually have the ability to say no, right?

Here is another example, this time from the show Big Brother. The contestant who ended up coming in second place told a story about a game he likes to play. This game involves a man having his friends come into the room when he is having sex with a woman and forcibly restraining her for 8 seconds so everyone in the room can see her. When Enzo (the contestant who came in third place) asked if that was rape, Lane laughed it off. Even Britney, the only woman remaining in the competition at the time, after saying that she would kill herself if it happened to her, got involved in the description of the game and was joking around about it. As far as I am concerned, if he has done this, he should be in prison.

And there was another incident over the summer that keeps coming back to me as absolutely inexcusable. A young woman was dancing at a Girls Gone Wild party. The cameraman asked her to expose her breasts, and she refused. Another woman came up behind her and pulled down the first woman's shirt with the cameras rolling so that her breasts were captured on tape. When she found out that the incident made it onto one of the movies she decided to sue. Despite the fact that they have her on camera refusing to show her breasts, a jury decided that merely being at the party was a form of consent, and that she did not have the right to keep her shirt on in front of the cameras! Good girls don't go to these parties, and if you do, then I guess you are "asking for it."

There are so many other examples that it is absolutely ridiculous, but I'm not going to describe any more of them here because I believe I have made my point.

I have written at length about sexual harassment as well as the regulation of female bodies in previous posts, and I think this topic just adds to that discussion because it is all based on the same basic premise that women's bodies exist for men... and we need to make it clear that this is not acceptable. I think that the best way to help change this is with the notion of enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent goes far beyond "No means No" and is often described as "Yes Means Yes." Having sex with someone who is not fully capable of consenting is rape. Having sex with someone who you reasonably believe would rather not be having sex at that moment is not following the standard of enthusiastic consent and should therefore be seen as rape as well.

The main difference between these two standards of consent is with regards to responsibility. In the first standard (no means no), the victim is responsible for making it clear that they are not consenting. If they do not yell, kick, fight, and scream, it can be hard to get a conviction. And it is often the case that victims of rape do not realize that what happened to them was in fact rape because they feel they did not make it clear enough that they did not want to participate or that they did something to mislead their rapist into thinking that they might have been "asking for it." If we switch to the standard of enthusiastically consenting, it then becomes the responsibility of both partners to ensure that the other is affirmatively expressing desire to engage in each act that takes place. This can get tricky from a legal perspective, but there is a great post here specifically pertaining to how this can work as a legal standard.

I'm not sure that it will stop every rape from occuring, but I do believe that enthusiastic consent would make victim blaming a thing of the past. I think that if it were adopted as the dominant standard of consent, the previously mentioned examples of rape culture would be different (if they even happened at all). The T-shirt would not be funny, the "8-second game" would end in an arrest and Girls Gone Wild would have lost the lawsuit. And if pictures existed of a girl being raped, they would be turned over to police, not posted on facebook and joked about.

It would also make sex seem less dangerous in many ways. The focus could be on pleasure and communication instead of sexuality being something that is feared and commodified at the same time. Maybe this is still too ideal of a way of thinking... maybe we are too far from that point to make the change right away, but if we start talking to our kids about enthusiastic or affirmative consent (which I plan to write about very soon), then we can hope that it is not that far off for the next generation... but I'm not sure they will get there if they are constantly being exposed to the various other aspects of rape culture.

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