Wednesday, February 20, 2013
The concept behind this post is really a very simple one. I thought of talking about a lot of other things that are related, but there will be time enough for that. This time, I’m talking about this:
As in sexual consent.
Part of what it means to describe a “rape culture,” a term that I find accurate and yet grossly misused and misinterpreted to the point of being almost useless, is that everyone seems to agree that consent is this murky issue. Those who decry that notion state that consent is not the act of not saying no, it is the act of saying yes. Then, those people are shunned for being idiots who don’t understand the way human sexual behavior works in the real world, called Feminazis or frigid or something, and the whole mess just continues.
Here’s the thing. Consent is obvious. It is not about people having some scientific conversation that goes like this: May I have sex with you? Why Yes you may.
When we act as if consent is difficult to define, we ignore most of the history of human sexuality. People—men, women, of all different sexual orientations—manage to have consensual sex every single day here on earth. The very fact that rape cases and trials often hinge on the notion of consent proves that we are denying what we all know to be true—that people actually do know when someone wants to have sex with them—in order to excuse criminal behavior and blame victims.
If you are female, you have a high likelihood of being in a situation, or multiple situations, where you somehow have to convince folks—the perpetrator or perpetrators of the crime, the people investigating it, your friends, your family—that you were not “consenting” to certain acts just by nature of being there, by nature of existing. You begin to question this yourself. You call your own actions into question, though you are confused, because you know that you do know how to consent, it’s a normal, natural thing, nothing to be ashamed of, so how can people question it so easily?
We use the cloak of the supposedly ambiguous "consent" to call into question all kinds of things. "Consent" can apparently be assumed, based on a variety of factors: your age, your level of sobriety, your clothes, your attractiveness, your being in a certain place at a certain time, your choice to be by yourself or not, your body language.
This is a pretty complicated formula to figure out. And none of it even comes close to discerning whether or not I, or you, you know--actually want to get busy with another person.
I've always been clear about this. I cannot imagine anyone ever being confused about my willingness or lack thereof in sexual matters. And yet that does not mean that I have not been molested on numerous occasions, that I have not been the victim of attempted rape, including from multiple boys when I was very young. I have been very, very..."lucky," though I hate to look at it that way, in that I escaped these scenarios and have not been raped. I will not get into some of the more egregious cases here, for a variety of reasons. But I can illustrate a few more minor, personal stories that show that we allow boys and men to explain away all kinds of bad behavior based on this assumption that they don't know what's going on, when the reality is that they know exactly what is going on, and have even manipulated the situation such that the inevitable outcome would work in their favor.
Like the time when I was in junior high school, and I went with my mom and brother to the auto body shop to watch them haggle about getting his first car painted. My mom and brother argued with the manager or someone, I'm not sure. I stood there--I was maybe 13? it's possible I was still 12--bored, looking around absently, several feet away from them. Two mechanics sidled up to me. They began whispering to me, telling me I was beautiful, that my hair was so pretty. I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing, and apparently that was "consent" to this creepiness right? So on they went: I love your titties. I'm thinking about fucking you right now. My family was right there...nothing bad could happen, right? One of them began touching me, feeling my breasts, rubbing his erection on my leg. I froze. I had never been touched like that before, and I wanted to slug him, but I also didn't want to cause a scene or upset my family, even though I knew my mom, and my brother, would have been homicidal if they knew what was going on right there. The mechanics must have known that too--that I was crazy young, inexperienced, embarrassed. They had lived in this society long enough to know I would probably do nothing, and if I told on them, they could use the fact that I did nothing, or the fact that I was cute, to cry "consent."
Or how about all the times we went to the pool when we were 12, 13 years old, and older men--men in their late teens and early twenties--felt up our legs or butts underwater while we were playing games like "I'm a mermaid!" We never said a word. Because they told us we looked hot in those bathing suits, so apparently the fault lay in our pubescent hotness.
Or when we would go to "all ages night" at various clubs, nights that existed--in our minds--in order to provide teenagers who didn't have fake IDs with some interesting things to do in a city like Chicago where it seemed like everyone on earth was dancing the night away and we were sitting in some basement somewhere bored to tears. Groups of us girls would go and dance our asses off, talk about our boyfriends who were at home, who were all of 16 or 17 years old, and we would have to contend with dudes in their 20s trying to get us drinks or corner us somewhere. Dudes who would say things like "you look older" or "I thought you were older" when I would say, hey man, leave me alone, I'm only 16. Now think about it. It's all ages night. They knew EXACTLY how old the girls were. That's the whole reason they showed up--to try to take advantage of young girls. So when he asks you to dance and you say sure, and you are agreeing to dance, he assumes you are agreeing to getting some painful hickey on your neck from this 23 year old named Marco who did that because he was pissed you wouldn't let him put his hands on you and he wanted to "mark you," which is literally what he said, so no one else would be interested. And you know that you DON'T look older, you look 16. You style your hair naturally and don't wear much makeup and wear normal clothes, hell you even throw a tshirt on before anyone takes your picture at Oak Street Beach because you are modest in your swimsuit, and people say YOU LOOK OLDER when they mean I WANT TO FUCK YOU, (which is also what it means when today the same types of dudes say "you look younger") and even teachers and coaches have done this, which makes no sense because they work at your high school and know exactly how fucking old you are, thank you very much.
Or in college, walking home from a party by yourself, when a group of guys start shouting at you, telling you what they wanted to do to you, all while you are wearing something along the lines of this Beastie Boys shirt and 7up jacket, and you run into the library which was luckily still open, and you hear them laughing in the distance, and your friends all thought you had overreacted.
Or when you are older, 25 say, and on a third date with a guy you'd like to like more than you do, and you let him into your apartment and start fooling around. And he ruins it almost immediately-- he pushes your sweater and bra up over your breasts just like you are in the 9th grade and doesn't bother to undo the bra or take the sweater off and that's wack and uncomfortable, and you know that you aren't sleeping with this dude, because this is going nowhere fast. And just as you're thinking this, suddenly you literally wince in pain and audibly say "OW!" You grab his face and push it away from your chest, where he had been kissing your breasts and stomach. You ask what the hell that was, and he gives you some look that I'm sure he practiced in the mirror since he was 13 and says "I'm a biter," so henceforth and forever he will be known as The Biter. You look him right in the eye and say "Oh. Well, I'm not. Don't do that again. I don't like it. That hurt." And he promptly continues to keep doing that shit, as if your statement was unclear. You realize that he is getting off on you not liking this, so you change tactics and pretend to get romantic with him and then tell him that you "aren't that kind of girl," whatever that means and that it's too soon to get so intimate etc. And finally that asshole leaves your apartment, and you triple lock the door and rip your sweater off, and now you understand why he didn't take it off, because he didn't want you to see your torso covered in little red welts. And it's after midnight, but you call two of your friends anyway because that shit is messed up and you have to tell someone.
See, here's how I know that consent is an easy concept. I know because I have been with normal guys. I know because I have been with teenage boys who were insanely horny, boys who were inebriated, boys who were probably convinced that the number one cause of death among adolescent males was the dreaded blue balls, and they still knew how to keep that shit in their pants or back off if I told them that's how it was going to be. I know because boys, and grown men, who are normal, are usually so happy and surprised and ridiculous when they find out you actually want to get with them that they forget to act cool. I know because I have started to engage in certain activities with people, told them I didn't want to anymore, AND THEY STOPPED. Without questioning it, without arguing. I have been the one who wanted to have sex when they wanted to wait. I have had the fun, exciting, laughing at yourselves sex that pretty much sums up the first time you're with a new person and you're both nervous and clueless and HAPPY.
I'm sick of this nonsense. I'm sick of the idea that rape can somehow be an "accident" or that someone "made you do it" as if sexual abuse can somehow occur out of self defense. I'm sick of people trying to find a way that some girl who is unconscious can consent to sex with multiple people. I'm sick of people witnessing those crimes and instead of intervening, going to twitter and joking about it with #rape, admitting to the whole of humanity that they knew exactly what was happening--and still not getting indicted as an accessory.
I'm sick of talking about double standards, because that language is too mild. I have a boy and a girl to raise. My kids are good-looking. People tell me this all the time. I have been told that both will grow up to be heartbreakers. This is usually followed with people winking at me and saying things like watch out girls! when referring to my son. When referring to my daughter, people will tell me things like, you will have to keep her at home! get a shotgun! just like they used to tell my mom that maybe I should be put in the convent because I was pretty. And all I can think is that the message we give is that if you are a good looking boy, the world is your oyster, and if you are a good looking girl, the world is your prison.
I'm tired of it. When I put on running tights and go for a walk, I wish my husband didn't worry about me, not just for going out by myself early in the morning, but "because of the way those look on you." He's not trying to be a jackass. He knows that bad things happen to women, and that often when they do, it turns into this conversation of "but did you see how her ass looked in those tights?"
Here's another story, a story about a guy who said that the first time he saw me naked he was beside himself because "it was like looking at an angel." He's supposed to say that kind of stuff. Fine. We were 27 years old and he might as well have been 14. And I'm sure he would remember if it was on our third or fourth or fifth date because he's a guy and that would be important to him, but I don't remember. I know we were sober, and there we were, naked together, and I asked him if he had a condom. He said yes, and I helped him put it on.
And that, my friends, is a pretty good indicator of consent.
But you know what? He said something to me that I will always remember. We were discussing this and he doesn't recall saying it. He was lying on top of me, wearing the condom I had helped him put on, and he nervously and quietly said the following three words to me:
"This all right?"
And I said "Yes! Let's go!"
And I married that guy.