Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Consent Part Three
Wow, I haven't been here in a while. In case anyone is wondering why, it's because of the cancer. The cancer that apparently doesn't want to leave me alone, no matter what I do to get rid of it.
That's a good segue into what I want to talk about here, AGAIN. It's time to discuss sexual consent people! It's time because recently I was reading an editorial where a female journalist was talking about how distraught she was that she was interviewing teenage boys for some story, and most of them expressed this opinion that consent was a confusing issue, and they didn't know what it meant, and how intoxicated is too intoxicated? She said that we need to have this discussion, kids don't know what to do!
How much bullshit can I call on that?
I've said it before--consent is easy. It is obvious. People who claim to not understand it are not confused, they just don't give a shit about the person on the other end of their dicks. This is not about hormones, or alcohol, or feeling sorry for boy rapists who "make a mistake" and "ruin their lives." This stuff is rampant in high schools and colleges not because youth or testosterone or kegs make it happen, but because the culture of house/frat parties leads everyone to believe that this stuff is inevitable and normal. As a 38 year old married woman, I don't have a lot of experiences where I'm surrounded by hundreds of drunk people who are trying to get some. I go out with my husband, or my girlfriends. I have a party and there are often children present, and if not, everyone is just happy to eat someone else's food and drink someone else's alcohol and no one acts like an asshole.
However, I still deal with this idea that attractive women are asking for trouble just by nature of their existence, regardless of my age. I might take a walk in the early morning, and I might see a car slow down, and some teenage kid shout out "nice ass!" And while I'm wondering if he is actually talking to ME, I also am forced to realize that it's dark out, and I'm by myself, and this kid and his friends are creepy and THEY KNOW THEY ARE CREEPY AND THAT IT'S DARK AND I'M BY MYSELF. I spend a night in a hotel in another town because my job is based out of state, and I am tired and in the middle of chemo and I just want to sit at the hotel restaurant and concentrate on my flatbread pizza when some dude winks at me and I realize he's been staring at me and that wink does not mean, hey, nice pizza! It means, hey if you're up for it, I want to bed you.
We hear so much about SIGNALS and how hard they are to read. It makes me wonder how some dudes are completely on the clueless end of everything, and you could be doing 500 things to make it obvious you are ignoring them, and they come on to you anyway. What part of sitting by myself and eating pizza screams I want to have an affair with you? What part of walking by myself and maybe going to buy a coffee means I want some adolescent douchecanoe to discuss the nature of my ass? I remember being in my 20s and regularly going out for a drink with one of my girlfriends who lived near a bunch of bars. We would go in our jeans and tshirts on a Friday night, sit at the bar, talk to no one but each other and the female bartender, and some drunken guy would offer to buy one or both of us a drink, and we would politely decline, and then inevitably he'd be all I JUST WANT TO BUY YOU A FUCKING DRINK, WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU, DON'T BE SUCH A BITCH.
You know the guy I mean.
There are so many examples of this. People need to start calling others out on their predatory behavior, not excuse it as a misunderstanding; predators understand exactly what they're doing. If he's coming up to you in a completely inappropriate situation, where you are alone, or no one can hear you, or you're drunk or asleep for Chrissakes, he is doing it on purpose to get at you when you are most vulnerable. How about when I was 14 and at a blues festival downtown and some guy pulled me aside--he literally pulled me away, so I was momentarily separated from my friends--and told me I was beautiful and I could be a model and did I want to go somewhere with him to talk about that? It should not have been on me to realize the predatory nature of that and jerk my arm away and rush in the other direction back to my friends. If some other girl who got less attention than I did and therefore didn't see it for the criminal behavior it was, got into that situation, the question should not be why did she go with him, but why did he ever feel it was ok to do that? Or how about in college, I remember a few times when I got a knock on my door past midnight in the middle of the week. I lived in a single, BY MYSELF, and I answered the door to find a stoned dude standing there, and he would say to me "wow, you look hot," and then just continue to stand there. And I would be all, huh, here I am in my sweatpants and my boyfriend's tshirt and I was freaking ASLEEP because I have to go to work tomorrow morning before class, and why in the world would you think it was ok to come over here with that line and that look in your eyes? Do you honestly think I want to have sex with you right now because you are so irresistible? DUDE. I want to have sex with the guy who gave me the tshirt!
And don't get me started on jock culture and how that leads to murky issues of consent and rape. Everyone knows how much I love football, and many people know how much I also detest the general CULTURE of football, with the locker room talk in high school and the outright felonies in the NFL. But here's the thing. Being a jock, being a good looking, strong, athletic guy who girls and women love does not make you a rapist. Being a rapist makes you a rapist.
I dated my share of football players in high school. None of them were rapists. I've recounted some of the cute stories, actually, recently, when talking about my 20 year high school reunion. I discussed ditching class and fooling around with a guy who asked me if his hands were cold when he undid my bra, and I laughed over my Katy-doesn't-know-how-girls-are-supposed-to-behave answer. I didn't write about this for this reason, but it got me to thinking that what seemed like a cheesy or even smarmy line was actually the awkward teenage boy equivalent of asking, hey, do you mind if I feel you up? And my answer was the awkward teenage girl equivalent of no, I don't mind at all. It made me think about a time when I had sex with this boy for the first time as a teenager and I asked him if he had a condom and he said yes and then he asked, incredulously and adorably, "Really?!" It makes me think about conversations, or experiences, with boys, and men, who weren't sure what to do, or if I wanted them to kiss me, or take my clothes off, or whatever, and maybe I could tell they were confused at the time or maybe I didn't know until later, but in every single one of these instances, regardless of the "status" of the guy, regardless of our sobriety or what I was wearing or whatever, every single guy who was a decent guy did the exact same thing:
He did nothing. He worried he had offended me. He was awkward. He pulled away. He chose inaction over action, because he wanted to be sure.
I remember being drunk at age 17 at a party, and the guy I was dating, and sleeping with willingly, was helping me walk home. He had to practically carry me (I didn't drink much or often) because I couldn't walk straight. And he walked me home, and kissed me, and that was it, because I was drunk.
I think about my husband, who is a perpetual Mr. Hands. He is all over me all the time. And yet, he still, after almost 9 years of marriage, worries about whether I want that attention and what it means. If I swat him away, even playfully, he retreats. If I've just done chemo or seem tired and we're in bed he will straight up ask me if I want to keep going. He felt insanely guilty when we first had sex after our first child was born because it hurt so much for me, even though I laughed about it because I knew we just had to get through that to get back to normal.
I go back in my mind to the relationship I had with a man who was in his early thirties when I was 27. I liked him all right but really the relationship was almost purely sexual. We played a lot of games together. One day he asked me if I would be willing to do something--could I just lie there and not move? I said uh ok I guess, and we started having sex like that, and then I thought, what the hell is this game? What are we playing? Am I playing dead? Drunk? Unconscious? What weird rape fantasy is this? And in the approximately 30 seconds that I agreed to play this game I started thinking about the very things that made him so attractive to me that were now concerning: he was very muscular, very strong, he had huge biceps, and now I was put in a situation where I was thinking about how easily he could snap my neck. So I put my hands on his chest and told him I didn't want to play anymore, and he said ok, fine, and we went back to "normal," whatever that means, and he never brought it up again.
I imagine a world in which we talk to our sons the way we talk to our daughters. In that world, we would tell our sons to watch out and not get too drunk or someone might put his penis in his mouth against his will, or someone might take a beer bottle and shove it up his ass. I imagine a world in which boys and men worried about taking their shirts off in public or changed their jeans because their butt looked too fine in it and they didn't want to give off the wrong "message." In that world, being handsome or built or sexy would be a detriment to men, not a plus. When adults told a boy's parents that damn he was good looking, he would grow up to be a heartbreaker, there would be no sly winks, only vague feelings of terror for what might befall him.
But we don't talk to our boys that way, do we? No, we assume that their bodies are theirs to have and to hold. We don't talk to them about losing their virginity or saving themselves or "giving it away" and all that. If my daughter ever asks me about losing her virginity and what that means, or even if she doesn't, I will tell her this: Here, shake my hand. Now, look, you can't have it back. Does that make any sense? Do you have any part of you that you can give to another person? No. What you have is yours to keep. It is up to you to decide how you want to use your body and who you want to share it with and when and how. There is no part of yourself that can ever belong to anyone else. But should I have to tell her this? Should I have to acknowledge that she has already learned how to give that stone-cold poker-face of complete indifference to boys, and she is not even 8 years old? No, I should not. And parents of boys should stop making excuses for their bullshit. I have a son, a son who acts crazy and always wants to wrestle and struggles to understand boundaries. And he gets his 4 year old ass handed to him on a regular basis. That's what we are here to do--not to have conversations with our children about good awesome fun sex or anything equally awkward, but to teach them how to live in the world with integrity and respect for themselves and other people. We do not have to explicitly teach consent to people who know how not to be assholes.
And finally, I think about the experience I had at 15 that I will never truly write about, that I thankfully got out of, and I want to put a few things out there that I am willing to discuss. I want to tell you that I went back in that room to help another girl get out, that I did that though I would have rather done just about anything else, including eat glass if you had offered me the chance. I did it fully thinking that I would fail and that I was not going to help her in reality but that I was just sending myself back into the lion's den as well. But I did go back, I did help get her out of there, even though she thought I was crazy and overreacting, and I did that because I distinctly remember saying these words to myself:
How can you not go back? What kind of person are you? How could you live with yourself?
And that is how I know, I KNOW, that the idea that kids don't know what to do or get scared or confused when they see horrible things happening is concrete bullshit. If a traumatized 15 year old girl knows what's right, so the hell do you.
And I remember the boy, who was a popular handsome athlete, who found me sitting in a stupor in the kitchen afterwards. He asked me what was wrong and I said I had a headache and he knew immediately that I was lying. And then, he did something I will never forget. He sat there and talked to me about nonsense for at least half an hour, during which I don't think I spoke a single word, because he knew something was wrong and he didn't know what it was and he wanted to make me feel better.
He did that because he was a decent kid.
I have carried the memory of that boy with me for 22 years. I have also carried other things, including years during which I would have a near panic attack if I was the only girl in a room; no matter how lovely and sweet the boys were, I would always have to find other girls to be in the room with me. I carried the idea that that happened to me because I was the wrong kind of girl, and no it didn't mean that, it meant...I was the only girl at the party who wanted to watch the game. And I was being punished for being that girl.
But in the end, I carried something else with me as well. It is something that I think about when people tell me today that I am brave, or inspirational. There is nothing brave about dealing with cancer, because you have no other choice. I'm not sure there's anything inspirational about being publicly bald or speaking openly about your own suffering. I know that bravery is not being unafraid, it is being afraid and doing things anyway. And even today, when I am feeling down on myself, or feeling afraid or defeated, I think about that 15 year old girl whom I once was, and how she did the thing she dreaded doing because it was the right thing, and I hold my head up higher because I feel that in some way, I am still her. I recognize that one of the hardest and most important things I would ever do in my life I did when I was just a kid, and no one really knows about it and I can't talk about it in detail because people would tell me I was crazy or lying and I don't want to hear it but I KNOW, I know who that girl is. She is the same person as any normal, decent human being out there, male or female, who knows the difference between right and wrong. I see the passing of time on her face and tell her often that she is still that person. She knew then what was right and she knows it today and so do each and every one of you.