So, we’re having this conversation, AGAIN.
The Google defines consent as permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Why do we keep botching it up, then?
Let me lay it out in pretty simple terms: if the other person does not say “yes” or is too incapacitated to say “yes” then consent does not exist. Any action committed without an express yes OR enthusiastic, non-coerced participation is assault. The rule is no longer “No means no.”
I give the old campaign credit as a good step to bring awareness to date rape. I think it was probably the first time the term date rape entered popular consciousness. I listen to stories my mother tells of the 70’s in horror. Women had no term for the crimes men were committing against them. They knew it felt it was wrong but they had no way to fight it. “No means no” started a national conversation about consent and sexual assault, but it is time to move forward.
This is an awesome TedTalk by a woman who was one of those first warriors against domestic violence and rape. Give it a watch.
So, what next?
We teach consent. We currently teach girls all about date rape and how to try to keep it from happening. I remember when I first moved into my college dorms, they gathered us all up and taught us about how to protect ourselves. I know all about not accepting drinks from strangers, going out in pairs, and yelling ‘fire’ instead of ‘rape’ if I’m being assaulted because people are more likely to get involved. Society has told me never to go out in big cities alone at night. Trust me, all women know the rules, and by the time you are my age, we all know women who didn’t follow them and paid the price. We also know women who followed them and paid heavily, too.
In 2009, I went to Anaheim, CA for Blizzcon. Tina and her husband also went, and every night after the convention shut down, I got invited to parties but since Tina and her husband wanted to, you know, have couple time, I passed. I went back to my hotel room every night and read while the world around had a geek party. Smart women don’t go to parties alone in strange towns. That’s how we get raped.
In August, I went with my Viking on vacation. We spent two nights in New Orleans before boarding our cruise ship. The first night everyone crashed after the twelve hour drive. I woke up in the early evening while everyone was asleep. I love New Orleans. I could hear the life going on in the streets below us, but everyone was asleep. Smart women would have stayed in the room or maybe ventured through the hotel. I decided I love my Viking but watching him snore was not how I wanted to spend one of my precious nights in New Orleans. I wrote him a note, made sure I had my cellphone, split my cash up amongst several places, and I went to have an adventure.
It was one of the most magical nights of my life. I wandered around watching street performers (and the crowds). I took precautions like keeping my back to walls when I could. I watched the people around me. I made eye contact to telegraph I wasn’t easy prey. I got back to the hotel room safely. If something had happened, though, if I had been assaulted, people would have blamed me in the back of their minds, no matter how much they didn’t want to, because I dared to leave my hotel by myself. I was being a stupid woman.
What are we teaching boys and young men? I know my college didn’t have the same sit down with the guys. We don’t teach boys they can be raped or sexually assaulted, too. We don’t teach them it isn’t their fault if they are. We don’t teach boys and men it is not okay to touch a woman without her permission. We don’t teach them women don’t owe them sex. You are not a nice guy if you get mad at a woman for not rewarding you with sex simply for behaving like a decent human being. We don’t teach boys and men it is not okay to post pictures women and girls send them of their bodies, no matter what happens between you and the woman/girl in question. (We do tell girls it is their fault for trusting men with intimate things. Think about how messed up it is to realize as a society we teach girls and women it is stupid and risky to trust men not to hurt them and blame them if they do get hurt.)
We need to teach girls it is okay to have sexual desires. We need to teach them they have control over their bodies. They can give or not give other permission to interact with their bodies, and there is no shame in it. We need to teach them if somebody does break the sovereignty of their bodies, the other person is at fault. If we took the shame from sex for girls and young women, the murkiness of some of those “gray” interactions that often get pointed to will disappear. (She said yes then regretted it the next day. It’s a bullshit excuse but if a girl has no shame in saying yes, then she can’t be accused of regretting it later.) A girl should be just as confident in saying yes without social recrimination as she is in saying no.
Boys need to learn girls are humans, not things to be acquired or conquered. We need to teach them no women is obligated to ever do anything with them. They also need to know they never have to do anything they don’t feel comfortable with. Social pressure is just as strong on boys as it is girls. We need to explain the idea of coercion, and pressuring women into saying yes nullifies the consent. We need to teach both genders about how our bodies belong to us. We get to say what others do to us, and if we do things to another person’s body without consent (not just they don’t say no, but they actually say yes) then we are hurting them. We are violating them on a basic and intimate level. We are taking their power from them. Even small transgressions we might see as harmless are not harmless.
When someone touches you after you make it clear you don’t want them to, it takes your power away. The person doing the touching is signaling their desire to grope you is more important than your bodily sovereignty. It sucks. I’ve had several men decide they wanted to either reach up my skirt or down my shirt and ignored my clear signals they weren’t welcome. I would tell them no and move their hand, and still the hands would go right were I moved them. I would finally have to leave the situation to make it stop.
I felt dirty and violated. I also felt silly for being upset. I had been so trained by society to believe men groping me was a part of having a vagina that I doubted my own feelings of having something wrong happening to me. I’m trained to believe it is harmless and just to get over it. Now, I know different. It is not harmless. When I told the men to take their hands off of me, they should have listened. It is okay to be upset about having someone take something from me because they want it even if I didn’t want to give it. Also, my low cut shirts were not an invitation to shove your hand into my shirt and bra to squeeze my breast.
Consent is important. We need to talk about it, not just once, but many times. We need to stand up for ourselves. We need to share our stories to give these concepts a face. We need to share our stories so we will see we aren’t alone and find comfort in others. We need to teach.