Consent is a word that has started showing up in headlines with alarming frequency, inextricably linked to another word, sex.
Type consent into google and the modern oracle comes back with a simple definition “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something”. Scroll down and you will come across a variety of news stories debating the validity of this interpretation. When it comes to intercourse and consent there are few grey areas. The key point here is the idea that every time we engage in sexual contact both parties must freely consent. So why the confusion? A blogger by the name of Emmeline AKA rockstar dinosaur pirate princess uncomplicated matters with a brilliantly british analogy involving tea, yet still there are those who plead ignorance.
In many cases of sexual assault the burden of proof rests with the victim. Often the accuser is subject to a higher level of scrutiny than the accused, particularly when he disputes non verbal signals and asserts a silent, assumed consent. The conspicuous absence of the word “no” is no substitute for a resolute “yes” and should never be taken as an invitation to continue. I feel a bit like I am pointing out the obvious when I say consent should be unequivocal, enthusiastic and offered prior to every encounter but apparently there are people who remain blissfully unaware of this. Gentleman take note, the fact she wanted your body this morning has no bearing on tonight, or any other day.
In certain US states affirmative consent is a matter of law. This law requires all parties involved affirm their comfort and enjoyment both physically and vocally throughout the act. If Hollywood is anything to go by this is characteristic of ‘normal’ sex, but what does Hollywood know? The #metoo movement opened the floodgates on a long standing code of silence within the movie business. An industry with no regard for consent, where sex is currency and women are little more than chattel. Successful filmmakers, whose work depicts passionate, effusive and mutually enjoyable sex demonstrate a deep knowledge of affirmative consent. When confronted by their accusers however these same men feign confusion, often blaming the victim for encouraging them.
I have been party to conversations in which the idea of consent is jokingly dismissed as a passion killer. “Sometimes you just have to make her have it” is just one of the disturbing lines I have heard bandied around my male dominated workplace. This attitude that women don’t know their own mind and sometimes require convincing, cajoling or even forcing into sex is something that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Marital rape was made illegal in the UK in 1991, prior to that in terms of the law women were powerless against abusive or dominant spouses. The sort of man who pushes a date or partner into a situation she doesn’t want would probably balk at the comparison to a man who attacks a stranger in a dark alley, but like it or not they bear stark similarities. Men are conditioned from a young age to be both aggressive and persistent in the pursuit of their goals, and defiant in the face of rejection conversely our culture trains women to accept a degree of male aggression. A great example is that destructive old adage we tell our school age daughters, “He’s only pulling your pigtails because he fancies you”.
There is a lot of debate surrounding the difference between a bad date and a sexual assault. One woman’s darkly humorous blog post about a disastrous tinder match can be another woman traumatic rape story. Women themselves disagree vehemently on what constitutes acceptable conduct and what qualifies as sexual aggression. As women we learn to either tolerate or ignore certain disagreeable behaviours for fear we will be judged on our reaction, but where do we draw the line? The teacher who addresses our chest, the builder aggressively catcalling as we walk down the street, the employer whose hand comes to rest for too long on the small of our back at the christmas party or the husband who laughingly demands sex when he can see we are exhausted from breastfeeding and clearly not in the mood. None of these scenarios equate to sexual assault, but I would wager most women have experienced at least one and the internalised discomfort that comes with it.
I am a six foot blonde with a very shrill english accent, even if I wanted to shrink into the background I would struggle, as it happens I have never been that person. At 32 I am confident, self aware and I would happily label myself a feminist. I brush off unsavoury comments and the occasional errant hand with little thought. Recently I was called a prick tease by a particularly repugnant man in a village pub. A quick consultation with google, and urban dictionary offers the following definition, “A woman who likes to lead men on with hints that they could possibly have sex with her, even though she has no intention of ever engaging in sexual intercourse with them”. Well the last part is true, I certainly had no intention of engaging in intercourse with a dishevelled rum soaked stranger, I was too busy trying to avoid discourse with him. I raised this awkward interaction with my friends later that night expecting them to share my incredulity, immediately a male voice piped up “well you do wear very short shorts”. I am no reticent teen. In fact I am extremely vocal when it comes to what I want and don’t want, but still there are people who believe my fashion choices are a more honest indicator of my true objectives! Does my garment selection signify consent?
A woman who is seen to dress provocatively or enjoy sex has long been deemed a slut. There is a damaging social stigma attached to this word that feeds into rape culture and the idea that such a woman relinquishes her right to consent. Ask any woman and I can almost guarantee that at some point in her life she has been involved in a sexual encounter she would rather never have happened. In my experience men are less likely to recount such experiences, although thats not to say men are never coerced into situations outside of their comfort zone, gender power dynamics are such that it is statistically less likely. Culturally a woman’s sexuality is viewed very differently to a man’s, a woman’s boundaries are often seen as negotiable. They are not. It is a woman prerogative to withdraw consent at any time without recrimination. When it comes to sex no always means no.