Sexual consent as we talk about it today, means affirmative consent. It means that only “yes means yes” and that “no means no”. Do we act on this? How does it play out in real-life?
Isn’t it a little too difficult, cringey and uncomfortable for everyone involved, ruining romance? But affirmative consent is needed for the simple reason, that before we had these debates and laws, silence was interpreted as affirmative. Rebecca Solnit describes this as follows in her essay A short history of silence: “When affirmative consent was signed into law, a host of men (…) raised a shriek of indignation that both parties had to be consciously, actively in favour of what was going on. It was telling that they regarded this as a terrible obstacle. The previous criterion had been the absence of dissent, which of course meant intimidation, intoxication, and unconsciousness could all be read as consent. Silence was consent, in other words, as though silence said one thing when it can say so many, as though the burden was to issue a no rather than elicit a yes.”
The debate is difficult, we all have our own experiences, our very own definition of what is sexual and how we deal with that. We need to be careful to not strip women of their agency when we talk about consent, because women are capable of saying what they want, how they want it and when they want people to stop. However, when in a vulnerable situation, which sex for most of us always is, there is more at play than his and her agency and their capability of talking/feeling/affirming/negating consent – power. It is the vulnerability that comes with being penetrated, with being emotional and being in love, the fear of an unwanted pregnancy, body images, it is the fear of being publicly shamed, as a slut or stud, a prude or promiscuous.
Let’s talk about consent. Let’s talk about grey zones we’re all facing when we are dating, judging, swiping or even when we are in committed relationships. And have your views changed in the last years?
Trigger warning: sexual harassment, r*pe
I think one of the most dangerous things concerning consent is the idea of playing hard to get. We are taught this game of seduction. That no means maybe and maybe means yes. This attitude is well documented being espoused by men such as Warren Buffet: “if a lady says no, she means maybe. And if she says maybe, she means yes. And if she says yes, she’s no lady”. This attitude has also trickled down through society into the youngest of men. In the documentary, “The Hunting Ground”, which talks about rape culture on campus, we heard shouts from university frat students “No means yes and yes means anal”.
This act of seduction that we play in order to show we are pure or we are valuable or not “sluts” is dangerous. I learned this the hard way.
This is in no way meant to be victim blaming. I square the blame solely with society. We need to create a society where women can express their sexuality without being labelled. Create a world where women feel free and empowered to say yes as well as no to sex.
It would have been good if someone had sat me down and explained to me very carefully how consent works, what that means in a sexual relationship and how to voice it. Or if I would have sat myself down to have a proper think. That you can say yes yes yes but as soon as you voice the no, the no trumps all the before given yesses. It is so seemingly simple, but growing up, having sex, being in a relationship, dating around – it really was not easy.
Not every sexual encounter I had was consentient. And with it came guilt, for not enjoying it, for not being enthusiastic enough, for feeling used and dirty. The thing that baffles me, thinking about it now, is that with every encounter that was not entirely consentient, I DID voice a no or showed very strong signs of being distressed. Maybe I failed to say no repeatedly, not forcefully enough, not loud enough. But I should not have to use volume and repetition for the partner to hear me. It was difficult enough to voice a no in the first place. There were instances where I said right at the beginning that I did not want to have sex that night, or not so soon after just having met a couple of times. I mean, yes, that can change. If it does: it needs to be confirmed though. We did not. I slapped hands away, I mumbled a ‘no’, I said ‘slower’, I said ‘stop’. I pulled my shirt down again, fixed my clothing. Took my hands away from where he put them, time after time. As if I am more comfortable with it a few seconds later.
I think one of the most dangerous things concerning consent is the idea of playing hard to get. We are taught this game of seduction. That no means maybe and maybe means yes. – Sofia
I do know now that I should have, in these instances, said no louder and more dominantly. As soon as I was not 100% ok with the sexual act, I was not having a good time, but I felt used and powerless and confused. If it takes time convincing someone to sleep with you – it’s probably not a good idea. Men cannot read minds, so using your voice to say no or yes is essential, but men need to acknowledge that it is also difficult. Why have I gone through with sex without my consent? Because of certain power plays, expectations, insecurities, fear of rejection (if you really liked the man), and not wanting to discuss or debate. The thought of: ‘it’s probably easier if I just get it over with now’ accompanied me sometimes. I know now this is not ok. Not for me, not for the man I was sleeping with – or who was sleeping with me, to be more correct.
Women need to become better at voicing their consent or their withdrawal of consent but men need to be better at asking, at checking in. Especially at being aware of the power that is at play. That women know that physically, you are probably superior. The act of penetration itself is vulnerable. A woman’s body is being entered, by someone else. It is never not a big deal. Yes, grant women their agency that they can decide and voice what they want and not want. I do still think that consent can also be given without words and that sexual encounters can be very passionate and heated and you can feel absolutely consentient. But when she moans a no, it is still a fucking no. If she says no and she laughs, it is still a no. If you are not sure: ask. The laughter might derive from nervousness. The moaning might be a whisper, not a moan.
I only learned about consent after I had already been sexually active for some years. I learned about it when I found out that my then-boyfriend had had non-consensual sex with a friend of mine. I ran distraught to my sister, not only because of the distressing news, but also because I didn’t understand how it was possible – what even is non-consensual sex? It was then that I realised how the terrible rapport I had developed with sex and my own sexual pleasure had developed through this relationship with my then-boyfriend where I thought the fact that my consent was consistently ignore was normal. I had been socialised in such a way, that I thought womxn didn’t really have to enjoy sex, so therefore sex must occur solely when my heterosexual cis-male partner wants it to and to his completion regardless of my feeling. So when he had sex with me without my consent, I thought he was merely acting on his natural impulse, and my shame and repulsion thereafter was but a side-effect that with time, would fade.
Maybe I failed to say no repeatedly, not forcefully enough, not loud enough. But I should not have to use volume and repetition for the partner to hear me. – Friederike
The conversation on consent becoming more mainstreamed in recent years has had incredible impacts on my mental health surrounding the topic. I wasn’t alone, and I was no longer afraid to speak up to my sexual partners. I developed an even closer rapport with my current boyfriend, by discussing what both of us want, and when we are both really willing – it’s a strengthening of a bond rather than a tacit violation.
So what for me is most important about the conversation on consent is that we speak of sex as an equal activity between two willing actors. ‘Willing’ – this is where everyone stumbles. “Oh I didn’t know she was that drunk” – ask. “She gave me a blow job before so she must still want to have sex” – consent can be retracted. “I was her boss but she was attracted to me” – the power imbalance never makes this OK (I’m looking at you Clinton).
So how do we overcome this? What learning more about consent has taught me is that we need to empower women to speak up. We need teach women that it’s OK to say no and to say it whenever they don’t wish to engage. Sex needs to be a dialogue where both parties are talking about what they like, what they want and whether they’re still up for it. Then, and most importantly we need to teach boys to listen and learn. And listen well because consent may be a difficult line to find, and such an easy one to cross – and the psychological repercussions are long-lasting.
“Everything I say will be judged by the value of my words and not by my biological phenotype.” Everything I say will be judged by my biological phenotype and not by the value of my words. Everything I say will be judged by the value of my words and my biological phenotype, etc…
You can re-arrange this sentence with little alterations to mean a variety of things: you can give its intention the benefit of a doubt, you can accept its original proposition, you can condemn any word as a priori tainted, you can remain open to its conclusions or even after its conclusions.
What does it mean to be human? – to be lost in translation. What does it mean to be human? To listen! To translate! – Hendrik
Why this semantic exercise? Because it is a comparably harmless exercise while containing a significant beginning within itself. Who are we to the other and who is the other to us? Do we possess a common language, composed of common words at least? What about non-verbal language? Are the boundaries of one, the point of departure of a certain excitement for the other? What about cultural and ethical norms that have a corresponding phenomenology in their original contexts, but are without a trace in a particular human encounter? Is the other a real person or a projection of selected and accumulated experiences?
What does this twilight zone of reason and emotion – desire – do to each of us? What about the locality of the encounter, what does it invoke, excite, make us fear, remember? What about the hard facts about our biologically underwritten states of consciousness? The problem of free will?
What does it mean to be human? – to be lost in translation. What does it mean to be human? To listen! To translate!
I think I’ve got the whole “consent-thing” figured out. No, seriously – I honestly think I do. You would, of course, have to ask the women I have had sex with to be the final judge of that. But I can’t imagine them telling you that they didn’t truthfully consent to anything we did. (If that was always what they had hoped for is naturally another story completely…). I mean, there was never the full on “I do want to have sex with you right now” kind of conversation, but there was never an ambiguous situation. And I do think it kind of ruins the moment if you start with legally bulletproof language, so I won’t actively advocate for it. But I’m also not resisting this movement with its gained traction.
But I wasn’t always so sure-footed in the minefields of sexual encounters. As a teenager, being an idiot in every conceivable way, I behaved in inappropriate and sometimes even creepy manners. I, at times, was pushy and acted entitled. But thankfully, I always encountered strong-willed women, who told me exactly where I could stick it. Thankfully for the women but also thankfully for me. Because I became an empathetic man with their help.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is: While young women might be frustrated with the unjust burden of teaching young men how to behave like decent human beings, I hope they know they’re making a difference for the guy they’re slapping in the face and for the women who come after them.
At first, I did not know why I was waking. I had been fast asleep and while I was slowly starting to liven up – still numb from deep sleep – I felt that someone was touching me between my legs and trying to take off the tights I was wearing. As soon as I came to realise that he was on top of me trying to undress me, I started pushing him away from me while asking both bewildered and angry “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???” followed by a loud and clear “GET OFF, LEAVE ME ALONE!”
The evening before I had arrived at his house party; he was a friend of friends and they had invited me along. I had a bag with my laptop with me. So, when we wanted to go to a club, I asked him whether I could leave my bag at his house and pick it up on my way back home. He agreed. That was basically the only conversation we had all night. When we got to the club, my jacket was stolen. It was new, so I was super annoyed and basically spent all night looking for it. I did not even buy any drink in the end, as I was too annoyed. When everyone went home in the middle of the night, I went back with the friend of my friends to pick up my laptop. On the way back we had a little conversation – the second one during this night – about my stolen jacket. I told him that I was living at the other end of town and not keen travelling back there for more than an hour all by myself at night and especially without a jacket. Taxis were crazy expensive, too. So, he offered that I could stay at his place and get back home the next day when the journey will be much more bearable. I agreed.
When we got to his place, I had to realise that he only had this sofa double bed for both of us to sleep on. I was not happy about the idea, but I said to myself that at least he is a friend of friends and it is probably better than travelling back in the deep of the night. It was around 4 am and at this point there would only be night buses; I already knew the problem of being talked to and even followed by potentially dangerous strangers. And without a jacket I felt even more exposed. On top of things, it was freezing outside, not literally, but I did not want to catch a cold, either. So, I stayed at his place. I was completely sober, he was a bit tipsy, but still sober enough to explain to me exactly where I should put his door key the next day, because he needed to leave quite early. I took out my contact lenses, but specifically left on all my clothing apart from my skirt. That is, I was still wearing my black, non-transparent tights, my underwear and my T-shirt, when I went to bed next to him. After a while, he put his arm around me. At first, I did not say anything, because it seemed relatively harmless, we did not kiss or anything at all. Then he seemed to want more and I said to him very clearly that I did not want this and that we need to sleep now. I turned around, further away from him on the bed, and almost immediately fell asleep.
At some point, when it was still dark outside, I began to wake up, because he was on top of me and I told him to get off and leave me alone. Now I really was awake and managed to push him to one side while rolling myself over to the other side. I kept lying still, my body filled with adrenalin, my mind racing, I was angry: He tried to have sex with me while I was asleep! What the hell!?!! What am I doing now?
I pretended to still be sleepy and just angry at the fact that he woke me up in order not to further escalate the situation. Seemingly still drowsy and a bit annoyed I mumbled: “You woke me up, that is not cool, just leave me alone and sleep.” He touched my back to maybe be nice, but I shook him off without turning my head in his direction and told him again to leave me alone and sleep. That is what he finally did – and I also fell asleep again. Of course, my first thought had been to leave his apartment straight away, but it was still pitch dark and I first would have needed to find my contact lenses etc. and I was afraid that all of that would take too much time while he might be getting angry. Also, the door was locked and I did not know whether I would even manage to leave without his help. So, I opted for the still being sleepy act and thank God it worked!
The next day he left early, as he had said. I left afterwards leaving the key where he had told me to, and went to see my friends. At first I did not want to tell anyone about what had happened because I felt somewhat ashamed. I knew that it was not my fault, but maybe I was scared of being judged along the lines of “there must have been some sexual tension, if you agree to share a bed” or much worse, even though none of this was true. In the end I decided to confide in one of my male friends who was one of my closest friends in the group who had been going out with us the night before. When I told him what had happened adding something like “well, most men are like this, it is not okay, but I should have expected this”. My friend became quite serious and looked at me quite worried: “I am very sorry to hear this, Bettina, and this is not normal!” He urged me to talk about what had happened to one of the girls in our group who were also friends with the offender. At first, I did not want to, thinking she would not believe and instead judge me. But when I finally told her about the events, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that she, too, took my story very seriously. However, I asked her not to tell the offender about it, but, apparently, she either did not really understand this or just ignored it. Anyway, a day later the offender got in touch with me…
Him: Hello Bettina, [our mutual friend] told me that you complained about me about that night. I wish first to apologize. I drank probably too much and lost my common sense. Well, I know I behaved in a non-appropriate way, but I did not intend to. I am really sorry. I did not interpret your behaviour accurately. Please forgive me. I am ready to discuss it with you, if you want to.
Me: Hey, all I have to say is that your behaviour was sexual harassment, as I even was asleep and you woke me up by touching me inappropriately at best; you didn’t even give me a chance to object because I was not even awake when you started this!
Also in the future, just don’t push and accept when someone says “No”, no matter who it is; I said “no” to you before I fell asleep and after you woke me up and you were still trying to push me into it.
There is nothing to be interpreted incorrectly about a “No”. But it’s in the past and I don’t have to say anything else than don’t do this to anyone else in the future; there are women who can’t defend themselves as well as I can and it’s horrific to think that you would push them into something even though they said “no”, only because they don’t know what else to do when you insist; if someone actually likes you, they don’t need to be pushed AT ALL.
If you don’t do anything like this again ever, I’ll accept your apology.
Him: Yes, sure, Bettina, once again, I am deeply sorry. It was absolutely incorrect. I can guarantee that it was a good warning for me.
Now, some years later, I keep wondering what would have happened, if I had been drunk and would not have woken up: Would he have raped me while I was unconscious? Or what would have happened, if I just did not happen to be a taller and physically stronger woman than the average one who would not actually be able to push a man away who got on top of her while she was asleep? What if I had just been too scared?
Cover photo credit Charlotte Cooper (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0