Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Consent Debate - Some Questions Answered

The following is an email that I sent to a friend after she asked some very pertinent questions about the rape/sexual consent question.  These questions were asked following my posting a link to this article .  Because I discuss some very personal issues in this post, I will be heavily screening comments. 

TRIGGER WARNING: The beginning of this post is a description of my own rape and sexual abuse in some detail.  Those who are triggered by descriptions of rape and/or sexual abuse should proceed with extreme caution.

Dear S,

I'm going to try and answer some questions about the question of rape, rape apologism, rape culture and the question of consent.  I am by no means the definitive voice on this topic, and you undoubtedly already know that there are several different views surrounding this debate (If you're not aware, I'd be delighted to point you in the direction of some really good and interesting articles).  Personally, I take the view of Enthusiastic Consent, though I can often see the viewpoint of other forms/means of consent, so can't really say I know the answer.  But I've done a lot of reading around this topic, as well as going through some cognitive therapies following my own experiences, and hope that I have a reasonable understanding of what a lot of people go through following a rape or sexualt assault experience.

If it's alright, though, I'd like to give you some information about my own experiences first.  I want to do this because it took me a very long time to accept that what happened to me was rape and sexual abuse, and also because my experiences are not what people usually think of when they try to visualise rape in their minds.

My abuser was my ex-husband.  His name is Dave.  We began our relationship when  I as 17 and he was 36.  We were together for seven years, of which we were married for two.  He first abused me when I was eighteen years old.  On that occasion it was rape.  We were having sex and it was incredibly painful for me.  However I could tell he was enjoying, and I didn't want to let him down.  It became so painful that I started crying, but because he was behind me he couldn't see and continued until he came.  Afterwards he realised I had been crying.  He said he hadn't known, but did not apologise for continuing.  I can't remember enjoying any sexual encounter with him after this.  The instances of rape were very seldom.  Generally, although I did not enjoy the sex, I did consent.  The truly hurtful and traumatic moments in our sexual relationship were technically sexual abuse, not rape, because they involved sexual acts not penetrative vaginal sex. 

Dave at some point during our first year together said that he wanted to have anal sex with me.  I agreed to try it.  Dave did not believe in lubricant.  I'm really sorry, but I can't go into details because I don't want to get upset, but this was the hardest and most painful part of my abuse.  There were also issues to do with blow jobs that I don't want to go into.  When doing these things, I went through a variety of ways of saying 'no' which I think any 'normal' sexual partner (by which I mean a partner who puts the sexual needs, pleasures and comfort of their partner as an equal priority to their own) would consider to be withdrawal of consent.  These included obvious disinterest in the sex that was happening, asking him to stop, asking him to wait, asking him to try something different, crying, saying "You're hurting me", and saying a "no" that was interpreted as "Wait for a minute then start again" or "I want you to try a different angle but keep doing what you're doing". 

Dave abused me in this way for two years, after which I spoke to him outside of a sexual situation and told him the things I did not want to do any more.  He said my refusal to do these things made him feel dirty.  He told me that lots of women do these things, that his previous girlfriends had done them. He told me I was being prudish and that I wouldn't enjoy sex if I didn't experiment.  He said a lot of things but, at this point, I was very firm and refused to do it anymore.  After this  he made it very clear that we would be having sex on his terms or not at all.  For the remainder of our marriage, we had sex around once a month.  He usually wouldn't come and, if he did, it was because he jerked himself off.  When our marriage began to break down, Dave cited my stopping his abuse as one of the reasons, so I tried again to please him because I felt incredibly guilty.  The two weeks I spent trying to do the things which I term abuse are some of the worst memories I have.  They are the most frequent flashbacks and nightmares.  I think probably because I had had an affair towards the end of our marriage, and I knew what nice sex felt like.  After this time, I knew I would not be able to do this anymore, and I asked him to leave. 

I didn't tell anyone for a long time.  I had tried sometimes to tell my Mum while Dave and I were together, but had never managed to get out the specific words.  Part of the reason was because I was scared that if I told anyone they would break us up and I would be alone.  I felt, partly because he was incredibly manipulative and partly because I had a lot of self esteem problems, that if he left I would have no one.  I also felt that I was the failure, I was doing something wrong, and that was the reason that I didn't enjoy the sex and he only wanted me in certain ways.  These things are, obviously, symptomatic of wider patriarchal issues to do with young women understanding their role in a relationship, developing self esteem, having an adequate sex education, etc.  But I was a clever girl, I had a very strong feminist family, and I grew up believing that I would never let anyone abuse me. 

Before I was abused, I wasn’t able to understand how a woman could be being raped or sexually abused by someone she trusts, and not feel able to say, "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING THAT HURTS!!!!"  I still spend a lot of time thinking about why I let him do these things to me.  The only thing I can say is that, that first time, it was just going to be that first time.  Because I thought something was wrong with me.  And if I just gritted my teeth and bore it out, it would be fine next time.  But it wasn't.  And I kept thinking next time will be fine, next time will be fine -- I didn't even notice the point at which hurting and being afraid became normal.  And when I did realise that, I tried to do something about it.  I should have walked.  But I didn't.  Maybe if I'd thought anyone else would believe me – or as I put it in my mind, ‘if I’d been a bit braver’ –  I would have told them and they would have given me some perspective on the severity of what was happening.  But I thought that rape was a stranger grabbing a woman who's kicking and screaming, dragging her into a bush, holding a gun to her head, and having sex with her despite the fact she's begging him not to.  Through speaking to family, friends, counsellors and other people with a similar experience, I know that that type of case actually forms a small minority.  That most women who are raped, are raped by someone they know.  That most don't report it.  That many don't even admit it happened until years after the event.

OK, thank you for reading through that.  I'm going to try and answer some of your questions more directly now, and I hope you will understand the thought processes behind my answers.

"What kind of stuff have they [some men replying on sexual consent debates] done that is rape without them knowing it?"

The most common that I've seen are responses either that if they hadn't borderline raped women as a teenager they never would have had sex, OR that if a woman is so drunk she can't say 'no' clearly or loudly enough that it's not their responsibility to try and ascertain whether the answer really is 'yes'.  You also get a lot of trolls (I say trolls but they're obviously people of some description) saying things like women who dress provocatively are asking to be raped, that drunk girls are fair game, and various other rape/rape culture myths. 

There is also a general sense also that if a woman does not meet a certain number of resistance targets, she’s not given a 'real' no.  For example, if a woman is consenting to foreplay, it follows she must want sex.  If a woman has invited you in for coffee, it means sex.  If sex has already begun, she's not allowed to change her mind because something has made her uncomfortable.  It's rarely explicitly said, but the impression these men give is that they have done these things or have friends who have done these things, and want to be told that they or their friends are not a rapist.  They then start digging holes and inventing complex algorhithms for how they think a non-consent should be given.  Which is, obviously, impractical when consent can be obtained by just bluntly saying, "You're fucking hot, are we good to go?"  Because when you ask for consent it doesn't have to be, like you said, "May I now touch your boob? Where am I allowed to prod my penis?"  A simple, “Is this ok?” at a crucial moment is asking for consent, and giving a cue that your partner is giving you an opportunity to re-draw the sex contract, as it were.

"Another question would be why aren't women confident enough to articulate no clearly?"

This is a wider issue.  Let's face it, it's a fucking enormous issue.  Because if a straight man was about to be butt raped in a situation where he definitely didn't want to be butt raped, he'd have no issue at all saying no.  In the more violent cases there are fear issues.  There's a lot of research done on reaction to rape, and especially in violent cases rape victims freeze up, either from fear or because their minds just switch off to deal with the trauma.  This is what sometimes happened to me, and why I have post traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD is essentially when our minds have blanked out a bit so we wouldn't have to fully experience something horrible but then, later on, that experience is triggered by something we experience.  (For a full and excellent read on PTSD I highly recommend Understanding Traumatic Stress by Claudia Herbert and Ann Wetmore)   For me this is often seeing an experience similar to mine, hearing a phrase similar to what Dave used to say to me, the feel of hands on my head or having someone loom over me.  Sorry, I'm digressing, but this is one reason why there might not be a strong explicit NO.

In situations where the abuser is someone the victim knows, there are often a variety of emotions at play.  A woman may be faced with the choice of just doing this one little thing (as it can seem at the time) or losing a friend/husband/lover/family member.  There are the consequences of saying no, of being branded frigid, of being negatively compared to another.  The way women are brought up is still to define themselves by their sexual output.  Virgin and slut are both strong insults to women.  There is the knowledge, when choosing consent, that they may be choosing one path or the other.  There may be feelings that the giving of sex may be the only way they can be loved.  I feel that a BIG part of stamping out rape culture and enabling women to be able to say no, is to teach young women and girls that they are not simply sexual objects.  That saying NO isn't such a big decision that they will be defined by it negatively, in a way I think you can sometimes feel you will at the time. 

It's about giving power back to women, but equally about teaching men to respect a no, or a non-explicit no.  A comment that frequently comes up is that women make a 'token refusal', which a man may need to push through in order to attain sex.  I don't know about you, but I've never made an explicit or non-explicit refusal without meaning it.  And I'm concerned that these 'token refusals' may be women who are trying to let a man down gently and not ruin a future chance of sex/friendship/whatever, but whose gentle refusal is being brushed aside and creating a vicious circle by teaching that woman that it doesn't matter if you say ‘no’, he's not going to listen.

"The reason that I'm responding in this way is that I'm concerned about a lack of realism & an infantilisation of women in this whole rape debate. And also a demonisation of men sexually, which is bad for everyone."

I'm assuming here that when you say 'infantilisation of women' you're talking about encouraging men to gain a definite 'yes' before pressing ahead with sex.  You see this perhaps as handling a woman with kid gloves, where I see it as a basic mark of respect which I and all women deserve.  As I said earlier, although I RT'd this article (it made me smile and I agreed with the majority of it, and thought that my followers would find it interesting) I am mostly in the corner of the enthusiastic consent.  The basic premise of this is that rather than doing whatever the fuck you want until someone screams, "NO!" in your face, you aim to make the person you're with scream "YES! YES FUCKING YES!!!!" as often as possible, and thereby know that you're having consensual sex.  Because the part of this whole rape debate that gets me really creeped out, is when men get involved trying to ascertain what they can get away with.  That's not happy sex.  And why the fuck would you want to have sex if you're not pleasing the other person?  The way I see it, non-consensual sex is just wanking with another person's body.  Good, happy, healthy sex is about pleasing another person as much as, if not more than yourself, and getting off on how much they're into you and you're into them.  It's a HAPPY circle of GUH! 

But the way I read this article was that the writer had got so pissed off with men nit picking and saying, "But what if this?" that she had just decided: Right. Fuck it.  You want to know if it's consensual? JUST FUCKING ASK!  It's really not that much time out of your day, and it's not going to kill the mood more than POTENTIALLY RAPING SOMEONE!  And it can be sexy to be asked.  It can be very flattering.  We all know sex is more complicated than that, but for the real thickies who just cannot get it into their skulls that, yes, we expect them to obtain consent and not rape people, this is a pretty hard and fast rule.  It's also part of turning around the responsibility.  One of the things rape/SA victims so often get asked is, "Well, did you say no?" This is a way of being able to turn to a man and say, "Well, did she say yes?"

As far as demonising men.  This is a really difficult one.  There is a definite demonising of the patriarchy, and the fact that the majority of (straight cis) men are brought up in a world that says it is their responsibility to take what they want and that other people (especially women) and their needs come second.  Some rapists are obviously sick in the head.  My ex husband was sick in the head.  But he also has no comprehension that he has ever done anything wrong.  And he used to speak frequently about women crying rape out of spite.  This is the mentality he grew up with.  It's a mentality I suspect a lot of men have.  And by demonising rapists the way the media frequently does, it's making it worse.  Saying "This is the rapiest kind of rape, done by a bad man who loves hurting women, look at him over there in the bad corner, he's BAD, aren't you glad there's only a few of them?" means that men who simply ignore a non-explicit refusal of consent don't think they're doing anything wrong.  And when you challenge them on it, they get defensive, and start devising the aforementioned algorhithms of consent.  Again, vicious circle. 

So it's not so much about demonising men, as pointing out to them (not just men, but the general rape culture) that the existing mentality around the subject of rape is a very skewed one, and that this needs to be adjusted.  This might mean bruising some egos, it might mean having to admit some nasty things to yourself and perhaps, if possible, apologising very sincerely to anyone you might have hurt.  But I think it's much more important that this bruising of egos happens in order that we can start to get women to a place where they can say no and, more importantly, so we can teach young men and boys growing up exactly what they should expect from healthy consensual sex.

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