A month or so ago, Anita wrote a fantastic post at Kiwipolitico: Friends don’t let friends rape, calling on men, and all of us, to call out rapists. She made what was to me an unremarkable statement:
The reality is that we all know people who rape, just as we all know people who have been raped. I’m talking about the fact some of the people we know have raped people they know, and they way they’ve talked about sex and dates and partners so we’ve had every opportunity to hear that true consent isn’t an issue for them.
But it inspired a long and agonising comment thread, with both men and women participating. As the thread developed, I began to hear people talking past each other, with the split mostly, but not exclusively, down gender lines. One group of people (mostly, but not exclusively men) was asserting that they did not in fact know rapists, and if they did, they would shun them. Others (mostly, but not exclusively women) were saying that of course they knew rapists, yes, they had had sex without consent, yes, they had been raped. But it seemed to me that the difference turned on what consent looked like. In fact, this was critical. Many of the people who were saying that they did not know rapists are people I respect, people I know to be people of good will, people who try to do the decent thing, to live good lives. Yet they clearly had a different understanding of what consent looks like to me and to others in the second group of people, that is, the people who had no doubt that they knew rapists.
I’ve been reflecting on this discussion ever since, and I’ve tried to write this post several times. I’m giving up on trying – I’m just going to write the damned thing.
Last year, the writers and readers of The Hand Mirror put together a submission in response to a government discussion document, Improvements to Sexual Violence Legislation in New Zealand. (Note to self: most do OIA and follow up on what is happening w.r.t the legislation.) Here’s what we said about consent:
…behaviour that indicates “consent” is a continuum, ranging from behaviour that indicates total non-consent, such as saying, “No,” to behaviour that indicates full consent, such as saying, “Yes.” As with any continuum, it is easy to make judgements about each end of the continuum. However in between there is a grey area, where behaviour may or may not indicate consent.
The continuum can be illustrated like this.
Until recently, the absence of denial was treated as consent. That is, any behaviour that didn’t fall between A and B, explicitly denying consent, was taken as giving consent.
Attitudes and the law are now changing. Consent is now taken to entail a positive process, not just an absence of a particular behaviour. However, it needs to be made very clear that, “She didn’t say no,” does not mean she said, “Yes.” That is, behaviour in the grey area, from B to C, does not mean that consent has been given. For there to be consent, there must be behaviour in the area from C to D. Consent must not be just the absence on non-consenting behaviour, but the actual and unequivocal presence of consenting behaviour.
I assume that this is uncontroversial, that people are happy enough with the idea that consent must actually be given. But it seemed to me that there was a fair bit of confusion about what kind of behaviour might or might not fall either side of “C” i.e. the transition from “grey area” to “consent.”
I think this is where many women may feel that they have been coerced into sex, that they may have given up saying no, or possibly even said yes, but that “yes” was not freely given. So they have had sex without consent. That is, they have been raped. And if they have been raped, then by definition there must be a rapist.
Before I carry on further with this post, I want to make it very, very clear that what I am writing does not reflect in any way my own experience with my husband of many years.
The thing is, even longterm and / or loving partners will sometimes coerce a woman into sex. A man who harumphs and grumps and makes it clear that he will sulk and complain if he doesn’t get his end away pressures and coerces his partner into giving consent. Sure, it’s not as obvious as a gun pointed at your head, forcing you to sign a contract, but it is forced consent nevertheless. A man who wields financial power over his partner can force her into giving consent. If you have no money and no resources, if your partner is the person who earns the income that feeds and clothes and houses you and your children, then if he makes it clear that he wants to have sex, and makes it clear that he expects you to provide it, and that there will be trouble if you don’t, then you have very little choice about giving consent. The consequences of refusing sex are simply too costly.
I think there must be many, many women who have spent at least some nights with tears sliding slowly into their ears, trying to come to terms with having been forced into sex. And the thing is, that’s the definition of rape. Rape is forced sex, or sex without consent, or sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat. I suspect, although I don’t know, that if many, many women have one way or another been forced into having sex, then there must be many, many men who have forced women into having sex. That is, there must be many, many men who have committed rape. That’s why Anita’s original statement, that we all know rapists, rings true for me.
I am reluctant to lump a man who perhaps on occasion sighs and grumps and harumphs because his partner doesn’t want to have sex, into the same category as violent, serial rapists. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of behaviour that is designed to pressure and coerce, to “persuade” someone to change her mind. Straightforwardly, it is unacceptable. Not criminal, perhaps, but nevertheless wrong.
Quite simply, consent to sex must be freely given. If there is not, then by definition, what takes place is not lovemaking, not sex, not even forced “sex”. It’s rape.
I know that’s a very tough definition of consent. However, if we need to draw a line between consent and no-consent, then surely it needs to be drawn on the side of caution. And in that case, it means drawing it on the side where we can be sure that consent has been given, not on the side where we enable someone to think that it’s acceptable in some circumstances to coerce another person into sex.
I know this definition demands a very high standard of behaviour. I know it means that people will have to be much, much more careful about their sexual behaviour. But I fail to understand how this could be anything other than a good thing.
Other blog responses to Anita’s post:
Sandra at Luddite Journo: What kind of feminist is ok?
Labellementeuse: More on the rapists among us
More on rape at the boundaries of consent:
Bitch PhD: A different kind of rape (Though this one doesn’t look to be a “boundary” issue at all to me.)
More on sex without real consent:
Arndt said low-libido partners, which are mostly women, needed to put sex on the “to-do list”, even if they didn’t feel like doing it.
“The notion that women have to want sex to enjoy it has been a really misguided idea that has caused havoc in relationships over the last 40 years.”
With the right approach from a loving partner, if women were willing to be receptive “and allow themselves to relax … they would enjoy it”, she said.
…but the Canberra Times, thank goodness, has at least one writer who is capable of critical thinking.
Now, if that sounds like great-grandmother’s advice, ”lie back and think of England my dear”, it is. The notion of women passively submitting to uninspiring sex is an archaic and unforgivable suggestion that takes us back to some very dark old days indeed. Which makes one wonder why Arndt isn’t turning her spotlight instead on the reason some women may have lost interest in sex. In addition to being worn out and over-tired, the real reason might have a lot to do with their uninspiring, unstimulating partners.
Where is the focus on how unsexy it is to try snogging a dull, lazy, tenderless man?
For Arndt to suggest that women should simply put out, in order to keep a marriage alive, is a frightening, but timely, reminder of why we clearly need a sexual revolution. But this time, a real one. A revolution that places the sensual needs and desires of women on equal billing with a man’s…