On consent, confusion, and uncomfortable conversations

I struggled with the decision to publish this piece, almost posting it twice and then deciding at the last moment not to. And I’ve re-written it several times too.

The conversation around rape is complex. It doesn’t lend itself well to simple statements, and there are often hidden assumptions that go unacknowledged. Emotions can and do run high, especially when you intersect people understanding rape intellectually vs. those who are relating an actual experience.

I have both a personal and intellectual connection. It’s something that scares me endlessly because several people very close to me have experienced it, and as you’ll see later in this piece I’ve felt uncomfortably close to it myself.

Let me be clear: I’m a huge fan of enthusiastic consent, and part of that belief means that if you don’t know if you have enthusiastic consent, then you don’t go forward with intimacy. It also means I am very careful when drugs and alcohol are involved. Yes, it cuts down on my sex life, and yes the awkward level does increase at times, but I consider it a trade off worth making. I have made my own poor choices (more on that later) that have reinforced this perspective.

I also want to point out that consent isn’t a gender issue and it’s not solely about sex. It’s a human communication requirement. We’re constantly re-understanding each others boundaries (and renegotiating our own), and sex is simply another place that happens.

An article by Alyssa Rose on Good Men Project titled “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” has caused a furor on various websites and a flurry of responses. You can read it and draw your own conclusions, but the basic story is that a man that Alyssa knew came to her and confessed to having raped someone but he didn’t realize it until she said something afterward.

Personally, I think the example was a bad one, because as Ally Fog points out in a response on his blog:

“I simply cannot accept that any reasonably intelligent and informed man (and by the description I’m assuming this man is both) doesn’t know full well that just because a woman wanted to have sex with you earlier in the evening, or last week, or last month, does not mean she necessarily wants to have sex with you right now.”

I also have problems with the way she brought up the woman’s sexual history, and thought this example wasn’t the best for her larger points. Not to mention the fact that he initiated sex while the woman was still asleep, which is creepy even if you reverse genders. If someone doesn’t or can’t consent with enthusiasm, sex shouldn’t be on the table at all.

But it happens all the time.

+++++

At 18 years of age I started classes at a small, liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was a good school, and most of the student population, faculty, and staff were thoughtful and considerate people. I doubt it was any different from other residential, private institutions. When I arrived there I’d had sex with one person ever, my high school girlfriend. I’m not sure if this is typical, since I am a self-confessed weirdo, but I suspect middle and high schoolers are having a lot less sex than they say they are having.

My first year I hooked up with a few people, but only had sex with one person. The hookups were typically based on friendships, although there was one very drunken encounter that was random. There were somewhat healthy boundaries with the hookups, but they were mostly unstated. You could say I got lucky.

There was one encounter that didn’t go so well. I had a class with another first year student, and she expressed interest in me so we hung out a couple of times. I’m not sure I was particularly attracted to her (she had a very dark, cynical view of the world) but we had a few things in common and had good conversations. On one occasion we were in her room, both pretty drunk, and she kissed me and we started to make out. She took off my pants, grabbed my penis and started having sex with me.

I did not want to have sex. But I also didn’t say yes or no or really anything at all. I remember trying to roll over and say “hang on” but she pushed me back on the bed and kept going. It was weird and gross and I felt uncomfortable.

Was I raped? I’m not sure. At the time I just saw it as a confusing sexual experience, but I’ve also quietly avoided the unspoken implication on multiple occasions when women I know described similar experiences and defined them as rape.

Later in college I remember having sex with someone who said yes and afterwards told me they were uncomfortable but unable to express themselves. And on other occasions I’ve said yes and later expressed discomfort myself. A while back I read Hugo Schwyzer’s post “The Accidental Rapist” (which I have some problems with, due to both Hugo’s past and the way he discusses rape) and thought to myself, that sounds distressingly close to a situation that I’ve been in, and have heard of from both men and women that I know.

To be clear, when I encounter a “no” that’s it, there’s no room for discussion in my mind although if the other person initiates other options e.g. “let’s be physically intimate but not actually have sex” that’s ok by me. There are a lot of ways to enjoy someone’s company, some of them involve sex, some of them involve foreplay, and some are just about sharing emotional and/or intellectual connections.

I also see consent as being primarily about open communication and a real conversation, the same way it exists in the world outside of sex.

A while back a long time partner goaded me into having sex, basically I’d tried to initiate sex a couple of times in one month and she said she wasn’t interested. A couple of weeks after that she suggested that we have sex and when I told her I wasn’t really in the mood she used a combination of the “but you were interested before” + “guys always want sex” + “you don’t find me attractive?” arguments. I had sex with her even though I didn’t really feel like it.

Now I wouldn’t put up with that. But I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience for both young men and young women.

+++++

We also hear “Rape is rape” all the time. Essentially, it means that the act is not excusable by circumstances, nor by the character of the person committing the act.

I agree.

It’s never an acceptable behavior. I believe in personal accountability,  and it’s not something I can let slide.

I don’t know if “nice guys commit” rape. I have a hard time getting behind that argument because to me it’s the behavior that is unacceptable, regardless of who commits it. But I also think there’s plenty of behavior that doesn’t reach the level of rape that needs to be addressed.

Like Hugo, I’ve considered the legal definition and come to the conclusion that I’ve never committed rape (I can’t tell you how relieved that makes me) but I’ve made some poor decisions and I’m not proud of them. If I’ve had less than “mutually enthusiastic consent” as Hugo calls it, I wonder how many other people have too.

We all have a responsibility to address this. We cannot foster a culture of consent unless we are willing to have an honest, and at times, uncomfortable conversation.

And we also have to start having this conversation sooner. There’s something incongruous about furiously declaring that rape is not acceptable while at the same time not having real conversations with young men and women about the boundaries around sex, friendship, intimacy, and emotional intelligence in general.

I’m all for continuing to call it like it is. But we need to educate each other better. People cross boundaries all the time, and many of them aren’t as obvious as the strict definition of rape but still have tangible, devastating effects.

9 thoughts on “On consent, confusion, and uncomfortable conversations”

  1. Oh Joe. This is interesting and provocative stuff. FWIW, it sounds to me like what the young woman did to you was sexual assault. And among my circle of friends in college there were also myriad gray area and sexual assault situations like the ones you describe here. Eegh. I came to the same conclusion about enthusiastic consent and that’s a great rule of thumb.

    1. I hope this is the exception, but I’m not sure it is. And I wonder about times when I made decisions in unclear situations, what effect did that have on other people’s lives even if it didn’t involve sex and was just misunderstood, confused behavior. It’s a weird thing to consider, regardless of any conclusions.

      I also wish there was better education, and at a younger age. I know I could have really used more open conversation around not just sex but expectations for friendships and relationships as well.

  2. I agree with you that enthusiastic consent is a good rule to live by, and that these conversations about sexual boundaries need start earlier and be as much a focus as anything else in Health education. I have known a couple woman that have been raped, one with unbelievable violence the other in a date rape scenario where she said stop after the act started and he did not. These are inexcusable acts that had profound effects on both young woman, and shaped my understanding of sexual assault as a teenager. On the other hand I also knew a girl who threw herself at an older guy in front of a lot of people. Everybody in the room was under the impression she wanted to have sex with him, and when it was all said and done she was saying rape. Now we weren’t present for the act, but based on the behavior she displayed there is no way that guy should have gone down for rape unless she actually said “no” before or during. He did not get charged. There is a difference between rape and regret. These conversations about boundaries that should be happening need to empower people to say no and not just go along with something. If folks begin to understand there is a lot of gray area maybe over time they can learn to take the gray out of it by looking for enthusiastic consent or having the self esteem to come out at give a specific no.

  3. But that’s part of the problem Casey, this idea that consent only happens once and can be proxied by “displays” or “impressions.” That’s what’s very disturbing about GMP’s “Nice Guys Commit Rape” article. Obviously we are on the same page regarding enthusiastic consent, but your example isn’t something I can agree with. It doesn’t matter what proceeds a withdrawal of consent. Not to be too personal but I’ve been in the middle of having sex and had a partner tell me they weren’t comfortable and could we stop, and I did.

    1. Joe I think we are in complete agreement on this. In the case I mentioned a number of people in the room witnessed enthusiastic consent up until the time they left the room. She then, weeks after the fact, tried to play it a different way. He said she never said no, and she never argued that. I agree 100% that withdrawal of consent is anybody’s right at anytime during the process. You will note that I mentioned a girl I knew who was raped that did give initial consent then withdrew and he would not stop. That is absolute BS and he should have gone to jail. I always thought I had a really strict interpretation of rape. I too have stopped in the middle, a couple time actually, but I have read blogs that indicated that because I have asked my wife for sex twice in the same night and she said yes the second time I actually raped her. I am not buying that. I think it is dangerous ground to call something rape, when poor decision making is as good an explanation. Having seen an attempt to transfer 100% of the responsibility for a bad decision to a guy at the expense of his reputation and career I am a little sensitive to the idea that bad judgement and regretful feelings can be construed as rape. Frankly it does a disservice to woman that have experienced rape that is closer to the legal definition. Maybe we need a different word to describe these occurrences? At the end of the day I think you and I are closer on this than you may have thought. I was offering a simple caution from my experience that there are pitfalls to these more progressive interpretations. Then again maybe I am just a cave man :)

      1. Well according to certain folks we are all cavemen, but that’s another track altogether

        In this particular case the way you describe two details is troubling and probably why I’m having a bit of weird reaction. “She never said no” is not the same thing as “she said yes” and unless they were having sex in public and both yelling “yes this is awesome!” I’m not sure anyone in the room was qualified to make the judgment that they were practicing enthusiastic consent when it comes to sex (perhaps, enthusiastic consent to spend time with each other, but that’s not the same thing).

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