Enthusiastic Consent Revisited

This post is an edited snippet of a paper I wrote in 2012

Feminist writer Leopard blogged Sunday about the selective blindness of rape culture in a post which revisits the iconic photograph known as the “Kissing Sailor.” In New York Times Square on VJ day in 1945, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt serendipitously captured the seemingly romantic embrace of a loving couple. This year, however, historians confirm that George Mendonsa and Greta Friedman were perfect strangers. The truth is that it wasn’t Greta’s choice to be kissed. She didn’t see George approaching and, before she knew it, “the guy just came over and grabbed.” Leopard affirms that since the kiss was nonconsensual, by modern standards, George’s actions would be considered sexual assault. While many articles (Huffington Post, Daily Mail, CBS News) reproduce Greta’s words, none portray the kiss as sexual assault. The media has since stigmatized Leopard as a “whiny feminazi” whose claims are “screeching hysteria.” Leopard and other feminists who speak out against the glamorization of sexual assault are labeled “boner killers” since they effectively ruin the “boys will be boys” narrative of the “good old days” that says this “kind of stuff” (aka rape) is supposed to be fun! and exciting!   

Why are Americans so reluctant to admit that this much-loved photo depicts sexual assault? Leopard determines that our selective blindness has its roots in the rape culture we live in. We choose not to see events like these as sexual assault because we are wistfully nostalgic for a “simpler” time when sexualities were unequivocally gendered, more so than they are today. Since the mid century, feminists have problematized the construction of female sexuality as passive and men’s as aggressive, thereby complicating the labor of rape culture. Just as Eisenstaedt publicized and normalized Greta’s assault, contemporary mainstream journalism endlessly romanticizes male entitlement to the bodily autonomy of women. Hazel/Cedar Troost writes in the anthology Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape that “rape culture works by restricting a person’s control of hir body, limiting hir sense of ownership of it, and granting others a sense of entitlement to it” (171).

While the rapey status quo of the present isn’t quite as relentless as that of the mid twentieth century, we haven’t progressed markedly past the truth that “no” means, well, no. Feminists are tirelessly working to clarify that when a woman says “no,” she is not trying to be sexy. Earlier this year, Harriet Jay made a powerful argument on her blog Fugitivus that women and men are taught that women’s “needs and desire’s are not to be trusted, are fickle and wrong and are not to be interpreted by the woman herself.” Ultimately, when women express their desires, they are ignored, since our culture believes that we aren’t capable of acting in a sexually active, aggressive way. When a woman responds with “no” to an unwanted sexual encounter, the aggressor may continue to pursue her, using the excuse that “she really did want it, she was just playing hard to get.” After all, when women do say yes – that is, when they don’t act as sexual prey – they are discredited as whores.

Feminists have done much to dispel the predator/prey myth of sexuality, enforcing the idea that “no” really, truly, positively means no. They’ve underlined that the absence of “no,” does not mean “yes”. Slutwalkers have popularized the “no means no” model with their “It’s a Dress, Not a Yes” placards, meaning that the way a woman dresses is not an invitation to sexually assault her. But the “no means no” model is only a partial truth of how rape culture works to suppress female sexual agency.

It leaves women’s desire out of the picture.

Heather Corinna, a contributing author to Yes Means Yes!, narrates a common ideal for sexual initiation, what any loving parent would want for their daughter’s first time. In this scenario the guy is “a good guy” and while it tells of the boy’s persistence, the girl isn’t pressured into anything she doesn’t want to do. His sexual interest is clear to her – “he’s a teenage boy after all” – and they eventually move forward to sexual intercourse with her “consent”. They were safe and smart about it, using condoms and birth control. It was planned and they were in a loving relationship. While is wasn’t exactly blissful for her, it wasn’t too “terribly painful,” either. It made them feel closer and it will be a good memory for them whether they’ll marry as high school sweethearts or go their separate ways (181).

Corinna asks her readers to find “something monumental” that is missing from this ideal positive first sexual experience. She affirms that “the black hole” in that scenario is the girl’s desire

Nowhere do we see a strong, undeniable sexual desire, deep, dizzy sexual pleasure, or earnest, equal sexual satisfaction on her part. It makes no appearance in a sexual script many would posit as an ideal initiation. We heard her say yes, but we never once saw her beg the question herself. We saw her yes as the answer to someone else’s desire, rather than an affirmation of her own. Her yes is uncertain, but sexual desire–whether or not we choose to act on it–is uncertain, unmistakeable, and persistent. (182)  

Only recently has the idea of “enthusiastic consent” debuted in feminist discourse. Enthusiastic consent says that the principle behind “no means no” is crucial – if a sexual partner says no, you have to stop. But that’s not enough. Sex should only happen when all participants, regardless of gender, desire what’s going on sexually. Most notably, consent is not a question, but a state. Jaclyn Friedman writes on the Yes Means Yes! blog:

Enthusiastic consent is not a yes/no light switch, it is an ongoing state, at the heart of communication. It requires sexual partners to be in ongoing communication with each other. It says that just because a partner agrees to one sexual activity does not mean that s/he agreed to another. Enthusiastic consent can end at any moment.

Feminists introduced enthusiastic consent as the next step beyond “no means no,” as a way to ask “What does consent mean”?; “When should we be getting consent”?; and “What does consent sound and look like”? In the foreword to Yes Means Yes!, Margaret Cho voices her experienced lack of enthusiastic consent: 

I am surprised by how much sex I have had in my life that I didn’t want to have. Not exactly what’s considered “real” rape, or “date” rape, like my first time, although it is a kind of rape of the spirit–a dishonest portrayal or distortion of my own desire in order to appease another person–so it wasn’t rape at gunpoint, but rape as the alternative to having to explain my reasons for not wanting to have sex. You do it out of love sometimes, to save another’s feelings. And you do it out of hate sometimes, because you don’t want to hear your partner complain–like you hate their voice so much that whenever you aren’t made to hear it, it is a blessing. This is all sex I have said yes to, and sometimes even initiated–that I didn’t want to have. (2)

Cho’s words belong to many women, including myself. I’ve experienced and initiated several unwanted sexual encounters while negotiating my sexuality as a young college student. The first time I had sex that I didn’t want to have, I was flirting with a guy who I knew had a crush on me and eventually, we started making out. When he initiated sex, I didn’t protest. In the middle of it, I eventually was so repulsed with myself that I dramatically pushed him off of me. I was embarrassed not to have been able to express what I really wanted, or rather, what I didn’t want.

The second time I had sex that I didn’t want to have, I was at a party, sitting on a couch. A guy, who I knew had a girlfriend, sat down and put his arm around me. I told him that I was uncomfortable with him touching me since he was in a relationship. The real reason I didn’t want him touching me was that I just wasn’t attracted to him, but I was too afraid to hurt his feelings, so I used the girlfriend excuse. He pursued me all night and eventually, after refusing his advances countless times, I gave in. I remember looking up at the ceiling while he was on top of me, feeling numb to what was happening.

The third – and not the last – time I had sex that I didn’t want to have, I was at my own party. I had disappeared upstairs to get away from the crowd for a bit. A boy that had been dancing with me downstairs came up to my room, opened the door, and after saying “hello,” turned off the light and got into my bed. I was shocked and didn’t know what to say or how to kick him out. He started kissing my neck. I didn’t say no or push him off. I didn’t say anything. Then, he took his clothes off and started to try to take off mine. That’s when my roommate walked in and I told her to get him out. She kicked him out of our house and later, when she asked what happened, I lied that I’d been drunk and didn’t remember. Even though I was perfectly sober, and remembered every detail, I didn’t want my friend to think I was stupid for not speaking up for myself.  

For feminist women like me, stories of nonconsent, especially ones where we initiated the encounter or passively laid there, are particularly embarrassing. Aren’t we – the feminists– the most most qualified women to speak up for ourselves? In reality, experiences like mine are all too common for many women, feminist or not. Just because some women feel confident saying no to an unwanted sexual encounter, doesn’t mean that all women, to quote Harriet Jay, are going to “shout ‘NO’ at the top of their goddamn lungs just because some guy is getting uncomfortably close.” These experiences are symptomatic of a culture that teaches women that the only acceptable way to act in any interaction with others is passively. The same culture then acts surprised when women behave passively during attempted or completed rapes: 

People wonder why women don’t “fight back,” but they don’t wonder about it when women back down in arguments, are interrupted, purposefully lower and modulate their voices to express less emotion, make obvious signals that they are uninterested in conversation or being in closer physical proximity and are ignored. They don’t wonder about all those daily social interactions in which women are quieter, ignored, or invisible, because those social interactions seem normal. They seem normal to women, and they seem normal to men, because we were all raised in the same cultural pond, drinking the same Kool-Aid.

And then, all of a sudden, when women are raped, all these natural and invisible social interactions become evidence that the woman wasn’t truly raped. Because she didn’t fight back, or yell loudly, or run, or kick, or punch. She let him into her room when it was obvious what he wanted. She flirted with him, she kissed him. She stopped saying no, after a while.

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