“Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.
I uploaded the above picture to my facebook this time last year. I’d spotted it, I don’t remember where, thought it was one of the funniest things I’d read on the internet and decided I’d share it with my friends– many who were just going through detox from our IFB college (a place where all women were required to wear skirts).
The comments exploded. In a matter of what felt like minutes, there were huge debates raging between maybe six different sets of friends. I hadn’t exactly expected that.
What I especially didn’t expect was for almost all of my friends who commented– men and women I respect, love, and admire– to instantaneously leap into deep victim blaming territory. One of them cited the supposed popularity of mini skirts in Japan and the problems the country has with upskirt photos and sexual assault on their subways. Another quoted a political leader in the Philippines as blaming their rape epidemic on mini skirts.
At that point, I interjected. I denounced the victim blaming that was happening and made this statement:
A victim is never responsible for his or her rape.
It seems like a simple idea, but it’s not. It wasn’t even an idea I would have been capable of articulating even a few months prior to this– because of the simple fact that I blamed myself for my rape. Because of a whole host of ideas– ideas like it’s the woman’s responsibility to set up physical boundaries, and if a man ignores those boundaries, it’s the woman’s fault, because she didn’t set those boundaries up clearly enough. After all, “a man will only go as far as a woman will let him.”
A comment I got on a post I wrote on the link between the purity culture and abusive relationships made me cry. Because my story was almost exactly the same as the one left in that comment– I’ve been there. I’ve been terrified, and confused, and lost, and not able to really understand what had happened to me and how to deal with it.
The reason why I couldn’t understand what had happened, and why I blamed myself for my rape for so long, was because I didn’t understand what consent is. For me, personally, consent is the most important, most powerful word I have now.
First, let me make this brutally clear:
Rape is non-consensual sex.
Rape is having sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you.
Rape is having sex with someone who has not given you a clear and enthusiastic yes.
Rape is having sex with someone in a way that he or she does not want to.
Rape is continuing to have sex with someone when he or she has withdrawn his or her initial consent.
Consent is based on the idea that, as a person, I have the right to determine what happens to my body. It is my body, and it does not belong to anyone else. I get to decide what I do and who I do it with–always. No exceptions. Any time that any person does something to my body that I don’t want to happen, it is sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape (and yes— this includes how someone else looks at my body. I get to decide how people look at me and what I find acceptable, and absolutely nothing I do, nothing I say, and nothing I wear changes that. Ever).
Consent means that I get to decide when I have sex, who I have sex with, and how that sex happens. If at any point during sex something happens that I don’t want, I have the right to say “stop.” If my sexual partner continues in the behavior, that is rape. Because it has moved from consensual sex to non-consensual sex, and non-consensual sex is rape. And let me make it plain so no one suffers any delusions: consent is not the absence of a “no.” Consent is saying “yes.” Consent can only be a “yes.”
When I am consenting to sex, I am only consenting to how I want to have sex. Consent is not a blanket that allows the sexual partner to do whatever the hell he or she wants without consulting the other.
It is also not exclusively my responsibility to make sure that I have communicated my consent clearly enough. It is primarily the responsibility of the initiating partner to ensure beyond all doubt that the other partner is interested– and continues to remain interested.
This means something really simple: ask. And guess what you have to ask? It’s really easy:
Do you want to have sex with me?
Is this ok?
If the answer to these questions is no, going past the “no” in any shape or form is sexual assault or rape.
Also, just to be clear– I say all of these things as a monogamous married woman. And everything I’ve said here still applies. Signing your name on your marriage license is not eternal, blanket consent to any time your husband or wife wants to have sex. Consent is an ongoing process- it happens before sex, and it needs to happen during sex, too. And just because I’ve agreed to sex before does not mean that I’m going to– or somehow obligated to– agree to sex again.
I’m not really concerned with the legal definition of rape, mostly because in many states that definition (hint: it usually includes the word “forcible”) is based on a myth. I’m also not concerned with the legal definition of consent. And no, I’m not saying that sexual partners have to ask for and gain a verbal consent every single time they have sex, especially after a relationship and trust is established. However, there are nights when I initiate sex with my husband, and if I sense anything that could remotely be a lack of desire, I ask. Usually he just looks at me like “are you kidding?!” and that’s enough for us.
However, this is where our definition of consent needs to begin.
Not in “well, she didn’t say no.”
Not in “but look at what she was wearing!”
Not in “her body language said she wanted it.”
And most definitely, it is not in “but she got wet” or “she got off on it.” Physical arousal has NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING to do with consent. At all. Period. End of story.
And for all those types who say “but stopping and asking will ruin the mood,” I say bullshit. Bullshit bullshit.
Do you know what does ruin the mood? Rape.