Consent & the Importance of Enthusiasm

Rape and sexual assault has a deep and lasting effect on its victim’s lives and as a result, these issues always form a key component of any self-defence course.

Discussions about rape tend to focus on things that people, specifically women, can do to avoid it. What not to wear, how to behave, where not to walk, what not to drink…

While these tend to be (mostly) well-meaning and even useful, such ‘advice’ has unforeseen and (hopefully) unintended consequences, especially that of ‘victim blaming’.

One in five women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. For someone who has been affected by sexual violence, reading such ‘advice’ can lead to harmful, negative thought-patterns; “If only I hadn’t worn that” / “If only I hadn’t had that drink.”

Rape is never the victim’s fault and yet the unhealthy focus on how women can avoid it perpetrates the idea that it should be a relatively simple thing to prevent. An idea that is reinforced by how our government deals with sex crimes (clue: focus is on the victims and not prevention; see Ally Fogg’s ‘Policy on Ending Sexual Violence – a thought experiment’) and our culture as a whole.

Aside from the negative connotations and victim-blaming, ‘advice’ in this form applies only to a specific type of rape – that of stranger rape – and yet the vast majority (90% in 2011/12) of serious sexual assaults are carried out by someone the victim knows.

Furthermore, while it is true that women are by far the main victims of sexual violence (about 85%) they are not the sole victims. It is important to remember that rape and sexual assault can affect anyone: female or male; straight or gay; cis or trans; from any and all walks of life.

In other words, in the majority of cases the traditional self-defence advice about sexual violence cannot be applied and, at worst, it encourages and reinforces an idea that victims of rape and sexual assault are partially, if not completely, to blame, as well marginalising other victims who already do not fall into the ‘typical’ majority.

Perhaps it is time for a different approach.

Recent high-profile cases such as Steubenville have raised the issues of consent and, disturbingly, the fact that a lot of teenagers didn’t realise what occurred there was rape. Consent is an important and vital part of sexual relationships, and yet it is not taught in schools or even mentioned in discussions on assault and rape. Some of the heart-breaking images on Project Unbreakable lend further weight to the fact that what was sex for one person was actually rape for their partner. Don’t be that person.

With that in mind, here are three simple rules everyone should follow to ensure all sexual encounters are enjoyable and fun for all participants

1. Always, always ask. Never assume consent.

Seriously, it takes less than a minute to make sure the person you are with actually wants to sleep with you. An “Are you sure?” / “Is this okay?” gives your partner a chance to say ‘no’.

2. “Get an enthusiastic ‘yes’; don’t just avoid a ‘no’”.

When talking about consent, we’re always told “no means no”. It seems such an obvious point but since a recent survey showed 27% of Scottish students think no means yes, it’s one that really has to be made again. If the person you’re with says no, you must respect that. Sex with a person is a privilege, not a right, and people are allowed to change their minds. Your body is your own and no one has any right to do anything to it that you don’t want them to. If at any point your partner says ‘no’ (or for the more bedroom-adventurous among you, uses a previously-agreed upon safe word) then stop. Immediately. To continue when your partner has said ‘no’ is rape.

But, more than just getting a ‘no’, the focus should be on enthusiastic consent

One the main things that has come out of Steubenville and similar cases, is that people seem to think the idea of consent is muddied, difficult or somehow fuzzy (Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, anyone?). What if your partner does not give a loud, clear ‘no’? Is it still okay to continue? What about non-verbal cues? What happens when alcohol is involved? 

There are many issues at play here which makes enthusiastic consent a far better determiner of whether to have sex with someone, from the socialisation of women to be non-direct to the fact that ‘no’ once again puts blame on the victim (“Didn’t say no? Well it’s your own fault…”). Harris O’Malley (aka. Dr. Nerdlove) puts it far more eloquently than me when he says: 

“The focus on an unambiguous yes […] cuts out any murkiness around the idea of whether somebody is consenting. [… ] That “enthusiastic” part is important, too, because it comes with the understanding that consent isn’t a binary decision; [it] falls on a sliding scale and can be dialed back or forward as both partners feel the need. Just because somebody said “yes” earlier doesn’t mean that they couldn’t change their mind later on… even in the middle of things, if it comes to it. If one partner or the other indicates that they’re no longer in the mood or that they don’t like what’s happening […] the sex stops.” {‘Getting a Yes (Instead of Avoiding a No) – the Standard of Enthusiastic’} 

3. If they are not sober or conscious enough to give consent, do not do anything to them.

Dr. Nerdlove’s rule of thumb is: “too drunk to drive is too drunk to consent.”Seriously, alcohol lowers inhibitions and clouds judgement. It is not a good mixture for making informed decisions. Let’s face it, if someone likes you enough to want to sleep with you when they’re drunk then there’s a good chance they’ll want to sleep with you when you’re both sober.And if they don’t like you enough when they’re sober? Then it’s probably for the best that nothing happened.

Remember, sex should be fun – for everyone involved. And while these steps alone will not solve the issues of sexual violence, they will make sure you do not become part of the problem.

                                                                      

References

Project Unbreakable aims to increase awareness of the issues surrounding sexual assault and encourage the act of healing through art. More details can be found here: http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/ Warnings for sexual assault and graphic descriptions.

The whole of Dr. Nerdlove’s article on enthusiastic consent can (and should!) be read here: http://www.doctornerdlove.com/2013/03/enthusiastic-consent/. Warnings for language and some graphic descriptions apply.

All quoted statistics came from the Office for National Statistics’: “An Overview of Sexual Offending in England & Wales”, published 10th January 2013 and can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/an-overview-of-sexual-offending-in-england-and-wales

Apart from “27% of Scottish students think ‘no’ means ‘yes’”, more details of which can be found here: http://feministing.com/2013/11/04/why-27-of-scottish-students-think-no-means-yes/

Ally Fogg’s ‘Policy on Ending Sexual Violence – a thought experiment’ can be read here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/hetpat/2013/10/28/policy-on-ending-sexual-violence-a-thought-experiment/

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