IN Swaziland, teenage girls are taught about sexually transmitted diseases, condoms and HIV testing information handed out at will as they learn that sex is dangerous and mostly for men.
In India, The Justice Verma Committee’s recommendation on recognizing marital rape as an offence under criminal law was hastily swept aside by the Standing Committee on Home, on the basis that ‘marriage presumes consent.‘
And a few weeks ago, in the HBO series Girls, Adam raped his girlfriend Natalia onscreen.
All three of these situations highlight an unspoken topic in the fight against rape and sexual abuse: the presumed notion of consent.
We know all too well the meaning of no. We write about it, we repeat it, and men learn very early that: ‘no means no’ – and then quickly learn the accompanying jokes and ways to refute it.
As women, we’re told to say no when we feel uncomfortable. No, when we don’t want to be touched. No, when the lines are clearly drawn. That’s the way we like to read about rape too. We like clear-cut, open and shut cases of rape. We want a victim and a criminal. We want the victim to be decisive in her statements, preferably with no sexual promiscuity, and who clearly resisted the abuse, tooth and nail.
We certainly did not like the Steubenville rape case. We didn’t want to report on it for a long time. When it finally went to trial, just take a look at how the media fumbled their way through being rape apologists over a drunken girl and high school football stars.
What we especially don’t like are the situations like the ones described in India, Swaziland and on Girls, where pleasure, consent and that uncomfortable middle ground of sex arise and we don’t quite know how to feel about it – or what to do.
Let me preface the rest of this column by how I feel about what happened on Girls: it was rape. Was Natalia raped the way we like to read about it? No. Not at all.
But that doesn’t make the rape any less real.
The problem I think, is twofold. First, gender power imbalances remain present, whether in India or in New York, and accompany us right into our bedrooms. Second, we don’t stress the importance of consent, because it suggests a reformulation of traditional gender roles. We are so concentrated on the ‘no’ that if it’s not heard, then it doesn’t matter. The sex can go on.
Presumed consent removes all agency from the woman, and subjects her to complete control by her companion. It is a selfish, degrading and potentially harmful way to conduct a sexual relationship, one that makes the female body a thing to be taken at will, with no importance placed on her wants or wishes. It presumes that the man is the likely perpetrator of sexual abuse – that there is a defined giver and a taker. And that the taker will always win. These are, unfortunately, the very definitions of traditional gender roles when it comes to sex.
This brings us to Swaziland. Sex without pleasure seems pointless, but in many places and in many relationships, it occurs all the time and is a predominantly male-dominated act: he takes the lead, he take the pleasure, he always orgasms. I’m not sure this is something to be proud of, unless your companion is doing the same. Taking pleasure is not the same as having pleasure, and a whole other world to giving pleasure. Again, presumed consent looks at the notion of pleasure selfishly: a woman is there to give pleasure, willingly or not, while a man is there to take it.
I like that Girls showed this awful and disconcerting rape scene (wait, is there any other kind?). We often think of girls being subjugated and without voice in other countries, and think that sex must be a horrible activity for them. The scene between Natalia and Adam brings it back home, to a place where we mistakenly assume that women and men have an equal voice in an act where both are supposed willing participants, back to the unequal power relations between men and women that exist everywhere.
Congratulations if you haven’t been there – but I doubt it. As a woman, I’m willing to bet there has been at least one sexual episode that left you feeling uncomfortable, like you should have said no, you should have gotten up to leave, you should have done something, anything, but you didn’t and now its over, and you feel you can’t.
Even here, the pressure is on us.
I certainly have been in these situations. And I’m a pretty outspoken woman. But there’s something about the bedroom and the imbalances in power relations between men and women that have placed me in very uncomfortable situations. Plural. I’m betting this has happened to you too – but we’ve never talked about it. We don’t talk about our consent, our pleasure and how we feel. The sex is over, he’s had his orgasm, can’t you just move on?
Maybe it comes down to women not being taught to ask for their pleasure, or ever to take it, the way men do. Maybe its men not being taught to respect a woman’s body and value her pleasure in the sexual experience. Maybe it comes down to the closed lines of communication where a man’s ego suffers so greatly if his sexual acts are questioned and a woman’s expected role is to give and give without refusal. Yes, people have bad, awkward and angry sex for many different reasons. But unequal power relations in the bedroom that aren’t explicitly consensual can lead to very harmful situations.
The main criticism of John Locke’s theory of consent is that without the power to refuse consent, we cannot give true consent. While we may look to other cultures as places where that lack of power to refuse can be clearly identified, we know all too well that imbalances in gendered power dynamics can come to haunt our sexual activities – but because we’re supposed to be free, outspoken and ‘born equal‘ – we don’t talk about this thing we still know is very much alive, in our heads as well as in our actions.
What if we based sex on the radical concept of consent instead? Not presumed, one-sided understood or “I thought…” consent. There’s a big difference between not saying no and enthusiastically saying yes. Of course I don’t think people should verbally communicate their consent at every second of the act (although a little enthusiastic and positive dirty talk is always welcome). But wouldn’t you want to be in an experience that is mutually wanted instead of reluctantly accepted? Aren’t you paying enough attention to your partner to read their non-verbal cues? And if you put the entire onus on your partner to tell you ‘no’ – what does that mean about your own skewed version of power and sex?
All around the world we teach young girls and women about sexual health and encourage abstinence, the use of birth control and protection. What we don’t talk about enough is the pleasure component. We don’t teach enough about the importance of valuing your partner, respecting their boundaries and wanting them to be pleasured as well. We don’t teach women and men to love their bodies and love each other. We don’t knock down harmful stereotypes about who does and gives or takes what in the bedroom and that ‘good girls’ don’t ask for things, while whores deserve anything. We don’t redefine gender roles that bring about these stereotypes, and we continue to view rape through a very gendered lens, one that places the onus solely on the victim, as if power imbalances do not influence her actions.
Consent. This little notion that somehow works to rebalance the inequalities present between partners in the bedroom should be an integral part of our lives. We must claim it, require it and be respected because of it. Our partners should learn it, ask for it and make sure it’s present. To continue to presume its existent would be harmful for the delicate power balances we are fighting to correct.