In this continuing series, guest blogger Toria helps us consider rape culture and how better to “do justice” for women. Warning: Some explicit images ahead.
Alcohol is a factor in many rape cases. Many stories exist about a man hitting on a woman at a bar or a club only to abandon her when he finds out she’s still sober. A good number of the rape cases that make headlines involve women being drunk and assailants using their mental state to their advantage. Drunk women are frequently targeted by men for sex because of the impairment of judgment and ability to protest.
Another aspect of rape culture is the narrow definition of sexual consent that many people hold to. Many of us think that as long as a person isn’t saying no, if sex happens, it’s consensual. This isn’t always the case. If the person is under the legal age of consent (this area is cloudy because teens have sex, so I’ll be more specific by saying adults having sex with someone underage), intoxicated (by alcohol, drugs or otherwise) to the point where their judgment is impaired, passed out / asleep, too frightened to protest, or has to be pressured into having sex, any following sexual encounter while she is in that state is a rape or sexual assault; it is also a rape or assault if the encounter begins consensually, but one person wants to stop and this wish is ignored by their partner.
By denying these caveats to consent, which many people do (including some judges, lawyers, and police officers), society isolates victims and silences them because these victims usually end up thinking that the crime was their fault and that they will get into trouble if they report it. They will be convinced that it was their fault for being drunk or getting high, rather than blaming the person who violated them and preyed upon them using their legal inability to give sexual consent.
The Tumblr consent-advocacy community has a saying that people would do well to follow: The only consent is a clear-headed, enthusiastic “yes.” This means that the person has to be under no pressure, by you or anyone else, to have sex; they cannot be drunk or high or otherwise incapacitated; and they cannot be afraid of the consequences of a refusal.
In regards to the “reasonable” point of intoxication, there’s no exact way to determine the legality of the person’s consent if they have partaken in drugs or alcohol. According to a local police officer here in Calgary, Alberta, the person “must have an understanding of their actions—having the physical, emotional, and mental capacity to agree.” Having a couple of drinks is likely fine, but when someone’s starting to have difficulty walking in a straight line or is starting to slur their words, that’s where the “blurred lines” start. California reformed a piece of rape legislation to try and make these situations clearer by saying that the alcohol used to “help along” a rape didn’t have to be supplied by the perpetrator, but that still leaves a lot of things up to interpretation.
There was an opinion piece for CNN in which the author described telling her college-age son to get girls to text their consent to him while they were sober in case they ended up hooking up after getting drunk, so that he could prove that she was consenting to any following encounter. There are at least problems with this sort of suggestion. What if the woman withdraws consent after sending the text but before or during a sexual encounter? What if she leaves her phone unattended and her prospective partner sends that text for her, with or without her knowledge? How would you prove that you did or didn’t consent at any time? The thought behind the idea is fine enough, but it might be better to perhaps text a close friend. “I’m going home with this person named [X]. If I don’t text you back by a certain time, please check in on me.” If you’ve been drinking and you want to cover your bases, you’ll have to find a way to prove that you’re still in control of your mental faculties. Maybe ask them to give you a math question to do, or something that will require a fair amount of thought to answer correctly. Find something that works for you.
What about if they don’t say yes or no? Then their partner had better make sure that consent is intended. If a partner isn’t enthusiastically reciprocating attentions, they need to ask, to clarify.
What counts as a “no”? Lots of little things. If a person is physically avoiding contact (turning their face away when you try to kiss them, edging away from you if you’re sitting too close, etc.), that person is not interested in going any further. If they let you touch them but don’t reciprocate, are very still, and look nervous, angry, upset or indifferent, this is very likely a “no” as well. If they actually say “no” or “stop,” then backing off and leaving them alone is the only acceptable thing you can do. If they are paying positive attention to you (body language, physical contact, smiling, laughing, flirting, willingly providing contact information), then you should be okay to proceed. When in doubt, it is best to ask.
“Well, she might not have been enthusiastic, but she didn’t say no and didn’t fight back, so …” So what? I’m going to tell you a personal story. [Trigger warning: sexual assault] One night I was staying at my boyfriend’s house. I woke up in the middle of the night on my stomach in pitch darkness with someone’s hand between my legs. I was groggy and couldn’t remember where I was, since I couldn’t see anything and couldn’t recognize my surroundings, and I was terrified. I didn’t move or speak as the hand continued to touch me, and it took me five long minutes to finally remember where I was and that it was probably my boyfriend’s hand. A moment later he snored and rolled over onto his other side, completely asleep. When I told him about it in the morning, still upset, he said that he didn’t remember doing it and must have been asleep the whole time. “Why didn’t you tell me to stop?” he kept asking, and I finally told him that it’s not easy to speak up when you are scared and alone. It’s hard to say “no” when that word could mean the difference between getting through the encounter or winding up dead. If the person touching me had meant to harm me if I resisted, I would have had no chance; I was lying face-down with my back to him, trapped by him in the corner of the room, unarmed. I wanted to survive, so I kept my mouth shut.
Point of the story: assume that unenthusiastic silence is the same as saying “no”; sometimes silence just happens to be “safer.” Need a couple of other examples of why this is true?
- In San Francisco, a man stabbed a woman in the face and arm after she failed to respond positively to his harassing her on the street.
- In Bradenton, Florida, a man shot and killed a high school girl after she and her friends refused to perform oral sex.
The scary thing is, though, that consent just doesn’t matter to some people. At the start of this university term, the University of British Columbia and Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia came under fire when students complained about Frosh chants. According to CTV News, “The UBC chant reportedly included the phrases: ‘Y-O-U-N-G at UBC, we like ’em young,’ ‘Y is for your sister,’ ‘N is for no consent,’ and ‘G is for go to jail’—which are similar to the lyrics from a chant by Saint Mary’s University students.” If that isn’t completely disheartening and a prime example of rape culture in action, I don’t know what is.