Men talking to Men: Only Yes Means Yes
Affirmative Consent Is Required, Not Optional
Note: The following is a guest post by my husband that people asked be made publicly available. The woman he mentions in the post consented to have it published.
Let me start by saying I don’t want any cookies for this. Chanda wrote this powerful Facebook post last week about her experience with sexual assault and called for men to speak out about consent. We talked about it and agreed it made sense for me to share this post. So let me start out by saying that I’m writing this from the place of being a person who has failed to always get affirmative consent. Put your cookies away, I don’t deserve any. There’s no excuse for that.
Chanda and I have talked with each other a lot about consent. Activists, I think, often want bright lines because that is how you push for change, and there are definitely lines that should not be crossed when it comes to sex and how you treat the bodily integrity of another person. You should never take advantage of another person, whether they are a woman, femme, gender minority or cis man, when they are not able to consent. “Yes Means Yes” is a valuable rule most of all because it reflects a lot of what is needed to change our culture of rape; that is, our culture which excuses rape and sexual assault as a less heinous crime than other types of bodily harm, rather than one that is worse.
And the power of affirmative consent is that it changes the situation from one of uncertainty to one of certainty. If you are with a new potential sexual partner whose body language you’re unfamiliar with and you kiss them, are you feeling them teasing you, trying to draw out the foreplay, or are they pulling away from you because they don’t want to go any further? There’s an easy way to find out: ask. There were some great PSAs about how asking for affirmative consent can be sexy as hell, I hope they are on YouTube for folks to share. But patriarchy and rape culture has taught folks that asking is not sexy, that asking is not masculine or is too passive or weak or lacking confidence. It only is if one is being boring and lazy. It doesn’t have to be. Ask boldly, with respect and with the sexiest voice you have. Eye contact is sexy. Honesty is sexy. Respect is sexy.
This is not something I’ve always understood. And I take full responsibility for the times that I didn’t ask for affirmative consent. And I take full responsibility for the fact that a lack of affirmative consent renders sexual acts without it sexual assault, at least in the ideal world I hope to be a part of building. I realize that I’ve fallen into all of the typical situations where rape culture tells us that it isn’t necessary to communicate and connect and empathize with my sexual partner. Bringing a potential partner home and making out, and taking intimacy to the next level without asking for affirmative consent — why did I do that? I have lessons in my head about what is sexy, how cis men should behave in these situations, what is “normal” and what is “okay” and how to read social cues of “appropriate” sexual behavior. I used these things as excuses for not putting in the extra work of communicating, of being respectfully sexy and sexily respectful. Of being engaged and interested and empathetic. I was boring and lazy, but being boring and lazy in sex has bigger implications. The partner in question was willing to discuss with me what had happened, though she was under no obligation or moral duty to do so. The onus of owning up to the disruption of a woman or gender minority’s bodily integrity, or that of any partner in a weaker position of power (whether social, cultural, or any other system of power), falls upon the instigator and the person who failed to secure the affirmative consent.
I’ve also been in long term relationships where sex happened regularly, and where I wouldn’t ask before initiating intimate behavior. Did I stop if my partner said “no”? I did. But that low bar is cultural. There’s no objective reason that a person — especially a cis man, or the more physically imposing partner, or the partner in the social or institutional position of power — should be considered a “worse” sexual assaulter or rapist because their victim said “no” repeatedly, rather than saying “no” once and then relenting, or rather than remaining silent. Regardless of these circumstances, in all of which the survivor was not asked for affirmative consent and did not give it, the victim is still violated. The ridiculous thing is, in almost all of these situations within a long term relationship, my partner would have said “yes” if I’d asked for affirmative consent.
This is going to seem a little strange, but some important discussions I’ve had with Chanda about consent were inspired by a story arc on the now-canceled show “Switched at Birth” (on ABC Family, which just changed its name to the nonsensical “Free Form”). This story arc in the final two seasons of the show touched on issues of sexual assault and consent, specifically in the context of taking advantage of someone when they are drunk.
The show was problematic in many important ways, but even the ways in which is was problematic were important touchstones for discussion. For example, there was a fair amount of time spent on how an accusation of sexual assault against the perpetrator affected that cis man’s life. Unintentionally, this highlighted one of the unintended consequence of using bright line rules: an absolute line can play into a preexisting cultural tendency to want to demonize perpetrators of crimes. Although victims are entirely justified in seeing their perpetrator in whatever way makes sense to them, including as monsters, it’s important for broader society to realize that rapists don’t come with a “monster” sign on their heads. The logic goes “a rapist is a very evidently bad person who might jump out at you from the shadows” rather than the study partner you trusted to walk you home.
We know from statistics that most rape and sexual assault involve people who already know each other, who had some preexisting friendship or at least acquaintance. Do we usually associate with people we already know to be awful human beings, fully without worth, or is it more likely that these people have some qualities that are considered socially attractive within a normative framework? Who are sexual assaulters? It turns out that they are best friends, advisors/professors, people in your industry or field of study who are further along in their careers, someone you’ve known professionally but just met for the first time at a conference, someone who you’ve gone out partying with for years without any issues. They are mentors and collaborators and coworkers. They are boyfriends and husbands. And most of them are probably not outwardly demons. In “Switched at Birth,” the perpetrator was a very nice guy. He’d dated the victim previous to the sexual assault.
Even though it wasn’t necessarily the lesson that the show intended, it was important to see that perpetrators can even be loved ones, people that we’ve grown to care about deeply and whose happiness we are invested in. And yet, they still have violated another person. We are still responsible for our actions.
The show did a decent job of illustrating how the culture of rape itself is integrated into how people interact, how people act at parties, how friends act at parties when they see their friends getting drunk, how people treat survivors, how people treat perpetrators, how partners and friends and family treat survivors, and how institutions treat everyone. There is so much potential in the Title IX protections for students against sexual assault, and also so much broken in how it has been implemented. Most of all, there is so much cultural and institutional disincentive for honesty and open communication.
I am absolutely not suggesting that anyone has responsibility any individual incident of sexual assault beyond the perpetrator. That is why affirmative consent is so important. When I talk about honesty and communication, part of that is about creating more, not less, accountability. Each person is responsible for not raping others, but we must also support changing the rape culture that amplifies the harmful effects of sexual assault and provides excuses for perpetrators.
Honesty and communication mean making sure that processes include and respect the needs and desires of the survivor. That includes making sure that whatever consequences or punishment the perpetrator faces are appropriate and will improve the well-being of the survivor. In some instances, such as in “Switched at Birth,” a restorative justice process would have served the survivor much better than the expulsion of the perpetrator from college. In other instances, the survivor needs the perpetrator gone, out of any position of power where they can harass, bully, or remind the survivor of what they have suffered.
As it stands, the needs of the survivor are very far down the list of priorities of the systems we have in place to deal with sexual assault, be it the criminal justice system or institutions of higher education. Title IX, for example, has created a mandatory reporting requirement that applies to all university staff who are told of a sexual assault. There are very good reasons for the requirement, but it also places staff in a difficult position given the reality of what it means to bring charges of a sexual assault against a perpetrator. We’ve created a situation where some survivors don’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone about what happened to them.
There is so much that can be done better, and so much of it could be done easily if there was simply the will for it, simply the desire to stop giving into and shielding the culture of rape, the culture of patriarchy. What if fraternities and sports teams and dormitories held every member responsible for keeping each other in line and protecting potential victims of sexual assault? What if it wasn’t okay to have a party where someone was allowed to take another drunk person home by themselves? What if conferences were held accountable for sexual harassment that occurred during the conference, and for allowing known sexual harassers into the conference? What if there were professional repercussions for more senior academics who sexually assaulted their juniors or their students? What if it didn’t take decades of inappropriate or illegal behavior or national news stories to get institutions to take real action against professors, preventative action that protected future students and staff? What if perpetrators of sexual assault couldn’t just move from one institution to another without official complaints following them, without warnings being given to those at the new institution?
What if parents told their child that the absolute worst thing they could ever do would be to not ask for affirmative consent? What if friends unfriended each other for failing to recognize the necessity of affirmative consent and for participating in a culture of rape? What if people felt the responsibility to openly apologize for failing to ask for affirmative consent, and felt obligated by social norms to ask for forgiveness, even though they know they can never ask for anyone to forget.
I’m sorry I didn’t ask for affirmative consent. I ask for forgiveness, not forgetting.