consenting to normal
In the #MeToo moment, the policing of those who speak up about varying forms of sexual violence and harm remains: the good victim/bad victim, real victim/fake victim paradigm has not gone away, it has merely shifted. And even then, not by much.
The significance of #MeToo was that it highlighted how so many of us have been affected by different forms of sexual violence, rupturing the notion that sexual violence only happens between a small and silent minority. It showed how deeply sexual violence is embedded into so many different interactions, workplaces, industries and our culture as a whole; operating in plain sight all along. While many already knew this through personal experience, it has still been a noteworthy time because of how publicly many survivors have been sharing their stories and demanding to be heard. However, while many claim to support the sentiments expressed by #MeToo, some remain steadfast in the belief that in order for sexual violence to count, it must be exceptionally and violently clear-cut. It must be real sexual violence, real rape, real rapists, real victims: otherwise, it’s a distraction, a watering-down, an appropriation, opportunism, a lack of personal responsibility, attention-seeking, or inauthentic.
Over the last week I’ve seen people writing that “Grace” and her account of her experiences with Aziz Ansari “cheapen” the #MeToo movement and what actual rape victims go through. It was just a bad date that she regretted. Why didn’t she just leave then. I’ve heard people say that she didn’t know what she wanted, but after the fact, was unhappy with what she got. I’ve also been seeing people say that because they believe Grace is white, her narrative is one of privilege and is therefore, suspect (a position I find harmful, not because I care what race she is, but because I find it disingenuous towards women of color — the underlying assumptions being that women of color are loyal to men of color and only victimized by white men, and don’t (or shouldn’t) feel hurt or overreact to “normal” bad experiences because they aren’t “privileged” enough to experience a range of sexual violations.) Lastly, I’ve been reading that though Ansari’s actions were obnoxious and perhaps oblivious, they are otherwise unremarkable and do not constitute any sort of crime.
These lines of thought are not new, nor is the desire to frame sexual violence as something of absolute binaries (rape or not rape, real or not real, criminal or not criminal) which must then be followed by absolute punishments. In the mainstream, “real” sexual violence often needs to be proven through a deeply unjust legal system or multiple forms of incontrovertible evidence. Then, it must be brought to “justice” by criminalization and/or complete exile (usually incarceration). This framework is reflected in the largely pro-criminalization approach that the anti-domestic and sexual violence movements have adopted over the past four decades, in which some feminists have chosen partnerships with police and district attorneys (often at the cost of criminalized survivors of violence) to pour efforts and resources into a primarily legal and systems-based strategy around combating gender violence. The legal/binary frame of sexual violence assumes that all real forms of sexual violence or harm must immediately legible as crimes, and therefore be treated as such. (And If not legible as a crime, then it must not be real sexual violence, or even very harmful at all.)
This framework, which is one of the primary ways that people understand sexual violence today, produces incredibly high stakes for sexual assault survivors, who are burdened with not only the violence they’ve experienced, but also all the consequences of what happens (or doesn’t happen) to their perpetrator if they choose to tell anyone. Is it their fault if the person who harmed them is legally, socially or financially impacted, criminalized, locked up, deported, or otherwise harmed? If the perpetrator is well-loved, then yes, because that person deserves another chance, they didn’t mean it, it wasn’t that bad anyway, they’re a breadwinner for their family, they’re a good person at heart and just made one mistake – whereas the accuser is painted as a slut, a homewrecker, vindictive, jealous, weak, not a real victim, and only out for revenge or money. On the other hand, is it the survivor’s fault if the person who harmed them goes on to violate others? Still, yes, because they are seen as bearing the responsibility for future victims, because they “knew” and are therefore seen as complicit if they don’t act, even if they are a victim. While many survivors often want some kind of acknowledgement, apology or reparations for what their perpetrators did, most survivors are assaulted by people they know — which often means that many are reluctant to speak out, not only out of fear of being disbelieved but also because they may be afraid of causing their perpetrator’s ruin (and the backlash that could follow). This dynamic can be compounded in marginalized communities that already face stigma and policing. (However, of course, the fact remains that most sexual assault cases go unprosecuted and only a very small minority of people will ever be convicted, which raises questions about how this system is working even by its own standards.)
There is an immense amount of pressure for survivors to be the right kind of victim with the right kind of assault story and all the right kind of evidence, because the punishments that follow must also be harsh and absolute. In this paradigm, there is little room for cases where survivors want safety and accountability without criminalization or social isolation, and little room for people who may want accountability for sexual harm that they themselves may not identify as sexual assault or rape. In spite of how varied the experiences of sexual violence and harm can be, the collective responses that we currently have remain painfully limited. As Native organizer and writer Kelly Hayes says, “We exceptionalize both “good” and “bad” people to spare ourselves the labor of interrogating normalcy — the very space in which most harm occurs.” Our sense of “normalcy” that Kelly refers to is predicated on that which should not be normalized — the acceptance of everyday forms of sexual violence, coercion and harm. This larger context creates strong incentive for everyone to not label their experiences, even when they are violent or harmful. And it is from this place that minimization, denial and normalization are exceedingly common for many who’ve experienced these things.
I won’t parse through the details of Grace’s story, nor will I spend time refuting all the bad takes recently published by The Atlantic or The New York Times (though some have done so here and here. South Asian feminist and organizer Darakshan Raja also shares her thoughts here as well.) However, I do want to question what it might mean to actually contend with sexual violence and harm at its most “normal”, as opposed to a spectacular mission to measure and contain monstrosity: specifically in our discourse around consent.
Affirmative consent, which is often discussed as the main remedy for normalized sexual violence and harm, is increasingly also used as the metric for determining what is and isn’t legitimate sexual practice, or what is and isn’t legitimate sexual violence and harm. (There is even an app being developed to create consent contracts for hookups.) However, I don’t believe that consent is the most helpful point of entry into thinking about the pervasive, insidious and “normal” ways that sexual violence, coercion and pressure operate. I may not have all the words for this yet, but I believe that there is much more to safety, dignity and respect in sex than to agreements and permission. In addition, sexual assault and coercion, as well as many instances of sexual harm, are not simply a result of people failing to recognize the signs of when someone is uncomfortable or afraid. It’s pushing forward in spite of them.
“Consent” is easier to establish than a relationship of mutual respect, honesty, vulnerability and safety, and the first doesn’t entail the second. It can be a missing piece, but is not the entire picture when many of us “consent” to receiving sexual violence, harm, coercion or pressure out of sheer exhaustion or trauma response (which includes freezing, appeasing and dissociating) — or “consent” in order to survive, lessen the risk of increased violence, minimize social fallout and preserve important relationships. Many of us, especially when we are younger, say “yes” thinking that it will be the only way to make it stop eventually. Sometimes one gives consent, even when they are being treated poorly, from a place of fear, shame, confusion, obligation, or disbelief about what is really happening in the moment for them. Like many of the women and queers I know, I too have stories of what I’ve struggled to name but secretly labeled “low-grade sexual violence” for myself because “consent” was there so it technically wasn’t, couldn’t have been, a violation. Understating harm (during and after) is our normal, and sometimes consent discourse obscures how insidiously sexual violence can operate. What is the value of consent — and who benefits from this value — when “consensual” sex can still be extremely dehumanizing and traumatic? Sometimes, people don’t know how to support others around these situations because they were “consensual” — but is the framework of consent the only way to understand harm? Verbal contracts and lessons in sexual etiquette aside, it seems that many people (particularly men, and people of all genders who do not treat their sexual partners well) often view negotiations of consent as ways to navigate liability or blame. What if instead, the conversations started with our humanity as women, queers, and people, first, and what we thought it meant to honor that? Not all sex will ever be guaranteed to be good, fulfilling or fun, but it shouldn’t have to feel like we are being pressured, or like it is exhausting, humiliating, traumatic, or scary because we aren’t being respected or truly seen.
Acknowledging that we can and often are harmed even in consensual sexual experiences, in “normal” sexual experiences, is not a cowardly attempt to shift blame, manipulate everyone, avoid responsibility and perpetually live as a victim, as some may imply. Rather, it is a practice in describing the oft-overlooked conditions of our sexual lives, giving voice to that feeling that something is not right, and moving towards reckoning with the far-reaching impacts of living in a world where sexual violence is the norm. In a different time or place, perhaps it would have been much easier for Grace to get up and leave. But perhaps we can re-write the story this way, as well: Aziz and Grace go on a date. They go back to his place intending to chill and possibly hook up. Aziz wants to move faster than she does, and realizes quickly that Grace seems hesitant. Maybe she says no, let’s slow down. Maybe she says let’s relax, let’s chill. He accepts, respects what she says and stops. Asks her if she wants some water or tea. Says it’s cool not to do anything else, and means it. Maybe they briefly check in about expectations. Maybe he still wants sex but they part ways for the night. Or maybe he still wants sex and when she’s more comfortable, she initiates again. Things may stop and start then stop again, they may get awkward, but they don’t feel terrible and violating. And it isn’t the worst night of Grace’s life. This is one version of what could have been, and I wonder, why is it that in so many purportedly “feminist” opinions and re-writings, Ansari’s actions remain unchanged, while Grace is the one who must be stronger, better, smarter, faster? Even these “feminist” imaginings of a better night for Grace hinge on this type of normal, where it is said to be her fault that she chose — or “consented” (in spite of her different “no’s”) — to feel violated and traumatized. #MeToo, they seem to say, but not like that. Not like her.
If everyone, especially women, girls and queers, always felt empowered to speak how they truly felt, had the language and experiential knowledge and skill for interrupting dynamics that felt bad, that would be wonderful. I hope that for myself, and learning how to be my own best advocate has been a necessary, difficult, and healing process for me. It has involved learning and unlearning many things about how I relate to myself and the world around me. However, the question of “agency” in our world is one that is often marred and complicated by power dynamics, societal misogyny and prescriptive gender roles, our individual experiences with our communities and families, past relationships, old and new trauma, the histories of our bodies, and sexual partners that push, cajole, repeatedly insist, try and try again in eighty different ways, and finally take consent and sometimes have sex with a body that stops responding.
What would it look like to open up our imaginations beyond all this? Perhaps it begins with seeing and truly engaging with the reality of endemic sexual violence in our society, which can take many different forms. It can grow more concrete as we meet people who have been harmed with compassion and generosity. It can become sharper as we challenge misogyny, as well as the gender norms that say men are all this way, therefore women are all this way, and queer and trans people don’t belong here. It can become more strategic as we realize that individualizing a structural problem into monsters we can banish will change little but the face of the problem. It can mature as we develop more responses to sexual violence that do not minimize impact, and also do not need to rely on punishment, isolation or the failed strategies of criminalization that disproportionately harm Black, immigrant and Native communities. People all over the country are already doing this work. It is small and imperfect, but it is growing.