A World Without Consent

Rape culture, and the terrifying burden of agency 

Over the past few years, I’ve been involved in quite a few conversations about the tangly overlaps between feminism, popular culture, and the evangelical/fundamentalist faith I grew up with. A couple of events in particular triggered some long (and sometimes heated) discussions: the wrenching story of a woman’s rapist friending her on Facebook, a community drama explosion centered around a clumsy/creepy proposition, and the ensuing MetaFilter discussions about both.

No matter how conversations about these issues started, they inevitably passed through the same checkpoint: What IS rape?

If you take the legal definition seriously, the answer is simple: if you have sex with someone and they haven’t given explicit consent, congratulations! You’re a rapist. “Consent” isn’t a terribly hard concept to understand, and when we apply it to things like entering someone’s house or borrowing someone’s car, nobody seems to get confused. When the issue is sex, though, a percentage of the population suddenly gets confused, even baffled.

Hypotheticals came out: What if someone was super drunk? Were they able to give consent if they just had impaired judgement? What if they wanted to have sex, but woke up later, changed their mind and said that they didn’t? Or — and this one is the kicker — What if they protested, but they actually did want it? If consensual sex required explicit consent, how would shy people or people with conflicted feelings ever get laid?

The tragedy of this final objection (raised more times than I could count) was the transparency of its rationalization. “She may have said stop, but she really wanted it — I could tell” was so monstrously cliche, so absurdly delusional, that it begged to be dismissed out of hand. No one would accept that excuse if we were discussing any other topic. Even the men who claim that “women are too subtle” when rejecting their advances are lying — men can understand “polite refusal” as well as anyone else. Yet… Yet, in the back of my mind, a nagging discomfort remained through these discussions. I’d grown up with good friends — both male and female — whose lives were evidence of something more complex. I had male and female friends who, though conflicted about their own sexual volition, wanted to have sex and were happy when it happened, even though they had not consented and in some cases protested. Of course, I knew close friends who’d been sexually assaulted and raped as well — some by people they’d trusted, often in situations that were externally indistinguishable from my conflicted-but-pleased friends.

Needless to say, this conflict bothered me. A lot.

I’ve met a number of people over the years who’ve protested the idea of “explicit consent” as the criteria for rape, even before these MeFi threads. A lot of them were just flat out creepy: people who very clearly liked the idea of pushing another person into something they were uncertain of or opposed to, and rationalized it. These people were rape apologists, plain and simple. But there was also a minority of genuinely troubled people — mostly from the same evangelical/fundamentalist world I knew from my youth — who couldn’t imagine a world where anyone would ever have sex if “explicit consent” was necessary.

Why is it, I wondered, that the only people I ran into who shared those concerns turned out to be creepy rape apologists… or my fellow-travelers from Christian culture? Some would argue that Christianity’s patriarchal structure, and conservative fundamentalists’ rigorous embrace of traditional gender roles, easily explain it. I think there’s something subtler at work, though — something even more dangerous in the heart of our popular Christian culture’s treatment of sex that is undermining the very idea of consent.

In the world I was raised in, most junior high, high school, and perhaps even college students were unlikely to give explicit consent — even though they were willingly having sex. I don’t just mean girls, either — both men and women in that environment had the lessons of immorality, temptation, and so on drilled into them. Sex was treated as a dangerous thing that all people desired, but good people resisted. Falling into temptation was perhaps understandable, but planning for it or encouraging it? That was embracing sin and deliberately rebelling against God.

A close friend of mine once explained without irony that using condoms was a more serious sin than unprotected premarital sex, because it implied premeditation. Premarital sex was consistently presented as theft of innocence, of purity, of something that rightly “belonged” to your partner’s future spouse. Tearful confessions were accepted with open arms, because what sort of person wouldn’t regret premarital sex? As we know from research, anecdotes, and common sense, all of the abstinence pledges and purity rings in the world don’t keep kids who are going to have sex from having it. At best, they hem and haw for a few months longer than their peers; at worst, they engage in risky unprotected sex for all of the reasons discussed above.

In that kind of environment, the idea of deliberately, actively, openly choosing sex — owning up to it and telling your partner that you’re ready — is practically unthinkable. Pushing boundaries, both your own and your partner’s, becomes the only way anyone gets laid, and over time it becomes normed. Protest, conflicted sex, and a veneer of regret functions as a sort of polite fiction, and many of the kids get what they want out of it. They have sex with their partner, and they don’t feel quite as much guilt because they can convince themselves that “It Just Happened.”

But inevitably, you get the dark side: some asshole learns “that’s how it works,” and date rapes a girl (or several) in his youth group, or goes on to college and does the same because — hey, that’s how it works! That kid assumes that a woman’s ambivalence — or even protest, depending on how deluded he is — is just part of the polite fiction “everyone” uses to avoid guilt and regret about their own sexual choices. In other cases, young women in the youth group culture are coerced into having sex, and understand that something terribly wrong has happened, but have no clear way of articulating how it’s different than what everyone else is doing. In some cases, they lack the language to explain how date rape is different from what they have voluntarily engaged in.

As I work through the tangles of the world I’d known — and the implications of its intersections with the wider world that I’m now a part of — I’m slowly becoming more and more horrified. The hardcore abstinence message of the conservative suburban youth groups I knew, and the poisonous atmosphere of normalized denial and rationalization, are basically training a generation of men and women who literally don’t understand what sexual consent looks like.

I find that terrifying, and depressing.

What can be said to people who are carrying around that kind of confusion? We already talk a lot about listening when people (especially women) say “no.” Some people will ignore that or brush it aside because they simply don’t care, and those people are beyond the reach of messaging or wordsmithing.

For the dangerously confused people, perhaps one approach is focusing on the dangerous and unhealthy aspect of the “polite fiction” culture.

To my fellow travelers from the world of Christian culture: If your partner communicates ambivalence, resistance, and regret, yet you know that they want to have sex with you, it is not what ‘everyone’ does. You are either misreading them and committing rape, or you are having sex with someone who is unable or unwilling to communicate consent. You need to talk it through and learn to communicate unambiguously, or you need to run like hell. If you are on the other side of that dynamic — if you are expressing ambivalence or resistance because you don’t want to think of yourself as someone who engages in premarital sex — you need to stop. Now. Either your partner is confused and uncertain and will not understand “no” when you need them to, or you are with someone who does not care — someone who is willing to rape you if they want sex and you do not.

I can say from experience that learning to navigate the waters of one’s own desire, and communicating honestly with a partner, can be challenging and frightening. But it is far less frightening than the alternative.