Does The GOP Not Understand Consent?

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Encouraged by their echo chamber — where dissent is not tolerated and rich, white men cling to the power they fear is slipping away — conservatives have grown brazen. Over the past decade, tropes that were once strategically hidden from mass public consumption have crept into view.

They’ve done away with dog whistles and veiled misogyny, nominating a man who is the very embodiment of bigotry and entitlement. Were he less orange, he’d be White Privilege personified.

Listening to Republicans and their mouthpieces wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days while justifying their denial of rights and agency to everyone from same-sex couples wanting to marry to people in need of abortion care the past several election cycles has left me wondering if they aren’t simply defending political/”moral” positions.

More and more I have found myself considering a rather terrifying question: Do Republicans simply not know what consent means?

I first pondered this question well before Trump became the first admitted sexual assailant to run for president, but his campaign and the cultural fissures it’s brought to the surface have left me more sure than ever that there’s more than just privilege at work here. There is overwhelming evidence that the concept of consent is foreign to a significant part of our political class, culminating in a preemptive refusal by the GOP candidate to accept election results should he not win.

When the agency of an entire electorate can be dismissed as easily as the agency of a woman grabbed without permission, it’s long past time for all of us to demand more of our elected officials and nominees for office.

It feels like forever ago that congressional candidate Todd Akin unleashed a decades-old, anti-choice belief that sparked a (brief) nationwide conversation about whether Republican legislators and talking heads understand the concept of consent. Parroting a “justification” for eliminating exemptions to abortion restrictions in cases of rape and incest, Akin asserted during the 2012 election that pregnancy from rape is “really rare.” And anyway, he continued, “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

During the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, the last ditch effort of the GOP to turn out voters on “social issues” focused on marriage equality. Candidates for office from state houses to congress routinely referenced the “slippery slope” of letting two people of the same gender enter into a contract for lifelong committment. All I could think every time I heard or read a quote was, “They get that people of the same gender are people and therefore are able as adults to consent to marriage and/or sex, right? RIGHT??”

My favorite groan-worthy nonsense came from Rebecca Kleefisch in 2012 while she was running for Lt. Governor of Wisconsin.

“This is a slippery slope,” Kleefisch said during a radio interview. “In addition to that, at what point are we going to be okay marrying inanimate objects? Can I marry this table or this, you know, clock? Can we marry dogs?”

No, Rebecca. You cannot marry an inanimate object or a dog; neither can consent or legally enter into a contract. Allowing two people of the same gender to marry does not negate all of contract law or suddenly anthropomorphize your living room furniture.

The examples were endless. “Republicans Predict Fraud, Bestiality if Gay Marriage Is Legalized,” ABC News reported in 2013. Conservative stalwart and near-perpetual presidential candidate Rick Santorum repeatedly warned us that same-sex marriage would lead to rampant polygamy — oh the horror! (For the record, my issue with polygamy isn’t the multiple spouses, it’s the one-sided, religiously-based oppression of women and children that occurs routinely under polygamy’s traditional form.)

Conservative blowhards were, of course, fueling the misinformation campaign. “[Y]ou would let everybody get married who want to get married. You want to marry a turtle, you can,” Bill O’Reilly said to a guest of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor back in 2009. Previous theoretical marriages suggested by O’Reilly include those to “a goat,” “a duck,” and “a dolphin.” Sorry, Bill, but animals don’t have the ability to consent any more than clocks or tables. Again, marriage equality was about CONSENTING ADULTS.

Pat Robertson has been predictably unmoved by the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Just over a year ago he said, “Watch what happens, love affairs between men and animals are going to be absolutely permitted. Polygamy, without question, is going to be permitted, and it will be called a right.” He then agreed with his co-host who suggested that marriage equality would lead to the legalization of “relationships with children.”

One more time for those in the back: CHILDREN CANNOT ENTER INTO LEGAL CONTRACTS LIKE MARRIAGE BECAUSE THEY CANNOT CONSENT.

The possibility that GOP leaders weren’t just pushing a right-wing agenda and might, in fact, not understand what constitutes consent and who can give it both ethically and legally was cemented last month by none other than Rush Limbaugh. As the mouthpiece of the right, his abhorrent utterings are often an appropriate place to go to take the temperature of the republican side of the aisle. If only he was right and we actually had “rape police”:

“You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it’s perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left.”

It was hard not to jump up and down waving my arms saying, “Yes, you’ve nailed it! Finally! Consent is the thing that matters with everything!” But, of course, Limbaugh wasn’t actually condoning the essential concept of consent, but flagrantly mocking it.

Setting aside the problems with rape culture on the left — and there are so very, very many — Limbaugh has the concept of consent completely right: Sex acts of all kinds are perfectly fine as long as all involved are intentionally and consensually involved. Full stop. One would have to wonder, what exactly is his problem with people engaging in fun, adult activities that don’t harm anyone?

Limbaugh isn’t expressing distaste for a particular act or gender makeup of the participants. He isn’t digging his heels in to stop the spread of some open love hippie agenda to bring more pleasure to the people. He is telling his listeners that the idea of consent is an awful, leftist conspiracy to . . . To what? This is where his rage (as usual) betrays him. If there were a leftist conspiracy to increase consensual sex (and I promise there isn’t, but am super down to join it should one start), what possible horrors would be unleashed?

The answer: a shift in power.

An outsider unfamiliar with our political system could easily think the party of “less government” and “personal liberty” would be leading the consent bandwagon. But — as they’ve made abundantly clear by their legislative priorities — they’re really only worried about less intrusion on straight, rich, cis, white dudes. And their money. And their power.

Consent can get in the way of this hyper-privileged group of people doing whatever they want whenever they want to, and of never having to feel the least bit uncomfortable. And so, they push back against the very notion of consent.

Which brings us to Trump and his “dunno if I’ll be accepting defeat” slash “what democracy??” comments during debate number three. After continuing to claim that the general election has been rigged against him, he wouldn’t commit to accepting the results. “I will look at it at the time,” he said. “I will keep you in suspense.” He went further post-debate, saying he would accept the election outcome “if I win.”

His son Eric went on ABC’s This Week ostensibly to smooth things over. “I think what my father is saying is, ‘I want a fair election,’” he said. “If it’s a fair outcome, he will absolutely accept it. There’s no question about that.”

Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said any challenges to the election results are “hypothetical” and reiterated that “the system is rigged, especially against the little guy” on CNN’s State of the Union a few days later.

Trump believes he has as much right to the chair in the Oval Office — voter desires be damned — as he does to touching and talking to the women in his life as he pleases. Our collective consent is as unimportant to him as that of his accusers; his thirst for power matters more than anybody not consenting to what that power involves.

Of course this is where we’re at. Of course. As veteran feminist writer Melissa McEwan wrote last month, Trump is the candidate the GOP has cultivated over the past several decades. They have built a party platform opposed to individual consent, liberty, and bodily autonomy, and the current leader of their party has no respect for any of us or our rule of law.

As McEwan wrote:

“‘What happened to my party?’ wonder the vanishing moderates of the Republican Party, shaking their heads gravely and publicly wringing their hands, before shuffling off to wash them of any responsibility.
But they are what happened to their party. Their reckless exploitation of the darkest prejudices, the worst of human nature. Their greed. Their careless fearmongering. Their cynical scapegoating. Their endless denials of injustice.”

Defeating Trump is only the beginning of pushing back on the culture of take and grab created by the republican party. A landslide in Congress and our state houses over the next few election cycles is the only way to declare as a country that we want better, we want more. We want a political class that understands consent. There is no freedom without agency; we need elected officials who respect consent rather than mocking it.

I have my champagne ready for Tuesday night in anticipation of taking the first step toward making this place that we live more free.