I would like to preface this essay with an offering of #notallmens to ward off the twin menaces which haunt articles such as these: the demon of wilful misunderstandings and the phantom of hurt feelings. Let me say now: I am of course not talking about all men, because most of you are genuinely wonderful sparkly little beacons of light who deserve nothing but warmth, affection and very good sex for the rest of your sparkly little lives. However, some aren’t; so please excuse me.
#notallmen #notallmen #notallmen #notallmen #notallmen #notallmen #notallmen #notallmen
Thank you. Now we can begin.
As we all know, there are men in the world who will drag a girl down a dark alley and rape her. There are men who will lock a girl in a bedroom at a party and rape her. There are men who will purposely drug a girl or get her blackout drunk so they can rape her. This is terrible and horrible and I feel all sorts of hideous ways about it, but it’s not what I’m going to talk about here, for the following reason.
You and I know these men are bad men. I have no doubt that the majority of these men know they are bad men. Unless you’re a bona fide psychopath, you don’t commit these horrible acts without knowing that you’re doing a Bad Thing.
However, there is another class of men who also do Bad Things but who genuinely believe that they have done nothing wrong. These men have the potential to cause just as much harm as our straight-up Baddies, and these men worry me more because I know them. I’ve met them. I have, on occasion, been friends with them. And so have you.
These are the men for whom the Yes means Yes laws were instated. These are the men who take a woman’s silence as agreement, for whom reluctance is a form of flirtation, for whom a quiet ‘no’ is a token resistance, for whom quite a few ‘no’s are just a barrier to be pushed through. These are men that assume that because a woman is kissing them, she’s consenting to everything else. They aren’t violently holding down their partner and their partner isn’t screaming and crying but it is still wrong.
When I was seventeen and drunk and making out with a guy, and he continued doing what he was doing even after I said ‘no’ a bunch of times and tried to push his hands away, I didn’t think I’m being sexually assaulted. I thought, oh, I guess we’re doing this now, and even though I don’t want him to be doing this I also don’t want to cause a scene so I suppose I’ll just let him.
The next day there was no doubt in my mind that he hadn’t done anything wrong. If I’d really not wanted him to do it, I’d have screamed, right? I’d have pushed him off the bed or smacked him in the jaw. And I’d kept kissing him while saying no to his hands in my pants, because I’d still wanted to kiss him, so I guess he just thought I was fine with it. And anyway, I didn’t feel particularly upset, so what’s the big deal?
I didn’t think about this again until a couple of years later, when a friend was telling me that a similar thing happened to her. The difference was, she did feel upset about it, tremendously and rightfully so: she had said no and he had ignored her. We agreed that this person was a bad person who had done a bad thing.
And then I thought about that night when I was seventeen, and thought Oh.
Why hadn’t I felt at the time like the guy who had stuck his hands in my pants even after I said no was a bad person? Why hadn’t I felt like he’d done anything wrong? Looking at the facts, I knew he shouldn’t have done it, but I had a hard time attaching the label rape or sexual assault to something that made me feel less like I’d been violated and more like I’d been forced to go to a party that I didn’t really want to go to but ended up having an OK time.
Art by Terri Lee
In the end, it doesn’t matter that I hadn’t felt violated; plenty of women would have, and quite rightfully so. But this demonstrates why there are otherwise normal, caring, good guys out there studiously ignoring a lack of consent without realising they’re doing anything wrong, because it happened to me and at seventeen I didn’t even realise it was wrong. I just figured that’s how things go.
Where did we both get the idea that that’s ‘how it goes’? Why on earth did I feel like it was OK for my protests to be ignored, and why did an otherwise good guy feel OK ignoring them? The problem lies in what straight men and women are taught – explicitly, by countless dating guides and the pick-up artist movement, and implicitly by our media and culture – about how men and women (should) behave regarding sex. This is why I’m phrasing this piece in terms of men and women; of course rapists aren’t all men and victims aren’t all women, nor all sexual encounters heterosexual, but a big part of what leads to the situations I’ve described is the way straight men are socialised in our society.
How many films glorify men who keep pursuing a girl after she’s expressed her disinterest? How many tell men that they can indeed get the girl if they just keep trying? Many of them focus on ‘getting’ the girl in terms of a romantic relationship as well as a sexual one, but serve to create and reinforce the idea of the man as the pursuer and the woman as the pursued – which is just a softer, cuddlier, Hollywood-endorsed version of men as the predator and women as the prey.
We have all been taught by the media, by our culture, that the man should be the aggressor, that he should ‘escalate’ the situation. Men have been taught that women might seem reluctant or put up a ‘token resistance’ but that they shouldn’t be disheartened, it’s just how girls are! So innocent! So coy! Just push a little more! Don’t give up!
Please. Give up. If a woman says no, listen to her. If a woman seems reluctant or uncomfortable, ask her about it, or slow down, or pull back; give her the space to express her desire and don’t keep pushing for something you aren’t absolutely certain that she wants.
Women, express your desire! If you want to have sex with someone, tell them. Show them. Ask them. This largely isn’t our problem to solve but playing hard to get when you genuinely desire someone fuels the idea that consenting women have to be hunted, pursued, and pushed in order for a guy to get what he wants.
As I said, I don’t think most of the men doing these things are bad men by any means. They are good men who need to be taught better. This was a difficult essay to write because it’s a difficult situation: I’m aware that the modern dating game is largely predicated on these harmful gender roles and it can be difficult to escape from them. We’ve all been born into this patriarchal culture. No one alive now is the source of the problem, but we can stop perpetuating it by no longer buying into antiquated notions of how men and women are supposed to interact.
As long as our men are taught that they are the ones who must push things forward, that women will seem reluctant in order to fulfil the cultural requirement for girls to be innocent and good; as long as women do sometimes put up a token resistance in order to get what they want without being judged; as long as the discourse around one night stands and promiscuous sex remains buried in the assumption that men are the hunters and women are the prey; as long as we maintain that ‘boys will be boys’ and fail to hold them accountable for their actions; as long as we demean men by insisting that when it comes to attractive women, they just can’t control themselves; as long as we demean women by failing to see them as sexual actors, aggressors, women who know what they want… This will keep happening. And no matter how I felt that one night when I was seventeen, it’s not OK. I know better now.
Hopefully, soon, we all will.
By Lauren Jack
If you have any thoughts or experiences surrounding this complex issue of sexual consent please head over to The Grey Area our anonymous forum and help us raise awareness of this difficult problem and affect change within it.