Friday, September 17, 2010

Enthusiastic Consent and how "yes means yes" can replace "no means no"

I have seen a lot of news stories on consent in the past few week, and in light of the Take Back the Night march that took place here Thursday, I thought I should post about this issue now. And I should start with a trigger warning for discussion around consent and sexual assault.

The most recent news story about consent was with regards to a really terrible incident that happened in British Columbia last week. It is all over the news here, but for readers who haven't heard, a 16 year old girl was drugged and then raped by several boys and men at a party, and pictures of the incident have been spreading online, beginning on facebook. That isn't even the part that has me most outraged. The part that really makes me angry is the very public response to the photos online and even on the news. She is being called names like "whore" and "slut." Some are saying that she asked for it, or that she is exaggerating- it wasn't really rape. Some commenters have even made jokes about it, including "Cmon, whose not down for a gang bang." Someone went so far as to suggest that she is making up the rape accusation because she regrets having slept with all of these people. I can't even begin to imagine what this girl is going through right now (ok, maybe I can begin to imagine), but I am shocked at this response. Having a glass of champagne that happens to be laced with a drug of some sort does not mean that you are consenting to having sex. It also does not mean that you are asking for it. And just because women are often cautioned not to accept drinks from men does not mean that she should have known better. This is NOT her fault.

But I have some ideas about why it is happening. I can think of two reasons, one being the relative anonymity provided by the internet... I'm sure most of these commenters do not know her and do not expect to be identified, and many are just expanding on previous comments. But the more important reason- the reason we can do something about- is the fact that we live in a culture where violence against women is accepted and even celebrated.

Just look at this T-shirt (posted on socimages)

See, non-consensual sex is fine! As long as she doesn't actually have the ability to say no, right?

Here is another example, this time from the show Big Brother. The contestant who ended up coming in second place told a story about a game he likes to play. This game involves a man having his friends come into the room when he is having sex with a woman and forcibly restraining her for 8 seconds so everyone in the room can see her. When Enzo (the contestant who came in third place) asked if that was rape, Lane laughed it off. Even Britney, the only woman remaining in the competition at the time, after saying that she would kill herself if it happened to her, got involved in the description of the game and was joking around about it. As far as I am concerned, if he has done this, he should be in prison.

And there was another incident over the summer that keeps coming back to me as absolutely inexcusable. A young woman was dancing at a Girls Gone Wild party. The cameraman asked her to expose her breasts, and she refused. Another woman came up behind her and pulled down the first woman's shirt with the cameras rolling so that her breasts were captured on tape. When she found out that the incident made it onto one of the movies she decided to sue. Despite the fact that they have her on camera refusing to show her breasts, a jury decided that merely being at the party was a form of consent, and that she did not have the right to keep her shirt on in front of the cameras! Good girls don't go to these parties, and if you do, then I guess you are "asking for it."

There are so many other examples that it is absolutely ridiculous, but I'm not going to describe any more of them here because I believe I have made my point.

I have written at length about sexual harassment as well as the regulation of female bodies in previous posts, and I think this topic just adds to that discussion because it is all based on the same basic premise that women's bodies exist for men... and we need to make it clear that this is not acceptable. I think that the best way to help change this is with the notion of enthusiastic consent. Enthusiastic consent goes far beyond "No means No" and is often described as "Yes Means Yes." Having sex with someone who is not fully capable of consenting is rape. Having sex with someone who you reasonably believe would rather not be having sex at that moment is not following the standard of enthusiastic consent and should therefore be seen as rape as well.

The main difference between these two standards of consent is with regards to responsibility. In the first standard (no means no), the victim is responsible for making it clear that they are not consenting. If they do not yell, kick, fight, and scream, it can be hard to get a conviction. And it is often the case that victims of rape do not realize that what happened to them was in fact rape because they feel they did not make it clear enough that they did not want to participate or that they did something to mislead their rapist into thinking that they might have been "asking for it." If we switch to the standard of enthusiastically consenting, it then becomes the responsibility of both partners to ensure that the other is affirmatively expressing desire to engage in each act that takes place. This can get tricky from a legal perspective, but there is a great post here specifically pertaining to how this can work as a legal standard.

I'm not sure that it will stop every rape from occuring, but I do believe that enthusiastic consent would make victim blaming a thing of the past. I think that if it were adopted as the dominant standard of consent, the previously mentioned examples of rape culture would be different (if they even happened at all). The T-shirt would not be funny, the "8-second game" would end in an arrest and Girls Gone Wild would have lost the lawsuit. And if pictures existed of a girl being raped, they would be turned over to police, not posted on facebook and joked about.

It would also make sex seem less dangerous in many ways. The focus could be on pleasure and communication instead of sexuality being something that is feared and commodified at the same time. Maybe this is still too ideal of a way of thinking... maybe we are too far from that point to make the change right away, but if we start talking to our kids about enthusiastic or affirmative consent (which I plan to write about very soon), then we can hope that it is not that far off for the next generation... but I'm not sure they will get there if they are constantly being exposed to the various other aspects of rape culture.


  1. Interesting. I'd heard of the practices it encompasses in a general sense, but never of "enthusiastic consent" as something formulated as deliberately as this. Have you read the "Yes Means Yes" book? Is it good? I'm not always a fan of some aspects of Jessica Valenti's politics so I hadn't really paid a lot of attention to it, but this post and the link above make me think that reading it might be relevant to some of my own thinking and not-yet-writing...

  2. I have been meaning to read the book, but have not gotten around to reading nearly as much of it as I would like to... actually, I do very little reading right now that doesn't relate directly to course work or my thesis (unless you count the hours I spend reading blogs, news, and pop culture items, mostly online). I have been a regular reader of the Yes Means Yes blog since it began ( I would suggest reading a few posts and then deciding from there if you think the book is worth reading. Personally, I think if you have the time, it is probably a great read because it covers such a large variety of topics and issues, and the theory behind it is brilliant (in my opinion).

    As I mentioned, I'm trying to put together another post on how affirmative/enthusiastic consent can be used as a parenting practice as well, and how it goes further and works better than "good touch/bad touch" dichotomies.

  3. About 10 years ago, whilst studying in Australia, I wrote a paper about rape, the effects on survivors, and the way the police and judicial systems treated those women. I was fortunate enough to gain the trust of several women, who agreed to be interviewed. This amazed me, as at the time I was a 33 year old white male, looking to join the Police Service (In the end I didn't). The paper was supposed to be about communication, but ended up far deeper than that and had quite a dramatic effect on me, and was, in part, responsible for me deciding that the police wasn't a career for me. There was also an horrific unrelated event that was the main driver, but this study certainly played a part.

    As well as rape survivors, I interviewed counsellors, police officers, lawyers and a judge. It was a real eye opener to me, the cynicism that victims were treated with through the whole system. This includes female police officers and lawyers. Only the counsellors had any sort of empathy or sympathy. The dominant mindset was "She was asking for it". This was the beginning of my serious questioning of the make up of the coercive arm of the state.

    Every story was different, and every story made me cry. I managed not to do that in front of the victims, fortunately, but some of the stories are still very clear in my mind.

    There was only one thread that was common to everyone. That was that they would never go through that experience again. Period. None of the victims knew each other, but they had been referred to me by only a handful of counsellors, so the counselling method may have influenced this, and I think it may have.

    Every one of them them expressed regret that they hadn't fought back harder, and every one of them said that if there was a next time, they would, with a couple expressing the thought that "He would have to kill me before he could do that again."

    The rapists biggest fear is discovery, so noise and action are the best defence. Of course, this is not possible when a girl is drugged and a man, or a pack of cowardly men, take advantage.

    This is an horrific story, and I sincerely hope that the girl gets good help, and that she survives her ordeal.

  4. It is really interesting to hear about how you were affected by this experience. I'm not sure whether or not the counsellors influenced the women's commitment to fight next time... I wonder if any of it was because of the shame that they are made to feel if they didn't do everything they possibly could to avoid being assaulted.

    This sentiment is odd to me, because if you are a victim of domestic abuse, you aren't told to kick and scream and fight as much as you can until he backs off, if you are being mugged or robbed you are told to comply with their demands and hope they leave... but if you are being raped, you are told that it isn't really rape if you don't kick and scream and fight (especially if you know your rapist), even if that very action might cost you your life.

    There is an article from Bitch magazine that was published in the book Bitchfest called "The Collapsible Woman: Cultural Response to Rape and Sexual Abuse" by Vanessa Vaselka that addresses this in an interesting way. She writes that we treat rape as a theft, as though "something of intrinsic value was stolen from you." A woman who might be raped is supposed to do everything that she can in order to avoid it, and even though submitting could be a good survival strategy, because being raped completely changes who you are as a person.... I probably need to think about how these theories connect a bit more (this is the No Means No that needs to shift towards Yes Means Yes), but it is another aspect of rape culture that needs to be addressed.

  5. Thank you for your post about this. May I cross post it and the comments to my blog, A Radical Profeminist?

    What's beyond sad and beyond tragic is that even if all bloggers protested one rape, one case of gross sexual assault against a woman or a girl, we would only be dealing with drops in an ocean of misogynistic atrocity. And patriarchal society could go on as usual, destroying more and more female lives with sadistic and reckless abandon.

  6. I would be happy to see my posts crossposted at other feminist sites.

    And I completely agree, I think I referred to that misogyny as rape culture in this particular article, although misogynist patriarchal relations go far beyond even that.

  7. I came across a news story that shows that 54% of women think that rape victims are sometimes to blame for the crime.

    It goes a little deeper with the results stating of the 54%, 71% said that if you got in bed with your attacker than you should take some responsibility for it.

  8. Thanks for this info... here are some highlights from that survey, and it is a well written article.

    Of the 54% of women who said that rape victims are sometimes to blame...
    19% said the victim should accept partial responsibility if she went back to the attacker's house.
    23% thought that a victim who danced suggestively on a night out was to blame if she was subsequently raped
    31% thought the same of those wearing provocative clothes.
    30% if she was drunk
    22% if she had had many sexual partners

    What about just putting 100% of the responsibility onto the rapist and a culture that permits rape to happen?

    The article also states that this has gotten worse, not better, over the past 5 years.

    So, ladies, if you are reading this, do not drink, dance or wear clothing that could be construed as provocative. And absolutely never go to a mans house if you think there is even a remote possibility that you will not want to have sex with him.

  9. First off let me say that this is some great writing Ms. Marx, keep it up.

    What happened in BC is truly disgusting and I can just imagine what that poor girl is going through. This is one of the reasons I am so afraid to leave my drink unattended or have someone else get me one without me. The posting of the pictures is even more horrific. There is no hiding anonymously on Facebook so if someone posts these pictures their names should be handed to police for distributing child pornography.

    I am surprised by the comments that appeared on Big Brother. I never heard of this conversation occurring before I read it here. If there is any situation were someone is on top of another person and is holding them down while the other person is trying to get away than that is without a doubt rape. Might as well throw in forcible confinement also. I am truly shocked that Britney just laughed this off saying that she would just kill herself if that happened to her. It reminded me of something that would be said by the stereotypical ditzy high school cheerleader, "Like oh my god!!! I would just die if I had been raped." To me that comment by Britney is an insult and a slap in the face to everyone that has been involved in a sexual assault.

    With the incident with Girls Gone Wild, I am truly shocked that another woman was involved in pulling that girls top down. It reminds me of the book Female Chauvinist Pigs, the woman that pulled the top down is obviously conforming to the degrading of women in return for the excitement and pleasure of men.

  10. Thank you... and Jessica, I think the most shocking part is that if I could come up with dozens more recent examples quite easily.