Let’s talk about consent

Major trigger warning: rape and sexual assault, child sexual abuse, rape apologism.

One of the many infuriating and irresponsible aspects of Good Men Project’s apologism for “nice guy” rapists is the editors’ claim that they’re lifting a “taboo” on “honest” discussion of sex and consent. They’ve argued that “getting people talking,” “starting a conversation,” and getting a different perspective on these issues is justification enough for their editorial decisions.

The argument can certainly be made that GMP brought that conversation to a mostly male audience that might not otherwise openly discuss issues of sex and consent. Fine.

But it’s not the case that simply starting a conversation about a topic, however important it is, is good in itself. We all approach any issue with a perspectives that shape what we say, how we say it, and what others (bringing their own points of view) take away from what we’re saying. There’s no such thing as introducing a topic in a “neutral” way. The best we can do is try to be aware of and honest about where we’re coming from and take the effects of that into account.

How you start a discussion matters. Both the implications of the pieces GMP ran and their editorial comments on those pieces, far from changing the conversation or introducing a new one, only reinforced widespread attitudes that minimize, justify, and normalize rape. It’s important to call this out and name it as dangerous apologism.

Long story short, GMP is a great example of how not to write about rape and how not to start a conversation about consent. But GMP’s editors are right about one thing: we do need to talk about sexual violence. So how do we do that in a way that’s thoughtful and productive?

For those of us who aren’t survivors of sexual violence, listening to survivors is a huge part of this. In a rape culture where the needs, feelings, and (often false and manipulative) claims of rapists are given far more weight than the experiences of survivors, stepping back and hearing what survivors have to say is non-negotiable if we want to support them and prevent sexual violence.

So I want to highlight a couple recent examples of survivors sharing their stories.

In response to Alyssa Royse and GMP, Lori Adorable wrote about a neighbor who seemed like a “nice guy” and thought of himself that way, but was actually a sexual predator:

Sam was certainly a Nice Guy, and he certainly did a lot of good. If you told him I said he raped me, he would be shocked and confused, not because there was anything confusing or ambiguous about our conversation about consent followed by my three ‘no’s and my stating I was too drunk, but because, as a Nice Guy Who Does Good Things, Sam believes himself incapable of rape. He would tell you it was a mistake.  He would tell you it was a misunderstanding.  He would tell you I’m crazy.

I don’t understand why anyone would write an article against rape from the point-of-view of someone like Sam, starting with the assertion that he must have made a horrible mistake. I certainly don’t understand why an anti-sexual violence advocate like Alyssa Royse would do so.  If she wants to understand why men like Sam rape, she should ask women like me.

Sam raped me because he believed himself incapable of doing so. He raped me because he lives in a world where Jon Stewart lionizes Bill Clinton and Alyssa Royse tries to understand violent ‘mistakes.’ He raped me because a woman with a history of mental illness, and now, sex work, will never have her case prosecuted, especially when the perpetrator is a community hero she admittedly loved.  Finally, he raped me because he learned first-hand from men like himself.

There’s also comedian and vlogger Franchesca Ramsey/Chescaleigh’s powerful response to a slut-shaming video by Jenna Marbles. Ramsey talks about her personal experience as a survivor whose co-workers shamed and made fun of her after an acquaintance raped her while she was drunk, and connects this to how scrutiny of the behavior of girls and women who are survivors of sexual violence leads to victim-blaming and excusing rapists.

I am making this video because there are women who speak out about experiences that have happened to them – about their rape experiences and time and again everyone tells them, “well it was your fault. You shouldn’t have done this. You shouldn’t have done that.” No! Can we stop telling girls that they shouldn’t get raped and instead tell men to stop raping women and to stop taking advantage of women?  And you see it all of the time.

Most recently, there was a young woman who was 11 years old. I think it was in Texas, she was gang raped by 20 guys (11 years old) and the New York Times writes a story about it and for some reason the story continues to focus on how much makeup this young woman wore, how late she stayed out, and how grown up and sexy she dressed. She was 11 and 20 guys raped her and somehow, it’s her fault. I will put the link in the video description box because you need to read it to believe it. You could be the perfect person and still get raped and it would not be your fault, the same way you could make tons of bad decisions and engage in risky behaviour on a daily basis and if someone rapes you, it’s the rapist’s fault, not yours. I wish that someone had said that to me. I wish that I had someone who told me that it wasn’t my fault and that I should speak up.

Womanist Musings has the full transcript.

I also found Mikki Kendall/Karnythia’s post on her chance encounter with a “nice guy” on the bus who turned out to be a rapist really illustrative of how the nice rapist argument only reinforces how many perpetrators already think, and how easily their other actions can create a misleading impression of what they’re actually capable of.

Once we were outside he thanked me for listening, invited me to friend him on Facebook (that would be a no), shook my hand again and went on his way. I went to the grocery store, sent a couple of tweets about it & then decided I need to lay it out all for some kind of analysis. Because I have so many questions. Not just about his urge to tell a complete stranger, but also about the way he did it. When I tell y’all we were having the most mundane pass the time on public transit conversation? I mean it. It wasn’t like we even really exchanged names before he told me. Hell the Facebook thing seemed to be an afterthought because I didn’t start screaming, & there was no indication that he thought about whether or not I’d ever want to see or speak to him again.

I know no one can explain what happens to bring these things to my life, but can anyone explain this dude’s mindset to me? The possibility that he was actually traumatizing me didn’t seem to register. And to be honest I’m not sold that the girl they assaulted was real to him either. He said some things about how he couldn’t tell his sisters because they’d never look at him the same way so I assume they are real people to him. But even that was flat, he showed the most emotion when he talked about what it did to him. And yeah, I can guess some answers but if we’re not really people then why the grand confession?

Finally, Upsetting Rape Culture, a group of Baltimore-based feminists, also recently launched an unusual and creative – and very effective – project to get people talking about consent. They created a parody of Victoria’s Secret underwear lines around the theme of “Pink *hearts* Consent,” and presented it online as Victoria’s Secret abandoning earlier designs with messages that enable rape culture.

"No Vagina is a Sure Thing. Ask First!"

Image credit: Upsetting Rape Culture.

Their campaign sparked a huge response – initially from people excited that Victoria’s Secret was making consent-themed underwear. Since Pink *hearts* Consent has been revealed as a spoof, their savvy online and social media campaign has evolved from generating buzz to getting people to contact Victoria’s Secret about the messages they’re sending about sex, and push back on the general narrative around sex in our media culture.

How did the idea come about, and how did you go about executing it?

Upsetting Rape Culture actually started as an art exhibition in Baltimore in 2010. After we did that, we wanted to keep working, so the next thing we did is we made a line of underwear called “Consent Is Sexy.” [side note: there have been some good critiques of the idea that making consent “sexy” is a way to combat rape culture] We came up with this three-pack of underwear with a set of “No” underwear, “Yes” underwear and “Maybe” underwear, which we thought was a cute way of wearing what you were in the mood for. About a month later, Victoria’s Secret came out with this underwear that said “Yes, No, Maybe,” but it was all on the same underwear. Instead of saying yes, no or maybe –  and “I get to decide about what happens to my body” — it’s like, yes, no, maybe, I don’t know.

So instead of “No” being a way for young women to set a boundary, it is a way for them to flirt, which I think is part of this understanding we have in our culture that creates and perpetuates rape. So we were like, wow, this is crazy problematic. So the idea started to do a knock-off of Victoria’s Secret PINK line and we decided to time it with the fashion show.  Social media was the way to go, since as individuals, this was our best shot at creating a large impact and reaching a lot of people. [Baltimore Fishbowl]

Is this a perfect discussion of consent? Maybe not. But as a place to start, as a way to spark the beginnings of awareness about the importance of consent? It’s a pretty thoughtful and impactful effort.

What are some examples of productive discussions of consent y’all have come across? Please share some in the comments!

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