Quick heads up - I’m co-facilitating a workshop on consent with fellow feminist writer/researcher and NSW Rape Crisis centre board member Nina Funnell at the ‘F’ feminist conference next Saturday. Details below:
Why is the public so quick to turn on women who speak out against sexual assault? How can we better speak about experiences that don’t fit neatly into the legal framework? What does consent look like? This workshop, facilitated by Rachel Hills and Nina Funnell, provides a supportive, safe space to discuss the limitations of the way sexual assault and consent are framed in the media and in daily social life, and to begin to develop a new, ethics-based approach to sexuality.
It’s an issue I’ve want to create a space to discuss for a while. I feel like, as a culture, we have a really limited way of discussing consent. It’s usually discussed within a legal framework, as a rape/not-rape paradigm in which the only experiences that aren’t help up to public scrutiny are those involving strangers and/or children. Anything else is greeted with a litany of “buts” and excuses - alcohol, short skirts, what were they thinking would happen when they did X, women don’t rape, “good” people don’t do “bad” things. (And to be fair, even children and people who are assaulted by strangers can be faced with such scrutiny.)
The problem with this dichotomy is that it leaves so much out, and in doing so, devalues so many people’s experiences. As many of us know, most sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim. Many involve alcohol. It’s not just men who assault women - men also assault men, women assault women, and women assault men. Sometimes people mean 'no', but they're too afraid to explicitly say it, hoping instead that the other person will pick up on their body language and other cues.
As a culture, we have no real way of way of talking about these experiences. They make people uncomfortable, and so they’re often chalked up to things like “post-sex regret”. One framework to deal with these issues that I’ve become quite fond of is Moira Carmody’s concept of “sexual ethics”. Speaking with young Australians age 16-25, Carmody found that:
their education failed to prepare them for the complexity of sexual intimacy including issues around consent, sexual negotiation and pressured sex. The young people felt existing programmes focused primarily on risk and danger and excluded positive skills for ethical intimacy.
"Sexual ethics" puts the focus on making sex a positive and pleasurable experience for everyone involved - and it does so in what I think is a relatively non-threatening and easy-to-understand way for people across the political spectrum. Jill from Feministe puts it beautifully in a recent post:
Right-wing rape apologists are pretty good at encouraging men to put themselves in the shoes of those accused of rape — “Can you imagine going home with a girl and then the next morning she regrets it and you’re going to jail?” I find it really helpful to actually think through, fully, an acquaintance-rape scenario as they more typically happen (and here I’ll switch to more gender-neutral terms, since acquaintance-rape is not only men raping women, as it’s often imaged — and again, these descriptions may be triggering).
You go home with someone who is so drunk they can’t remove their own clothes or speak coherently. It’s clear they can’t even get naked themselves, let alone be an enthusiastic participant in whatever you would like to ensue. At this point, do you decide that you will remove their own clothes for them and have sex with them, when it’s clear that they can’t respond or react or engage?
You’re in bed with someone, and they pass out. Do you have sex with them?
When you want to have sex, do you intentionally seek out people who you suspect are too drunk to verbally or physically refuse?
You’re engaging in some sexual activity with someone, and they start to pull back or their body stiffens, and they say “no.” When you look at their face, they look scared. Do you continue anyway?
You’re engaging in some sexual activity and then they say “stop” or “no.” If they say “no” or “stop” or they yell, do you keep going? If they cry, you keep going? If they try to push you away, do you keep going?
You’re engaging in some sexual activity, and the person you’re with says to stop. Do you threaten them in order to convince them to have sex with you?
You’re engaging in some sexual activity, and the person you’re with tells you to stop. Do you physically restrain them? Do you pin them down? Do you intentionally hurt them, or use your strength or size to immobilize them while you have sex with them?
The conference will be held on Saturday and Sunday 10-11 April at the NSW Teachers Federation (39-41 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills). Our workshop is scheduled for 4:15pm. Tickets are $10/$15/$20 dollars and can be purchased here.
Related reading for the enthused and studious:
Your definition of “anti-sex” is not like mine(Feministe)
The Not Quite Rape Epidemic (Racialicious)
Why rape isn’t one big misunderstanding (The Sexist)
"One-time bad decisions" that rapists keep on repeating (Hoyden About Town)
Is it as simple as yes or no? (SBS Insight episode following the Matthew Johns scandal)
Yes Means Yes Blog
Sex and Ethics