Warning: The following post discusses issues relating to sexual violence. Read at your own discretion.
Enthusiastic Consent, as defined by proposed California legislation: “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” Many people have criticized this and other definitions of Affirmative, Enthusiastic or Radical consent. They claim no one can feel sexy in an environment with rigid boundaries, others claim that the definition isn’t clear enough, “Do I need to ask before I unbutton their shirt?” or “Do I really need to ask before I kiss my partner?” The answer to all these questions is yes!
I will let a friend of mine explain further:
“We all know that we need consent before we engage in any sort of physical contact. But what does that look like? Consent is a space where you are safe to stop at any time for any reason. Consent is a scene where everyone involved knows what is going to happen and is totally down for every single fucking part, or fucking every single part, if that’s what’s been decided. Consent looks like when your partner continues to ask for consent: “Can I kiss your lips?”…“Now can I kiss your neck?”…”Now can I kiss your clit?” ” ~Kimbra
And let me tell you, your partner asking to kiss you or unbutton your shirt can be sexy as hell. Imagine their whispered question in your ear, followed by the removal of your clothes, imagine them asking before they kiss your nipples or run their hands over your chest? It is sexy. Sexy because it creates a share of power, they have power because it feels really good when they run their fingertips down your spine, and you have power because at any time you can tell them to stop and they will. Everyone is in in control in this situation.
This can even be applied to kind and BDSM scenarios where consent is usually established before hand, leading to consensual non-consent. This form of play always comes with a safeword though, so that the situation can be easily left if necessary.
A great comic from Everyday Feminism shows us why people can be so resistant to affirmative consent:
People do not like owning up to having done something wrong, even out of ignorance. And it is hard, recognizing this level of consent made me realize I had been raped. It made me realize that in my current relationship both hem and I had acted on sexual desire without consent. Never to the extent of pressuring one another, we’ve always been good about ensuring their was active participation before doing anything. But have removed clothes without asking, kissed and touched without asking, etc…
All of that is a result of the attitude which says the bodies of sexual partners are not their own, that they belong to their partner, and sadly in western culture this has often meant that not-male bodies belong to men. When your body belongs to your partner, requiring consent is foolish because it is their body not yours… This idea comes from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians where in traditional translations he says:
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does; likewise, the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” 1 Cornthians 7:3-5 NRSV
Now it may be that when writing in a first century context this would have seemed like a radically egalitarian idea. After all Paul is encouraging moving past the model where the husband ruled the wife, and pushing for a mutual sexual relationship. All that is well and good, but it is no longer the 1st century CE, what was radical and liberating then isn’t always going to translate to the needs of today’s world. We must be able to recognize where the value of older ideas lies(sexual mutuality), where those ideas have failed(ownership of other’s bodies), adapt and move on to newer healthier models of human interaction.
I only bring the christian scriptures into this discussion because they have been such a formative part of our western culture, with certain interpretations having played a huge part in creating the Rape and Purity cultures of today. I do not think that ignoring this contribution or fighting Christianity as a whole will contribute productively to the creation of a better way. I believe that if secular progressives and radicals can work with spiritual progressives and radicals then we will have the force we need to create a culture shift, to create and draw on forms of religion and spirituality that encourage liberation and consent, without denying the reality of the world.
This brings me to the topic of people who rape. I will not say rapists because that defines them not as humans, but solely as monsters.
There are two reasons rape can occur:
The first is power. Power over others is one of the highest values of our current hierarchical capitalistic ethos. Power over another’s body is one of the purest expressions of this drive, whether exploiting the body through slavery or through rape the goal is the same, dominance. In a culture where people, usually men, have to define them selves by what they accomplish and who they control, dominating others sexually is one of the easiest and more attractive ways to go about it. This is what produces violent rape, the need to dehumanize someone else in order to feel one’s own humanity because it is not being fulfilled or validated by our culture.
The second is ignorance. Lack of education on sexuality and consent is how people end up in situations where someone wants to stop whatever is happening sexually but has never been told it is okay to say “no” or “stop.” We find situations where the sexual aggressor doesn’t know what affirmative consent means, or has heard “no, stop” portrayed as romantic and sexually enticing by our media. Both of these situations could be avoided by responsible education on consent at home, at school, in religious communities, and so on.
When the media stops portraying the rape of male identified people as comedic or even desirable, and stops persecuting the person who survived, we will be making progress. When power stops being the be all end all of human interaction, we will be making progress. When every living creature is seen for its worth simply because it exists, we will be making progress.
When we stop saying”boys will be boys” and “you scream like a girl” we will be making progress. When we stop defining ourselves by “Us” and “Them”, then we will be on the road to change.
When we teach our people to Create and not to Kill, then we will find the realization of the dreams of all who have come before.