I’ll begin this post by saying that the incredible Julie, whom I am lucky to call my friend, has already written an incredible post about consent. (If you haven’t read it, RUN, don’t walk. It’s quoted and discussed here.) I’ve also written about the fear I live of sexual assault in when I talked about rape jokes. BUT, at the risk of being repetitive, there are still some things I feel the need to say.
TRIGGER WARNING: DISCUSSION OF ISSUES OF CONSENT, LEGAL AND OTHERWISE
I want to start by seconding Julie’s assertion that “staring at the ceiling just hoping for it to end quickly is something of a universal experience for women.” The reality for me is that I have been talked into sexual contact because I would rather acquiesce under duress than be physically forced into it. The thought of a violent, physical incident is terrifying to me after having an attempted sexual assault and some sexual harassment already in my history. And then there’s the mess from my last relationship.
My ex-boyfriend was considerably larger, stronger, and taller than I am, and more than once I ended up with an accidental bruise from a brusque movement or a grab in which he didn’t know his own strength. (Note: I bruise extremely easily and I am in no way claiming physical abuse from that relationship.) There were times when his mere proximity was triggering to me. And then there were times where I felt lines were crossed, which is why I brought up the issue of consent with him in the first place.
Julie’s ex-boyfriend said that “he was just expecting sex to happen, since up until then [they]’d been pretty active sexually when [they] saw each other.” I think it was the same for us, especially having a long-distance relationship. But there came a point where I felt used, where I felt like that was all there was going on between us. We’d be hanging out or cuddling and suddenly, HANDS EVERYWHERE. No invitation or reciprocation on my part; all insistence on his. Even after we’d had heavy conversations or arguments, when I finally became comfortable enough to sit next to him again, there were the roaming hands. And the worst part for me was that I didn’t feel comfortable saying no or doing more than moving away and hoping that he would get the hint. (He usually didn’t.)
As this situation continued happening even after I bit the bullet and had that very scary conversation with him, I began asking myself, “Am I in the wrong? Is this somehow my responsibility, to keep him satisfied and put myself second?” Many of you wouldn’t ask this question, but I’ve spent most of my life telling myself that I should put other people first. And I realized that, in a way, I’ve been conditioned to “feel bad” about saying no to other people–and it was happening in the bedroom too.
The worst part was that he didn’t (or couldn’t) really see what was wrong. I think the assumption was that, if you want someone, you want them all the time. And up to a point, that was true for me. More than not wanting him, it was about not wanting contact. Not being able to handle someone that close, let alone that intimate. Sometimes you just need physical space to be able to process whatever’s happening inside your head–and for me it wasn’t a problem with him until he violated my boundaries (in more ways than one, it turns out).
I felt guilty and ashamed of my reaction and continued “just going with it” until I re-read Julie’s post about a month after she wrote it (and therefore a month after he and I had talked about it). As she denounced the assumption that a partner should always be willing and available, she asked a question that hit me hard:
Are you honestly so entitled, selfish, immature and emotionally unintelligent that you believe your partner’s body is yours for the taking because you are turned on by them, to satisfy some NEED, and you cannot fathom being told no because you’re just used to having sex when you want when in a relationship, sexual, romantic or otherwise?
The answer should be no, but it was yes.
I have since walked away because that attitude reflected itself in many other things in our relationship–and I regret nothing except having gotten involved in the first place. I should’ve cared enough about myself to see the signs and protect myself, but I didn’t. And so I put myself in a position where I continued the cycle.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: consent is not a blanket statement. It can be revoked at any moment, even mid-act. It has a time and a place. It requires active, enthusiastic participation from both partners–not a silent acquiescence that is a product of wearing down the other party.
Julie quoted the Criminal Code of Canada, so I will quote the US’s own (Title 18 Chapter 109A) on the topic of sexual assault as committed by anyone who willingly:
(1) causes another person to engage in a sexual act by threatening or placing that other person in fear (other than by threatening or placing that other person in fear that any person will be subjected to death, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping); or
(2) engages in a sexual act with another person if that other person is—
(A) incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct; or
(B) physically incapable of declining participation in, or communicating unwillingness to engage in, that sexual act;
or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title and imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
where sexual acts and contact are defined as:
(2) the term “sexual act” means—
(A) contact between the penis and the vulva or the penis and the anus, and for purposes of this subparagraph contact involving the penis occurs upon penetration, however slight;
(B) contact between the mouth and the penis, the mouth and the vulva, or the mouth and the anus;
(C) the penetration, however slight, of the anal or genital opening of another by a hand or finger or by any object, with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person; or
(D) the intentional touching, not through the clothing, of the genitalia of another person who has not attained the age of 16 years with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person;
(3) the term “sexual contact” means the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person;
(Note: Aggravated sexual assault would include the previous under threat of imminent death or bodily harm OR impairment caused by the attacker, such as the use of drugs.)
First of all, it took way too long to find this information on the internet. Secondly, I don’t find it as strong as the Canadian legislation, especially as it applies to issues of consent. The most I could find was mentions of further amendments in the US, as advocates attempt to clarify what consent is and how it can be “measured.” Thirdly, my previous point still stands: unwanted sexual contact is considered sexual assault under US law. So my attempted rape and sexual harassment incidents are punishable by law under sexual assault because they consisted of unwanted sexual contact. Same with several incidents in my last relationship.
Regardless of what the legal ramifications may be, I have come to a point where I understand that I am within my right to withhold or revoke consent, be it sexual or otherwise. I understand that my needs and my desires are equal, not inferior, to my partner’s. I understand that I won’t be bullied into anything anymore–because at the end of the day, I have a right to decide for myself whether I want any contact, sexual or otherwise. And that includes texting and Gchatting and tweeting when I have said I want nothing more to do with someone. (More on that in my later post.)
I will end this with Julie’s words because I could never find any better on my own:
I don’t owe it to anyone to meet them halfway on consent. Anything less than yes is no.