What can I tell you about consent? Well, let’s look at the question a different way. What hasn’t been said about consent? Countless blogs, documentaries, news stories, internet threads, internet memes, and every other possible medium of communication have hashed out the issue of consent. Several of these sources offer clear definitions, advice for setting (and maintaining) boundaries, and satirical critiques of rape culture. Others…well, it’s not even worth going down that road.
However, since this is a post about consent, I feel compelled to provide a definition. Consent is a communicated agreement to engage in an activity. It applies at one point in time to one activity, and therefore must be continually negotiated and renegotiated. Moreover, it may be given or revoked at any time without any explanation necessary. I could continue, but there are other important aspects of consent to discuss.
Although several sources agree on an absolutely clear definition of consent and consensual activity, it remains a hotly contested topic in regard to sexual assault. What contributes to questioning the validity of consent/withdrawn consent/consent that is not freely given/any other type of consent in the first place? What kind of society do we create when it is easier to spurn the veracity of a victim’s statement than to seek any kind of consequences against an offender?
In the documentary “The Line,” filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman shares her story of being raped after giving then withdrawing consent. As she processes what happened to her, she seeks the input of others facing issues of consent, including her friend who was raped by a stranger and sex workers who only engage in activities strictly circumscribed in contracts. Schwartzman conveys her struggle to reconcile the violation of her boundaries within a society that does not readily interpret such an action as rape, offering powerful and tragic insight into the process of moving from victim to survivor.
A discussion of consent would not be complete without also looking at the broader societal norms that contribute to this ethos of doubt. Power confers privilege to one group at the expense of all others, creating institutional systems of oppression that devalue other social identities. White heteropatriarchy has created a society that, in past and present practices, eliminates the necessity of consent by giving men entitlement to women’s bodies. Consent is no longer needed because men have the right, and the power, to claim women’s bodies. Simultaneously, this perpetuates a distrust of women because women have less social value than men. Their statements, experiences, and claims hold less importance because of their social position, making it easier to disregard consent, boundaries, and reports of sexual assault.
Communication is integral to consent. Indeed, consent cannot happen without clear expression of agreement, and that is another reason why consent is so problematic. In this day and age, healthy communication is scarce. Our society shies away from respectful communication on challenging topics, and so we do not learn the skills to engage in difficult conversations. Rather than asking for consent and discussing needs and boundaries, we substitute conversation with behavior and assume it means the same thing. Instead of asking a partner if is OK to move beyond kissing, it is easier to assume that anything else is also acceptable because kissing happened in the first place. Similar assumptions may be made for women that wear short skirts, accept drinks from strangers, or go home with someone they just met. Notably, these behaviors most often apply to women because of the social position they occupy relative to men.
One of the other reasons our society tends to doubt survivors, I think, is because we do not want believe the same thing could to happen to us. Questioning, misinterpreting, or misunderstanding the statements of victims and survivors leaves room for our personal context to change the situation. “It wouldn’t happen to me because I would be clear about my boundaries.” “It wouldn’t happen to me because I never accept drinks from random people at the bar.” Or complete the sentence in whatever statement feels most relevant to you. Ultimately, consent means respecting the integrity and humanity of other people. Don’t we all deserve that?