Is Consent Complicated?

by Megan

Recently, Alex talked about how black and white sexual assault really is. But what if it isn’t?

In conversations around sexual violence, the topic of “gray” consent often comes up. What about, as the recently discussed Herald column suggested, women who wake up with a hangover wondering whether they consented to what took place the night before? What about the “he said/she said” drama of hook-up culture where one party is certain what happened was consensual, while the other begs to differ? In circumstances where the refusal doesn’t come through plainly enough, should we really hold the other party accountable for going forward anyway? Isn’t it our responsibility to firmly state our boundaries and speak up, clearly and strongly, when we want to say no?

These may appear to be difficult questions without easy answers, but if we reject the notion that rape is an inevitability that we must prepare ourselves for, the answers begin to present themselves as questions of their own. Why should a woman have to wake up from a night of partying, wondering if she was assaulted? Why should sexual violence be written off as dating drama? Why should it be anybody’s responsibility to ensure they are not raped?

Of course, this is nothing new; victim-blaming has been around for as long as rape has. But there’s something different about the way this dynamic plays into the type of narrative we’ve adopted to address date rape. In stranger assault, the “why was she [insert behaviour here]…” questions come up, but they’re afterthoughts that rarely overshadow our certainty that the offender was in the wrong and needs to be punished. When it comes to the majority of assaults, however – those committed by people known to the survivor – the attack is rarely considered the offender’s fault. At best, it’s a complicated situation, and at worst, the survivor assumes full responsibility. Sometimes, we even feel bad for the offender who “just didn’t know” that what happened was unwanted by the other party. Or something.

We prefer to exist in gray areas when it comes to date rape, asking questions like the ones in the opening paragraphs. But the problem with those types of questions is that they’re misdirections, carefully guiding the topic away from some uncomfortable truth we’d rather not deal with. The fact that we may not be able protect ourselves. The reality that something like that could happen to us, or to someone we love. And, for the purpose of this post, the way we tend to play fast and loose with the rules of consent in our culture.

Why is consent so complicated?

I often hear my friends joking about needing a decoder ring or a how-to manual to interpret signals from those they’re attracted to and I often feel the same. There are so many rules when it comes to the dating game; much of our time is spent trying to drop hints and pick up on cues. We begin to lack the language to be straightforward about our wants and needs. The other side of this is the inability sometimes to express what we don’t want. (I know for me, it’s tough to even turn down a date I’m not interested in). Because we rely so much on what’s implied and suggested, we start to think the issue of consent must also exist in that realm.

“Consent until proven otherwise” is a popular idea that’s emerged from this mentality. It’s part of that way of relating to one another that relies less on actual communication and more on testing boundaries. It’s walking right in and waiting to be thrown out, instead of knocking first and waiting for an invitation to enter. I suppose there might be something liberating about handing the reigns over to other party in circumstances like these, and letting them take responsibility for whatever may come of it. But the reality is that any so-called control relinquished is artificial, and the cost is too high.

When you take away a person’s right to be an equal and active partner in sex, you’re not doing them any favours or giving them any power. You’re controlling the situation the way you see fit, hoping that things will go your way. Even if this involves respect for another person’s right to end things, it has nothing to do with respecting the actual person; it’s just trying to win a game, knowing your competitor is allowed to forfeit.

Is this really an acceptable model for human behaviour?

It’s not even an acceptable model for consent. We may forget or ignore it, but consent isn’t implicit, and it isn’t our default setting. It’s not something that just exists until taken away; it needs to be freely given. It’s not complicated, and it doesn’t inhabit a gray area, if you’re willing to navigate the murky dating waters with honesty and respect.

It’s time to stop looking at date rape as a “miscommunication.” “I didn’t know” is not a good enough excuse for assaulting someone; neither is “I thought she/he was into it too” or “He/she didn’t say no.” We all have the responsibility to obtain proper consent that’s obvious and real when it comes to initiating any kind of sexual contact. This is far too important an issue to play guessing games.

Always make sure every encounter involves equal, enthusiastic participation on both sides. Acting on your own desires with the expectation that the other party will speak up if it’s unwanted makes one a selfish asshole at best, and an abuser at worst. Be congnizant of the power dynamics in your relationships and remember that if the scales are tipped in your favour (ie. reduced reasoning of the other party due to alcohol/substances), it won’t be an equal encounter. When in doubt, just don’t do it.

And always remember the three rules: Respect yourself, respect your partner, and be safe!

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