Consent and Neurodivergence

Consent is at the heart of sexual ethics for many feminists and other progressive individuals. There’s talk of enthusiastic consent, and impaired consent, and power dynamics, and all sorts of things that might impair someone’s ability to consent. Those who promote consent can come down pretty hard on someone who has violated another’s consent (with good reason). More often than not, these conversations seem to give the message that consent is simple and anyone can figure it out. People can read body language, so clearly we can all tell when someone is not interested.

Unfortunately, what this type of attitude obscures is that for many people, consent is not easy or simple. Conversations that look to have some sympathy for those who are more than simply “socially awkward” but are neurodivergent get shut down as rape apologism. Some people repeat over and over that we can’t have any tolerance for those who violate consent, that nothing is an excuse, that we need to get serious about consent. And yes, it’s true that we can’t excuse bad behavior based on neurodivergence, but navigating consent and body language when you’re neurodivergent is simply different and far more difficult than doing so when you’re neurotypical and it’s time we talked about it.

For individuals who understand body language with relative ease and can communicate well, consent is just as easy as navigating any other social interaction. For those with autism or other forms of neurodivergence, it just doesn’t always make sense. There are two important sides to this question: one is those who have a mental illness that leaves them with cripplingly low self-esteem or other problems that mean they feel incapable of saying no. The other is those who need things to be phrased in a literal, clear way in order to understand them and who subsequently hurt the people they care for but don’t understand why or how.

Let’s start with the first. I have more experience here and I believe that these questions are a little more clear cut. The concept of consent assumes that all parties understand what they want and are comfortable with, and have the confidence to express those wants and needs. Unfortunately, many people (women in particular) have been conditioned to repress their desires, to hide them. It’s no secret that low self-esteem is a serious problem for many women. When someone doesn’t have a mental illness it’s hard enough to internalize the ideas of consent and to be open about what you’d like. Sometimes even learning to use your body language is difficult.

But what about those of us with mental illnesses? Say those who have learned that their emotions are always wrong and must be shut down, or that they can’t trust their emotions? What about those who dissociate and simply stop doing much when they become uncomfortable? What about those who have pathological fears of abandonment? We may be fully convinced of the importance of consent and still feel incapable of standing up for ourselves or expressing our wants and needs and boundaries because somewhere in the back of our mind there is a terrifying tape playing over and over that tells us we must follow the script or we will be alone forever. When an individual feels pressured to consent simply because their mind requires them to appease others, or they’ve got an unrealistic image of what might drive away their partner, consent becomes complicated.

To some extent, I question whether individuals who feel so enmeshed in a disease are capable of consent. If someone is incapable of seeing a situation realistically, can they ever be properly informed? I say this as someone who has been in these situations, thought that they were consenting, and realized later that I felt there was no other option. I am unsure whether anything can be considered consent if there is no possibility of saying no.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should never be allowed to have sex, but rather that consent is far more complex when one has to fight against a mental illness to get a clear picture of what one is consenting to and what the consequences of saying no are. It means that both parties who are consenting need to be fully aware of the situation. I also hope that the partner who is not mentally ill would take extra care to ensure that their partner knows they’re allowed to say no and will be valued regardless of sexual activity. In addition, I’m not suggesting that someone who is mentally ill is responsible for recovering or overcoming their mental illness in order to prevent sexual assault. That’s victim blaming nonsense. I am suggesting that they should be aware that their mental illness might obscure what they actually want and need, and that there should be an active and open conversation with partners (or at the very least with oneself and trusted support people) to determine what you actually want and need, and how to obtain it.

This points towards the fact that we can say someone did something wrong (misinterpreted the cues of consent and did something without another’s consent) without deciding that the individual is a horrible, miserable excuse for a human being. Thanks to my own choices to obscure my desire and boundaries, I have had partners violate them without being aware that they had done so. Often these were people who deeply loved me and wanted to never hurt me. I have begun to label their actions as inappropriate without then needing to decide that they were bad, hurtful people.

So what about the other side, those who may try to value and respect consent but find it difficult to identify when it’s present or absent? Consent is even muddier when someone has difficulty with reading body language or difficulty understanding social cues or difficulty when requests aren’t phrased in a completely literal fashion. If, for example, if someone has autism. I know that many people like to pretend that those with disabilities, including mental disabilities have no sex life, but that’s patently false. I personally have experienced some of the pitfalls of trying to navigate consent with an individual who has difficulty with social boundaries and social cues. This puts the partner in a difficult situation: how do you respect someone’s needs as a neurodivergent individual while still asserting your own boundaries?

I have never experienced it from the other side, but I’m sure it’s just as frustrating trying to understand how and why you appear to be hurting your partner. If you don’t understand that certain eye movements or body movements mean “no”, it can be extremely confusing to realize that your partner was trying to tell you no all along and you continued to push. You likely will blame yourself, right along with the other person, for something you have no control over: your ability or inability to read body language.

Particularly difficult is the fact that the community often has zero tolerance: if someone screws up one time they are officially a rapist and cannot be trusted. For those with autism, this means that they might misinterpret something and then lose much of their support system, even if they want to change, fix, or improve themselves so that it doesn’t happen again. Few people will take the time to adjust their communication habits, explain ways to read body language, or give the neurodivergent individual new tools to make sure things are better next time.

Part of the frustration here is that we don’t entirely know how to put the label “hurtful” or “unacceptable” on something without then imputing blame on the person who did it. We don’t know how to validate that someone is a survivor or was traumatized while also working to give positive options to the person who hurt them. While most rapists probably don’t need helpful hints about how not to rape, it’s straight out ableist to assume that the sex education that neurotypical people receive (which isn’t even sufficient for them) will be enough to help someone who is neurodivergent navigate the extremely tricky waters of sex.

Perhaps some of this is about the EXTREME need to find new scripts: I know that many autistic people work from scripts because that’s easiest for them. The scripts we have right now that surround sexuality suck. Providing new scripts might be the more useful way to take on these cases rather than shaming and cutting those people out of our lives. If we don’t create any new scripts, people will continue to behave in the same way. If we take the time to help them with a new script, they may have healthier relationships in future. This probably means putting more emphasis on verbal consent and making it ok to ask things like “do you like this?” or “do you want me to keep going?”

None of this is to say that neurodivergence is an excuse for sexual assault or harassment. I have seen people say “I’m autistic so it didn’t count” when told their behavior was unacceptable. That is deeply screwed up: you can still rape someone if you’re autistic. When someone does not show a strong desire to rectify what they’ve done, then by all means, blame away. These criticisms are pointed towards those who would vilify an autistic individual who deeply wants to make amends and improve their behavior for the future.

The important distinction here is excuse vs. explain. Explanations may be a plea for help to fix the root cause of a problem, while excuses seek to push away the responsibility. Different explanations for the same behavior require different actions to fix the problem. In the case of the neurodivergent, I wish there were more sympathy, more help, and more ways for the offender to demonstrate that they can learn and grow. Part of teaching consent is teaching people ways to say “no” and ways to navigate their relationship in a way that works for them. I am all for consent-based sexuality, but consent can’t be from one perspective. We need to open our movement up to those people for whom our current definition of consent isn’t working and doesn’t make sense.

I don’t necessarily have answers for how to balance these types of situations or how to improve them, but they are conversations that need to happen, and we need to recognize that one person’s version of consent may not work for everyone.

She Said Yes: When Consent is Coerced

Apparently sex is just on my mind this week. Yesterday I shared with you a story about my personal experience of sexual assault, and today I want to talk about some of the ways that people manipulate each other in inappropriate ways into having sex. Any time you coerce someone, guilt them, or manipulate them in any way in order to get them to have sex with you, that is sex without consent. It is inappropriate and unacceptable. However from my experience and the experiences of those around me (yes, this is anecdotal, but no one has done a study on how many people say “if you loved me you’d do it), this kind of manipulation is common. So let’s take a look at some of the more common ways that people manipulate each other and what’s wrong with each of them.

1.”You must be a prude”

Let’s just say it straight out: shaming anyone for their sexual choices, whether to have sex or not have sex, is pretty much just a shitty and not ok thing to do. However if you’re trying to get someone to have sex with you just to prove that they’re cool, forward thinking, liberal, or liberated, then they’re not really consenting to sex with you: they’re consenting to a symbolic act that will keep them from being embarrassed. And what you’re really saying when you say this is that you won’t respect them if they don’t have sex with you. This is emotional manipulation, and if you coerce someone into having sex with you by convincing them that you will not respect them if they don’t, or that they have to do it to prove their liberalism, then you are not respecting their boundaries or their consent.

2.You’re punishing me.

Once again there’s a pretty basic myth underlying this statement: you are not owed sex by anyone. It is no one’s responsibility to give you sex. Therefore not giving you sex is not punishing you. It’s not taking away something that belongs to you. It is not treating you poorly in any way, shape, or form. When you say this, you imply to the other person that you require sex from them, that it’s a basic right of yours. You sound like a child throwing a temper tantrum. When someone says no to sex, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about their right to have autonomy over their own body. Their ability to say no to you doesn’t harm you. Get over it. When you say this to someone you imply to them that they owe you their body. That’s manipulative and creepy. It tells them they HAVE to say yes unless they have a really damn good reason to deny you your toy.

3.What if you never want to have sex with me again?

Oh my sweet Jesus the catastrophizing. Now first of all, someone not having sex with you ever again is still not the end of the world. It’s their right to say they don’t want to have sex with you anymore. Yes, if you’re in a relationship with that person it would suck and you would need to discuss it, but it certainly isn’t something to guilt someone over. In addition, let us repeat again that when someone says they don’t want to have sex IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. If your partner is saying no to sex or feels uncomfortable, the needs of your penis or clitoris are not priority #1 here, your partner’s emotional well-being is. Changing the subject from whatever is making them uncomfortable, or trying to put the entire weight of your sex life on them over one incident is upping the stakes so that if they say no now, it means more and could spell the end of the relationship. It’s a veiled threat of sorts: if you don’t have sex with me now, you won’t ever want to have sex with me and I’ll be miserable forever/break up with you. Veiled threats and emotional blackmail are not acceptable ways to get someone to have sex with you.

4.Are you not attracted to me anymore?

I understand why someone would feel like this if their partner turns them down for sex. It’s highly important to remember that the vast majority of the time when someone says no to something IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. If you suggest to your partner that you’d like to go to a baseball game, and they say they don’t want to go, it probably has more to do with their feelings about baseball or how tired they are or how busy they are than it does about you. Despite the intimacy of sex, this often is the case there too. When you ask a question like this, you imply that if your partner isn’t having sex with you, they’re making a statement about you or how they feel about you. You’re implying that they should feel guilty for telling you you’re unattractive. You’re setting up a kind of false dichotomy: either you have sex with me, or you’re telling me that I’m unattractive. You’re trying to take out the possibility that it’s totally reasonable and not mean at all to say no to sex. And it’s cruel to tell someone that their perfectly reasonable choice is actually mean and disrespectful to someone they care about.

5.You’re being selfish.

This is very much akin to the previous two but takes its own special tactic of nastiness. Saying no to another person, asking them to respect your boundaries, telling someone that they should not continue doing something that upsets you or makes you unhappy, is far from selfish. Particularly when that thing involves your own body. Again, this kind of talk tells you to ignore your emotions and ignore your discomfort because your body is public property, or at least your partner’s property. And this again activates major amounts of guilt, because it tells you that you’re bad, mean, wrong, or immoral for saying no. It paints the other person as the victim, which reverses the roles so that you’re apologizing for asserting your boundaries, when in reality your partner should probably be the one apologizing if they crossed them. Defending yourself is not an aggressive action, but this kind of statement turns it into one. It’s gaslighting to the max.

6.You’re taking away something that makes me happy.

Boo frickin’ hoo. Sorry, I should probably have more sympathy because yes it does suck when you can’t have something that you want, but let’s be PERFECTLY clear here: if you are going to prioritize the happy feelings of your genitals over your partner’s crystal clear right to say no, then you are a douche. They KNOW that it would make you happy to have sex with you. And you know that they know. So by reminding them, all you’re doing is making them feel like shit. In order to try to get them to have sex with you. Look, your partner is not taking away anything by saying no to sex. Sex was not your right in the first place so there’s no way they could have taken it away. Sometimes they consent to give you a part of themselves out of the goodness of their heart and that makes you happy. YAY! But that in no way means they owe it to you in the future to continue giving it to you. Your happiness is not your partner’s responsibility, and if you think it is then you’re setting your partner up for a lot of guilt, a lot of unhappiness, and a lot of ignoring their own interests for yours.

7.Well what if we just…

Compromise is generally a good thing. If your partner shuts down one thing but you’re super into it, it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like “Ok, we absolutely don’t have to do that. I’d be really interested in trying something else. What do you feel about ___”. But there’s a difference between that and the “what about” game. This is the game where every time your partner says no you try a different question, a different version. You wear them down. You make it sound reasonable to demand a blowjob because you aren’t getting sex. You paint your request as really not a very big deal after all, in fact something your partner really shouldn’t have any issue with because it’s so minute, even though it might be a sexual act that they don’t want to perform. And you do this until they give in because they’re going crazy trying to say no to everything and feeling like a jerk for shooting everything down. Sex isn’t haggling. Someone’s body isn’t for sale and it’s not up for a bargain.

8.Why won’t you think about my feelings?

Once again, this kind of statement prioritizes your feelings over your partner’s mental health and safety, and it tells them that they should be doing the same because if they don’t they are being unsympathetic and paying no attention to their partner’s feelings. It implies that if your partner cared about you and your feelings, then there is only one decision that they would or could make: giving you what you want. It’s another way of turning yourself into the victim and implying that your partner MUST owe you sex if they care about you. Let’s be honest, your partner already knows all about your feelings because you’ve made it damn obvious that you want sex and that sex is important to you. Our whole CULTURE tells us that having a healthy sex life is SO IMPORTANT so even if they don’t know about your feelings in particular they know about the feelings that you’re expected to have and so they already know they’re being “bad” by not providing sex. So reminding them one more time? It’s petty and you’re not doing it because you think they don’t know.

9.You’ve done this before, you should be able to do it again.

This is not how consent works. If someone consented to something yesterday and then does not consent to it today, their consent from yesterday is negated. Someone is allowed to change their mind about things! CRAZY! I may have wanted chocolate yesterday and not want any today, but that doesn’t mean I HAVE to eat chocolate today. When you say this, you’re trapping someone into thinking that they are being inconsistent, irrational, and overly emotional by changing their opinion. You indicate that once they have said yes they can’t rescind their yes without being completely crazy. This really makes it hard to say no, to react to one’s emotions, to take care of oneself. It’s not cool.

10.I don’t know how to understand you love me if we don’t have sex.

This is your own god damn problem. If you can’t understand multiple ways of expressing affection, then you are a significantly stunted human being and that’s something you should probably work on. Telling your partner that they have to bend to your whim once again indicates that your inability to communicate needs to be solved with their body. It’s a special kind of guilt trip because it’s the barely logical cousin of “If you loved me you’d have sex with me”. If you want to express love, then respecting your partner’s boundaries is the best way to go. Guilting them into thinking they have to have sex to prove their love for you? Not so much.

11.I just want you to feel good.

If you wanted your partner to feel good, you would listen to what they say they want. If they say something doesn’t feel good or they don’t want it, don’t do it. What this message is ACTUALLY saying is that your partner must be CRAZY for saying no because you only want what’s best for them. They must not be thinking clearly. And not only that, but they probably should feel good because that’s what happens when people who love each other get sexy, amirite? So wrong. Your partner is allowed to not feel good, and allowed to feel good in whatever way they so choose, not the way YOU choose.

12.What about now?

When your partner says no, let them have their fucking no. This question is essentially the battering ram of emotional manipulation. It’s not very sneaky and it’s really easy to say no to…the first fifty times. But eventually most doors are going to get broken down just because your partner is so fucking tired of saying no. Do you really want your partner to say yes just because they’re sick of going through the dance? Probably not, because that’s not really consent.

  1. “If you believed in true equality, you wouldn’t be afraid of men, so you’d meet up with me & try me out” (submitted from twitter).

Really? I mean reaaaaally. This is clearly from someone who thinks they’re super sly but doesn’t realize that trying to make someone feel like they have to prove their liberalism cred is a shitty way to convince them to get with you. We all know that equality doesn’t mean you have to like everyone or go on a date with everyone, but apparently some people want to convince you that if you don’t, you’re shitty, discriminatory, and mean. Again, not a very good way to obtain consent.

It Doesn’t Fit The Script: Assault and My Life

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape

I don’t talk about rape much. Or at least I don’t talk about rape and my own life much. I don’t think I have important stories to tell. I don’t want people to know about my sex life. Rape is very much a part of my life: most of my best friends have been raped, blamed for their rape, slut shamed…My most conservative friends become suddenly liberal when rape comes up because their friends and loved ones have been raped.

 

And I talk about rape culture, and I talk about how horrible these incidents are, and I tell people how upset I am. But I don’t talk about myself. I won’t ever label it rape, I don’t think. There was no penetration involved. He did stop, eventually. But I do have a story, and it’s not one that follows The Script. I think it’s time to tell that story because I am so sick of hearing what rape looks like or what assault looks like and never hearing my story.

 

I was assaulted slowly, wearing everything from underwear and a tshirt to sweatpants and a hoodie. It happened through words, with someone I loved, with someone I was dating, with someone I trusted. It was on a college campus, at all times of day and night, in public, in his room, in my room. It was in my home, in his home…it was without alcohol or drugs or violence. And it was still unacceptable, and it was still not my fault, and it was still without my consent. This is what happened.

 

When we first started going out I had an active sex drive. He was afraid of sex. I respected that, but encouraged him to stop thinking of sex as something scary, negative or wrong. I told him it was ok to want sex. Eventually he started to listen, and found that he enjoyed sex. However I have a bizarre sex drive: it comes and goes for months at a time at its own whim. And a few months into our relationship, it turned off. Completely. I understand that this is something that would bother a partner. I understand that it would be difficult to deal with, frustrating, disheartening. I did my best to explain how I was feeling, find ways to be intimate, express my love, and be there for him when I could. I tried to keep our relationship functional even when I found I couldn’t in good conscience consent to sexual activity.

 

Unfortunately, his response was to demand sex from me. My assault didn’t happen in a night. It didn’t happen in a week. It was a sustained campaign of emotional manipulation. Each night was a struggle: I would go to bed with pants and a shirt on and he would beg me to take them off, telling me he needed to feel close to me. Some nights he would succeed, others I would try to fall asleep as he lay petulantly beside me because I had chosen to keep my clothes on.

 

He would try to touch me and when I asked him to stop he would say I was making him feel unwanted. When I told him that I wasn’t interested in sex, he told me that I had led him on by telling him I wanted sex before. He would cuddle me and I would edge away. He would edge closer. He seemed to make it clear that my body should belong to him: that he could grab or kiss any part of it he chose whenever he chose. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he said he just wanted me to feel good. It made him cry when I said no. He told me that he couldn’t feel close to me any other way.

 

Sometimes I would listen to him. I would tell myself I owed it to him to do what he was asking because I loved him and he loved me, and I was making him feel unwanted and unloved, damaging his already low self-esteem. I worried I would make sex even worse for him if I didn’t give him what he wanted now. How could I be so cold and cruel? Why wasn’t I loving him? What was wrong with me that I could care about him so much and then withhold something that would make him happy?

 

Somtimes I would try to let him do what he wanted. I would try to kiss back. But I couldn’t fake the enthusiasm, and when I just lay there, letting him paw all over me, he became upset: “I want you to like it!” he would tell me, as if it were my fault that I weren’t enjoying his forcible fondling. He made it clear that he got off on my pleasure, and that I had to be enjoying whatever was happening. He would stop if I wasn’t enjoying myself, but not because I wasn’t consenting, because it wasn’t fun for him if I didn’t join in. I owed him not only my body, but my willing joy as well. When I did manage to fake some enthusiasm he ignored every possible sign that I didn’t want physical intimacy.

 

On top of the physicality, he emotionally made it clear that my body belonged to him. He became jealous and possessive. He told me that he didn’t like me wearing short shorts because “then other guys would objectify me”. He tried to forbid me from swing dancing because he thought it was too sexual and was on par with cheating. He kept asking where we could draw the line. What was so different about a hug, or a dance, or a cuddle than sex?

 

All of this was happening as he became more and more depressed. This was in the midst of my eating disorder and depression, and I could see him falling into patterns like my own. He would tell me that his parents thought it was my fault, that I had given him an eating disorder. I knew that was crazy, but I couldn’t help but think that his unhappiness was my fault, that I owed him some joy for all that I had taken from him. I could see him falling apart in front of me, and how could I not feel guilty for that?

 

And finally, I broke. I had been fighting with myself for weeks trying to continue to say no, to watch him cry after I told him no, to remember my own boundaries and my certain knowledge that I shouldn’t consent just because he wanted me to. But finally he told me that I had ruined sex for him, and that if I didn’t have sex with him right that very night, he would never have sex again. He would turn off that part of himself completely. I shut down. Mutely, I nodded my assent to whatever he was doing, but I couldn’t make myself do anything but lay there. I started crying, despite trying not to. I turned away from him so he wouldn’t see. He was kissing me and touching me, and he would ask me if I was ok, and I would blurt out a choked “It’s fine” and he would keep going, until he finally saw me crying. He rolled off of me and walked away to sulk. I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember what all he did. I don’t call it rape because I don’t know what happened, I just know he touched me and I was crying and he knew I didn’t want it.

 

Of course some people will tell me this was my fault, that I should have seen the signs, that I should have just left. That’s easy enough to say when you aren’t the one in love, when you aren’t the one hanging onto your own emotional well being by a thread, when you don’t think that if you leave he might kill himself. Yes, I had choices in this situation that could have ended it, but I did not choose to manipulate and terrorize another human being until they thought they had no choice but to give me their body in order to keep me sane.

 

This same kind of incident has happened in three of my relationships. It is not uncommon. But this is not the narrative of rape. If I were to report this incident, I would be laughed out the door. I pretend it didn’t happen for the most part, except when asking my current partner to be particularly careful about boundaries. This is considered normal in relationships. The idea that I owed him sex is normal in relationships. But it hurt me. It made me feel guilty for the fact that I felt violated and hurt. We need to be honest about how common this is, how manipulative it is, and how it is, in fact, assault.

Consent is Not Just Sexy

One of the favorite slogans of the sex positive crowd is that consent is sexy. Now in certain contexts this absolutely can be true (imagine someone screaming in ecstasy “Yes!”), but in other contexts wherein consent is not particularly sexy at all it can be just as important. Generally we relegate the concept of consent to sexual situations. However there are all sorts of situations in which people need our consent to use, touch, or otherwise interact with our bodies. Our time, our energy, our thoughts, our bodies: these things are our own, regardless of the context in which someone is asking for them. It doesn’t matter whether the context is sexual or not, we need to respect people’s rights to say no when we ask them for the use of their bodies.

 

This morning I read an article about swing dancing and consent. This is one community where people are encouraged to say yes all the time no matter what their reservations might be. Because it is not considered sexualized, it’s rude or unfriendly to say no to something. Well that’s just downright silly to me. Each of us has the right to do what we choose with our bodies at any time. Sometimes this may mean bursting another person’s bubble, but we still do not owe that individual anything.

 

Another area that this has been explored before is in the relationships between gay men and straight women. Fairly often, gay men feel entitled to the bodies of straight women, and brush away complaints about groping or touching with “I’m not attracted to you, it didn’t mean anything”. Other people have explained better than I have what’s wrong with this attitude, but suffice it to say that someone still has a right to their own space and autonomy regardless of their relationship with the person who is touching them.

 

Beyond these two areas, many people today get the message that it’s inappropriate to say no. You owe your time and energy to someone else if they ask for it. You owe them a handshake or a hug or a kiss because it’s the socially appropriate thing to do. If your friend wants to go out you should. If your dad wants you to help him paint the house, you should. However in all arenas of life, our time, our bodies, and our autonomy are our own. You get to say no. It is allowed. You don’t necessarily need a really good reason that the other person can readily understand.

 

Now many people are worried about being polite or kind. It’s easy to interpret this kind of advice as telling people to be a complete jerk and blow everybody off all the time because you want to be lazy and never give back. That is not what this reminder is. This is a reminder that at no point in your life are you obligated to give yourself in any way to another person. You may still want to choose to give people your time, energy, hugs, dances, or sexytimes because you care about them, you’d enjoy it, you want to help them out, or they’ve helped you in the past. In addition, it’s not generally conducive to relationships to never give any piece of yourself. So if you’re motivated to be social in any way, you will likely give some. But you never have to, even with your friends, even when social rules dictate it.

 

Consent is for all times. It’s not just sexy, it’s also respectful, it’s also necessary, it’s also affording each individual their rights to autonomy and choice in all walks of life. And consent is for anything that involves me changing around my body and life for you.

Social Justice 101: Rape Culture

Rape culture is a fairly loaded term. It upsets a lot of people, and many don’t want to accept that it exists. It’s a scary topic of others. But I think it’s important for everyone to have some concept of what rape culture is and how it exists in our culture, especially for men to have those understandings so that when a woman talks about her experiences he can put it in the context of rape culture. Rape culture, according to wikipedia, is “a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudesnorms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” There’s a lot to unpack in that statement.

So let’s start with what rape culture ISN’T: rape culture is not the assertion that every man is a rapist. It is not an attempt to scare people. It is not an expression of what anyone should or shouldn’t do, it is simply a description of the way things ARE right now. Rape culture is not blaming anyone for how things are. It simply asks us to look at the culture that we live in and understand that there are certain norms which promote rape.

The statistics support the idea that we live in a culture where rape is accepted. Almost 1 in 6 (the statistics on this are somewhat controversial, but this is a slightly more conservative estimate than the 1 in 4 that many organizations put out) women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Rapes are woefully underreported and by most accounts less than 3% of all rapists ever spend any time in jail. At this point, the estimates for male rape are that 1 in 10 men are raped, although men are even less likely to report their rape. These crimes are SO prevalent in our society and very often are not reported, prosecuted, or punished.

In addition, there are many myths about rape that are common in our society. One of the biggest one of these is the “stranger danger” myth, which suggests that rape is something that happens out in the street, and a random stranger grabs you. It suggests you can protect yourself from this kind of danger by traveling with others or by having mace. In reality, the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, often a significant other. Another rape that contributes hugely to rape culture is the idea that a woman can be “asking” for rape, or that women can protect themselves from rape if they dress or behave in certain ways. Rape is any sex without consent. If a person is unconscious or drunk or high, they cannot consent. That is part of the law. So women are not “asking for it” if they are drunk, if they are wearing skimpy clothing, if they have slept with someone before, if they are married to you, or if they have slept with you before. None of these things are equivalent to consent. However when someone is accused of rape, the first questions are often about the victim: where was she, what was she doing, how was she dressed?

The problem with this myth is that it assumes that women are responsible for men’s behavior and that men cannot control themselves around women. However rape is not a crime of sex, it is a crime of power. There are women who are raped in burqas or in sweatpants. Rape is not caused by clothing. The person who should be on trial is the perpetrator, not the victim.

Another myth is the idea that there is a superabundance of false rape claims. In reality, false reporting for rape is approximately the same as it is for any other crime.

In addition to these myths about women, there is the overpowering myth that men can’t get raped, that if a man has an erection it is automatically consent. That’s bullshit. When you’re getting tickled you might laugh but that doesn’t mean you like it or want it. Our bodies have natural reactions to certain stimuli, but we don’t necessarily consent to whatever is happening to us.

There are all kinds of attitudes that suggest that men should keep pushing past a woman’s comfort zone, that hurting a woman is sexy, that forcing yourself on someone is powerful and manly. We see in many recent cases that young men feel that there’s no way they will be caught, as in the Steuvenville case or the more recent Rehtaeh Parsons case, in which the perpetrators texted about, emailed, took photographs of and publicly posted their crimes on the internet. There is the attitude that cat-calling someone is a compliment, when in reality it makes many women incredibly uncomfortable and used. There is the tendency of advertising to include graphically violent sexual images in their campaigns. All of these things are rape culture.

Rape culture is the fact that women are taught from the time that they are young that they are likely to be raped, that there’s nothing they can do to stop it, but they should be afraid and try to anyway. It’s the fact that of the close female friends I can think of off the top of my head, every single one of them has been a victim of sexual assault and not a single one has felt comfortable going to the police because the police rarely help. It’s the fact that when my friend confronted her rapist he laughed and told her she was making it up. It’s the casual dismissal of rape in relationships, date rape, or rape of people under the influence. Rape culture is men who answer “yes” on okcupid to the question “Do you think there are circumstances in which a woman owes you sex?”. All of these things contribute to the idea that sometimes people can take sex without consent and there will not be consequences. THAT is rape culture, and its consequences are the huge numbers of people who are raped and traumatized every year.