I’m not going to mention Jian Ghomeshi’s name after this, because I think it awards him too much personal importance. And we might be weary and wary of hearing more about his seemingly endless and escalating violence and narcissism.
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But now that the collective consciousness has been awakened, there are still some important conversations we should have and lessons for us to learn.
Today, the whole nightmare has me thinking about the nature of consent. He says they consented. And some of the women admit they just laughed off his perverse comments or even went along with some of his sexual activities so the abuse would stop. I would like to say that no thinking person would see this as consent, but one of my Facebook friends recently posted an ancient Latin quotation that asserts that silence is consent. What is consent, anyway? In principle, the “enthusiastic yes” seems like a no-brainer, but how often does it really work like that?
What I want to suggest is that what the law acknowledges as “consent” can happen in more than one way. Here’s one way:
“I am interested in such-and-such sexual practices. Are you?”
“Would you like to engage in those with me?”
“Yes! Let’s go.”
I’m not sure about you, but I have rarely had that conversation. More often than not, consent is negotiated in the sexual moment. And sometimes that works, when the instigator of the such-and-such (usually the man, sometimes the woman — I’m not discounting that, but let’s be frank, this is generally a gendered issue) is respectful and responsive. The man tries out a practice, the woman enjoys and participates, and a mutual understanding is reached. Or conversely, the man tries out a practice, the woman does not enjoy it and says so, and the man accepts that, and the encounter stays in mutually agreed-upon territory.
But sometimes, and sometimes even after a before-the-fact discussion, consent happens in a different way — it is either forced or it is coerced. Both outcomes are achieved through fear or anxiety. The terrifying assaults this radio guy’s victims talk about experiencing make it obvious that forced “consent” is clearly a violation. But what about consent that is coerced through emotional means? I’m talking about boundaries that are gradually ground down and compromised through a pattern of manipulation that can happen within the context of a relationship or even in the course of one prolonged sexual encounter.
Here’s how that might look:
First attempt: The instigator (X) tries out a practice, the other party (Y) objects, and X accepts that and moves on to mutually acceptable territory.
Second attempt: X re-attempts the same practice. Y objects. X tries to persuade Y that it’s not objectionable, that it’s just a fantasy, that there’s no harm being done. Y feels stupid, prudish, but still objects, and X accepts it and moves on to mutually acceptable territory.
Third attempt: Repeat. Y is really upset now, crying or angry, and X apologizes and moves on to mutually acceptable territory.
Fourth attempt: X gives it a rest this time. It doesn’t pay to be too aggressive.
Fifth attempt: Repeat. Objection. X claims to have forgotten it was a problem (he did give it a rest last time, after all), doesn’t see why Y has to make such a big deal out of it, but moves on to mutually acceptable territory.
Sixth attempt: Repeat. And finally, Y is sufficiently afraid that she’s been too negative, not adventurous enough, that she’s been ruining sex for him, that he might leave her or cheat on her if she doesn’t do what he wants, that she doesn’t object this time. And there’s your consent. She’s done something she never wanted, something she feels sick or sad about, and she will do it more than once, trying to convince herself that she likes it, for the same reasons she gave in in the first place. Sometime, and not in the heat of the moment, she might suggest to him she would rather not do that again. But she can now be accused of being a liar because she pretended to enjoy it. Obviously this is one pattern of events, and there are many variations on this theme. The point is, she’s consented. You can’t argue that. Consent may have been coerced, but how would you prove that? Who would take her seriously if she talked about it? There is no criminal activity here, according to the law. So she is silent. And he continues, with her or with someone else.
You might ask what my credentials are to write this kind of piece. I would venture to say that many women you know are bona fide experts on this issue. Why do they “let this happen”? Emotional abuse or manipulation, low self-concept, popular culture telling both women and men that women are supposed to be porn stars. But mostly because, as is often the case with other forms of domestic violence, these women care about these men so much that they accept the hurt in the hope that things will change.
It would be easy to conclude from what I’ve written that consent is a grey area. That’s not actually what I’m saying at all. Consent could be written in black and white, but only certain people have access to the pencil.