April was sexual assault awareness month, thus many personal essays have been written and read. In writing this month’s post, I have been reflecting and trying to put my thoughts into some coherent words. The discussion around consent in the past year has been such a eye-opening reckoning, which has made me evaluate my surroundings, conversations and behaviours.
The #MeToo movement was founded by Tarana Burke to empower and give voice to the survivors of sexual crimes. Since then the world has been exploring and evaluating the intricacies of gender power dynamics.
I recently read a short idea from an author David Grabber who explores the notion of structural inequality. In short, the inferior spends so much energy finding out how the superior thinks, operates and all their other intricacies, whilst the superior almost never puts any thought into the inferior. A the real world example is a written task given to kids, who are asked to write a paper from the point of view from the opposite gender. Whilst the girls find it easy and write psychological in depth pieces, the boys not only really struggle, but many flat out refuse to perform the task at all.
Last week I viewed the impressive investigative reporting piece by Four Corners on the rape of Saxon Mullins. This is an incredibly interesting case where in short, the judge agreed that Saxon Mullins was raped, but also thought that it was true that the perpetrator, Luke Lazarus, thought he had her consent. She was in some ways the perfect victim, in that she was a virgin, didn’t shower to ensure all DNA evidence remained and kept her story straight throughout the entire ordeal. It is speculative whether she said no, but she certainly didn’t say yes.
Lazarus was apologetic of the way she felt, but thought it was a scenario of miscommunication. Editorial site Man Repeller explores the difficulties of communication and consent. “Don’t confuse lack of communication for miscommunication. Assault doesn’t happen out of miscommunication; it happens when one person ignores communication.” In an interview with Professor Kate Lockwood Harris, she says “Communication requires trying to understand the other person’s perspective. When someone has assaulted a person, they have ignored the other person completely.”
The Me Too movement has exposed the profound impact this issue has had on women. No matter how far along the scale of assault, this reckoning has showed that whilst cat-calling might be interpreted as a compliment, it may also be interpreted as a violation for others. Is our need to ‘grade’ each level of sexual assault causing more issues than it solves? Are some thinking ‘well if they make a sexual comment in the workplace, surely that’s fine because its not like they are groping??’ It needs to be simple. This grading scale is having a negative effect on survivors. So often I hear other womens stories beginning with “it wasn’t as bad as” or “it could have been worse”. No consent means no consent. No matter how heinous or innocent the act is. If you find yourself in a grey area, then you need to make it black or white. Grey means it’s up for interpretation. We can’t have consent as something that can be seen as a yes for one person and a no for another.
But how do we define consent? It can’t be a verbal yes or no because we hear so often how survivors state they were frozen and couldn’t speak mid-assault. Physical abuse often can become even more tricky as we hear the excuse of “we were making out so how could I know that they didn’t want to continue further?”
Mullins concludes the documentary piece with a call for enthusiastic consent. If it isn’t a hard yes then it needs to be a hard no. She makes a point. A very good one. Looking for a hard yes doesn’t ruin the mood. Is this ok? Are you all good? These aren’t the type of questions that will stop someone from having sex with you. We need to learn and teach our children that just because someone doesn’t say no doesn’t mean that it’s a yes. It is the grey area that gets everyone in trouble.
There is no doubt that this is an extremely complex issue. However, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that the more time we spend conversing whilst we navigate our exploration through this reckoning, the better.