A Culture of Dubious Consent
|[Content warning for rape and sexually explicit language. Also overlong - I wrote this in tiny bits over the course of a tough week and it will probably take you even longer to read. Consider reading this instead.]|
The sex in Christopher Brookmyre novels is pretty good as sex in fiction goes, mostly because of the light-heartedness of it all. Sex, written about with too much earnest, is often hilarious. In A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, we hear about the loss of the hero's virginity to the woman he will later marry. Everything is wonderful until, at the last minute, the boy withdraws and ejaculates on his lover's face, just like he's seen in the porn films. Only then does he witness her shock and revulsion, and realises his terrible mistake. Between them, they sort it all out and live happily ever after. Until years later, when her ex-boyfriend tries to blow up a Hydroelectric Power Station on the day of the Highland Games*.
There's been an almighty row this last week or so after Alyssa Royse wrote an article called Nice Guys Commit Rape (originally at the Good Men Project). When I first read this, I was extremely angry; Royse talks about how her friend raped a woman at a party while she was asleep, and despite repeatedly stating how this was rape and there was no excuse (who knew?), she nevertheless discusses the victim's flirtatious behaviour at length, talks about grey areas and tries to defend the rapist as a nice person who made a simple mistake. The Good Men Project went on to try to back up her argument by publishing an anonymous post by a unrepentant rapist, which is possibly even worse than it sounds, but has been demolished thoroughly by No Sleep 'Til Brooklands, Ozzy Frantz, Ally Fogg, Yes Means Yes and Cliff Pervocracy, among others.
At this time, I spoke to a friend who felt frustrated that Royse had raised an important point that had since been thoroughly lost, partly in her delivery but partly in the argument - about whether someone can rape people and still be a good person somehow - that ensued. My friend talked about a rapist she knew and how he would be mortified at that label. And while what he did was wrong, there were cultural reasons he was able to frame it differently in his own head. Examining that, she said, isn't the same as condoning the crime.
Competent adults should know when they're doing is wrong. It's not a question of but... culture. However, rape stats vary a great deal around the world. Certain contexts of rape, like prison rape, marital rape or rape within military service, are endemic in some countries and relatively low in others. This is not because some countries produce better human beings**.
Feminists call this rape culture, but that covers a load of different issues. Royse claims her friend did not understand that the absence of consent or consciousness turns sex into rape. I doubt that very much, but there are cultural messages which enable rapists to make these arguments about confusion. As Cliff Pervocracy says in her excellent post We are the 95% (as in, the roughly 95% of people who manage not to commit rape);
If affirmative, negotiated, freely given consent is the norm, then rapists lose the ability to say "I just didn't know." They can no longer make anyone think "but regular sex looks practically the same." If romance doesn't work a damn thing like rape, rapists can't hide behind "I was trying to be romantic."As Cliff says, rapists lie about their confusion and ignorance, but they are lying to themselves as well as the rest of us. So I wanted to talk about the specific cultural messages we get, not about rape, but about consent and the way that works in heterosexual relationships. Because most of this is about men and women. All these issues bleed out to effect everyone. Men and non-binary people who are raped by women and men are effected by all of this. But it all starts with ideas which help male rapists reason away their assaults on women.
1. Sexual arousal takes over men's bodies so they can't be accountable for their actions.
The psychological effects of alcohol vary from culture to culture, according to expectation. In the UK, folks expect to become aggressive, so that happens. If you trick British people into thinking they have consumed alcohol, they forget to say please or thank you and fights break out. Elsewhere, people don't expect this so they drink peaceably until they gently slide off their chairs. In other places, they don't even sit on chairs to begin with, so there are even fewer injuries.
The same goes for sexual arousal. Plenty of people live with frustrated desires, remain celibate or faithful within unhappy marriages, refusing sex when the opportunity arises for various moral, social, medical or religious reasons. Meanwhile, most people have the experience of having to stop in the middle of sex when someone faints, something dislocates or goes into cramp or someone's grandmother walks into the room. Even when arousal is at its absolute peak, it is perfectly possible - if sometimes frustrating and demoralising - to call the whole thing off.
In movies, characters who don't have a great deal of sexual chemistry - and often don't even like each other - frequently become overcome in the moment and have sex, just so there's a little flesh on the screen. Of course, people do sometimes have spontaneous sex in weird circumstances with people they hardly know in real life, but if the aliens had nothing but Hollywood to go by, they might suppose that any time a man and a beautiful woman find themselves in a situation of tension or peril and certainly any time a man and a woman like each other, sex becomes inevitable.
During the notorious Reddit thread where men were invited to discuss why they had committed rape, men (rapists and non-rapists alike) repeatedly stated that men think with their penises. If we were to believe this to be the case, for even a moment, women could never be safe in the company of men.
2. Women want men who want them. Men simply have to prove the strength of their desire.
We're taught that romantically, a woman is an entirely passive creature. If she's pretty enough, a man falls in love with her. And so long as he isn't the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince Humperdinck, his love will make her love him back. Women don't love or desire men for themselves, because men aren't particularly attractive in their own right; women love men because men want and love them.
(In fact, given their supposed passivity, you might be under the impression that a woman would fall in love with the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince Humperdinck, if only their hearts hadn't already been claimed by other men.)
Thus, there are three love stories in maybe ninety percent of mainstream movies:
Meanwhile, fictional men do tremendously creepy and criminal things which magically work out because the women fall in love with them (as in Twilight and its fanfic Fifty Shades of Grey - though this is by no means the preserve of vampires or sadists). And you think, well, that is just fiction - in real life, people must know this stuff is wrong. Then you read about a guy who dies from cold and alcohol, camping outside an ex-girlfriend's house having harassed and stalked her for a few months, being portrayed as a tragic hero who died of a broken heart.
Talented people have vented the despair, longing and humiliation of unrequited love or rejection into beautiful music and these have become regular romantic songs. People dance to Every Breath You Take or Adele's Someone Like You at their weddings. There's plenty of other popular music whose lyrics are about dark subjects, but we don't accidentally play Don't Fear The Reaper at funerals because we've forgotten what the lyrics are saying (admittedly, my Gran wanted We've Got All The Time In The World at Grandad's, but we talked her round).
Unrequited love, unrequited sexual attraction and rejection are very normal human experiences, very painful as they sometimes are, but our culture gives confusing messages about what folk - especially men - should do about them. Our stories and songs suggest that a true hero pursues his beloved no matter what, no matter how she feels about it. Common sense, decency and the law says mourn and move on.
Financial sense says write a catchy song about how you're feeling. People will probably play it at their weddings.
3. Women don't know what they want when it comes to sex so men have to decide on their behalf.
This is a staple of our culture. Creators of film and fiction get away with it because in those universes, the woman is often fighting her own desires. On the one hand, she doesn't want to have sex on the side of the volcano with a man she barely knows because she is not a slut. On the other hand, she wants to have sex with the hero, because he loves or wants her (see above) and anyway, the volcano is erupting in a poorly thought-out metaphor which will lead to their imminent deaths. So it's up to him to get on with it, before she gets into a lava.
This used to be even worse, when a heroine's hysterical state was fairly frequently resolved by a slap round the face, being carried off kicking and screaming (as in Gone With the Wind, although the film makes it look like rape) or an actually rape (as in Hitchcock's Marnie). Yet even in 2012, Christian Grey tells his victim that she's over-thinking and ignores her when she withdraws consent.
There are reasons why this nonsense exists. Many women are conditioned against saying no. Many women are also conditioned not to ask for the things they want, especially when it comes to sex. But uncertainty is a legitimate state. Not yet ready (whether before a first-time or five thousandth time) and not entirely comfortable are also entirely legitimate, even if a person is very much in love or else aching with lust. These are also inactive states. Uncertainty means No. You don't act before you're sure of your feelings and you certainly don't need others to make up your mind for you.
If there is a person out there who really does say "No" when they mean "Yes", they're not competent enough to be having sexual relationships.
4. Sex is part of a complex bartering system between straight men and women.
Loads of cultural sources, especially men's and women's magazines, trashy newspaper columns, rom coms, certain religious rhetoric, pop psychology and self-help books treat heterosexuality as a system of heavily-encoded interminable bargaining. They say that men and women want completely different things but can never say so, so must instead dance around one another, each pretending to concede to the desires of the other whilst all the time securing their own bizarre goals. It stinks to high heaven. It makes everyone miserable. It ruins relationships and it is a contributing factor in our rape statistics.
Principally, this message says that sex is something women give to men in exchange for the things they really want, like affection, money, babies or someone to open jars. In the godawful Bridesmaids, for example, sex - including deeply unsatisfactory and outright coercive sex - is something women put up with in order to obtain such glories as having a boyfriend, receiving a compliment and of course, goal of all feminine goals, being and staying married. Out of the six women principle characters in a smutty sweary rom com (that is to say, it is by no means afraid of the subject matter), only one expresses any sexual desire. Which is funny, because she is the fat one! Oh, how we laughed.
This is not my universe, but over the years, I have heard all kinds of theories about behaviours which indicate that a woman is prepared to have sex with any given man (you know, apart from initiating sex or expressing her wishes verbally - women never do that). These include going on a third date, letting him buy dinner, letting him buy desert, letting him walk her home, introducing him to a friend, asking him to go shopping with her, letting him put up a shelf or change a fuse and many more. The meme of the Friendzone is all about men who feel they have fulfilled their part of this mystical bargain but aren't getting the sex they deserve. Instead of dutiful sex, they are saddled with miserable and unending friendship.
The idea that men and women naturally want different things but cannot communicate directly is one of the most dangerous ideas there is in heterosexual relationships. It allows both men and women to justify abuses by assuming the other party's true feelings, including feelings that directly contradict what has been said. These assumptions can be about sex (she owes me, it's her duty, men want sex all the time) as well as reproduction (all women want/ need to have babies deep down, no man thinks he's ready to be a father until he is one). They really can mess up lives.
5. Passion is expressed in conflict and violence.
Melissa McEwan spells this out in her afore-linked essay Rape Culture 101 (I've left her links in and really you should read the whole thing some time, even if you don't like the phrase Rape Culture):
Rape culture is regarding violence as sexy and sexuality as violent. Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment, as the unbridled passion stirred in a healthy man by a beautiful woman, making irresistible the urge to rip open her bodice or slam her against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, or pull her by her hair, or shove her onto a bed, or any one of a million other images of fight-fucking in movies and television shows and on the covers of romance novels that convey violent urges are inextricably linked with (straight) sexuality.In the movie Red Road, a woman becomes obsessed with the man who killed her husband and daughter in a drug-fueled car crash. It's a bleak and harrowing film, but it nevertheless has great merit - mostly for the use of CCTV (the protagonist is a CCTV operator who spots her enemy on camera). She gets closer to this man who she believes to be a monster and, outraged that he is out of prison, she sees an opportunity to frame him for rape. So they have consensual sex and she tries to rough things up a bit, in order to acquire a few marks and bruises. And that's awkward, because he's behaving normally and is nervous of not messing it up.
I have no experience in this area, but I'm sure most times two people have sex for the first time, both parties will go about this with significant caution. You don't necessarily know the other person's likes and dislikes, you don't know the other person's body, but most of all, you don't want to sing such a duff note that the other party screams, throws you off or laughs in your face.
Yet most of the sex we see in movies is supposed to be the first time two people make love, usually two people who don't know one another all that well, and yet it is almost always forceful and rough - ripped clothing, pinning down etc.. And that's a problem. Because it encourages the idea that this is how it's done and (particularly) first-time sex should feel or look a bit like a fight.
6. Sex is the grail.
At the end of almost every movie, the hero gets the girl. She is the physical reward a man receives for saving the world, solving the mystery, winning the game or growing as a human being. If a man in a movie picks up a woman's scattered groceries, he will most likely get to have sex with her. If he rescues her from a burning building, it's a done deal. Great, good and victorious men get to have sex with whatever beautiful woman happens to be standing nearby.
So first off, there's the problem of heterosexual sex being a reward. Women are human beings with sexual autonomy, varying tastes, interests, codes and feelings of their own, so however great a heterosexual man may be, even if he has saved the world from nuclear apocalypse, he will never be able to do whatever he likes, with whoever he likes, whenever he likes. Yet whenever a famous man stands accused of rape, some fan will always ask the sincere question, "But who on Earth would say no to him?" Nobody ever says no to James Bond. Nobody ever says no to any decent, brave or talented man in a movie - at least not for long.
If you're not winning or questing for anything in particular, then sex may become the objective. I'm not talking about folks going out on a Saturday night with the hope of getting laid (or whatever the hi-tech equivalent is). Such people, for the most part, do so because they enjoy the experience. They enjoy the company of friends, they enjoy alcohol and the nightlife and, if they are lucky, they enjoy the experience of meeting, talking to and having sex with an attractive stranger. If they don't get lucky, then there will be other nights and even in the absence of sex, there are always stories to tell. It's what some people do for fun. Sex is sometimes part of that fun. At its absolute basest level, sex is a fun activity that two or more people enjoy together.
I'm talking about the aspect of our culture which treats sex like the acquisition of points in a video game. You don't enjoy the points, but they give the game purpose, they show you are good at the game and you may boast to your friends about how many points you have. Young men who have no points at all are in real social trouble; their masculinity will be questioned and they may be treated as strange, incomplete. But any man may feel anxious about the points he has. On a recent television programme about how many of us have Neanderthal DNA, the comedian presenter listened to the theories*** about cross-breeding and concluded, "Every hole's a goal!" The Good Men Project's pet rapist joked that the violent rape he committed, cheered on by his buddies, could be described as a "particularly harsh third base". The fact that folks even talk in terms of first, second and third base is pretty grim - especially as there are four bases in rounders.
Sex is not a thing to be acquired, like points in a videogame. Sex is an experience, which occurs when two or more people want the same thing at the same time. This is mostly down to luck and circumstance. Given the great variety of people who manage to have sex, it is hardly an achievement in
itself. Sex can be lots of things, but fundamentally, it is an enjoyable activity.
Edit: Stephen pointed out to me that there was an early computer game which scored points in this way. I imagine there have been many more since, but it sure started early.
7. Sexual Violence or Coercion is a Joke.
We joke about things to make them less horrific, and rape is among them. In A Woman In Berlin, victims of rape joke about their horrendous - but in postwar Berlin, very commonplace - experiences. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where rape victims are usually the butt of the joke. Only this last week, there has been Virgin Mobile's visual rape joke and FHM telling chaps not to wear women's socks:
“If you run out of socks, you have two options: recycle, or go sock-free. No matter how cold it is, it’s never acceptable to wear your girlfriend / mother / victim’s socks.”
Alyssa Royse jokes about her rapist friend's victim "But if something walks like a fuck and talks like a fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it's not a fuck?". The GMP rapist titters throughout his piece about how he's going to keep on "partying", whatever. This is humour about massively traumatic incidents in women's lives. Things that can effect them in profound ways for years to come.
Rapists joke about rape to render their crimes less serious. Rape in humour, especially gendered humour about what men and women are like, normalises violence and rape along with men being poor cooks and women being obsessed by footwear. If it's a joke, then it doesn't count as a crime, it couldn't be too bad. Most people who tell rape jokes are not rapists, but we need to be aware that rapists, as well as victims, might be in the room. And as I've said before on numerous occasions, you need to consider who you might be hurting and who you might be comforting with a joke.
Most people, including the vast majority of men, do not commit rape. Without needing a discussion, we all understand the absolute basics of consent. Many of us have made small mistakes, misread signals, make a fool of ourselves, even made someone else feel a little uncomfortable and culture often plays a part in that - like the character who thinks all straight sex concludes with the man coming on someone's face. Rape is not like that. It is not a misunderstanding of a situation. But rapists, however, tell us it is like that and, because we're decent and inclined to believe the best of others, we sometimes get sucked in.
Alyssa Royse says "...we're all accomplices in making women's bodies and sexuality a prize and something to which some men feel entitled". I don't think that's true. But we are all part of a culture which allows a rapist to tell his friends about his dreadful confusion, and to receive empathy and reassurance in return.
The final word to the great Cliff Pervocracy;
"So when you hear all the totally plausible ways it could have been you, realize: nope, probably couldn't have been. Most people don't struggle not to commit rape. Most people don't have trouble understanding sexual refusal. The vast majority of people go through drunken blunders and miscommunication and bad breakups without committing or being accused of rape, just as the vast majority of people don't have trouble restraining themselves from torture or murder.
And forget the numbers for a second. If you, personally, make a commitment to never have sex without unambiguous consent, your odds of being a not-rapist are 100%. It can't "happen to you" if you decide not to do it."
* My copy is in a box, in an attic, two hundred miles away. So there's a small chance I'm remembering the wrong book or it wasn't quite as I describe in some way.
** Except possibly New Zealand. Everyone I've come across from New Zealand is lovely. They produced the classic movie Tongan Ninja, the great band Flight of the Concords, everything looks like Middle Earth and they have those funky green endangered owls that tried to mate with Mark Carwardine. If it wasn't so far away from everything, I'd move there!
*** It's not an irrelevant point that all the theories of interbreeding asked the question, "Why would human men decide to have sex with Neanderthal females?" and most of them relied upon human masculine sexual aggression. This is the nature of our cultural imagination.