Lost in Translation: Consent
I’m spending the month of November discussing the “ethic of passivity,” the idea that a woman’s morality is defined distinctly by a “not” and how problematic it is to tie a women’s morality and ethical standing to her physicality.
As some commenters pointed out, this “ethic of passivity” is a failure to encompass all that “ethics” means – ethics and morality, inherently, are about doing as much as they are about not doing. However, for many young women in the church, the overarching message is not about what she chooses to do, but rather what she can refrain from doing. There’s an over-emphasis on the idea of “not” for women – remaining innocent and pure in a way that requires a lack of knowledge, “carnal” or otherwise. The “desirable” woman is not the one who can hold her own with guys cracking dirty jokes, but rather the one who can’t even say the word “penis” (Zooey Deschanel, I’m looking at you).
While, yes, how one approaches sexuality does have a bearing on one’s ethical standing (it would be awfully hard to call a man who refuses to take no for an answer in bed a “good person” in any sense of the word), for women, more often than not, it is all that matters to one’s ethics, rather than merely one part of the whole.
The first sections of examining this skewed ethic will focus on the problems with it – we already know a few of them (as I’ve already hinted at), but I figured I’d just dive in to the biggest problem with tying a woman’s ethical standing to an unbroken hymen: sexual assault.
Despite individual attitudes within the church, there is a concept on the whole that women do not really want sex and that men want it all the time – thus the modesty rule that focus more on women than on men (because we must protect our Christian brothers from their own brains!), thus the purity balls (see below), thus the overwhelming numbers of women compared to men who are pledging to remain pure. Because the conversation on sexuality rarely extends beyond “don’t do it,” there’s not a real discussion of what a healthy sexuality looks like, especially when it comes to consent.
I remember the abstinence education videos in seventh grade. They discussed the consequences of premarital sex – there was the girl who was put at risk for AIDS, the girl whose boyfriend became abusive after having sex, and the girl who got pregnant. Each of these stories concentrated on the potential consequences of sex, but not a one brought up how to say no.
For some reason, the one that sticks out in my head is abusive relationship, probably because it’s the one my friends and I spent the most time discussing. The scene opens in the boy’s house – the boyfriend and girlfriend are home alone (presumably the parents are out of town), playing Twister (…who does that?), and they fall down on top of each other. Like any horny teenagers, they begin making out, and the guy makes it clear he wants to take it further. The girl says no, initially, but eventually, with cajoling and pleading, she gives in.
Let’s pause it right there. That, my friends, in case it isn’t clear, is not a consensual relationship. A coerced yes is not a yes. Maybe, if the video had taken a more comprehensive narrative, we would have been told that.
Instead, we catch up with the couple a few weeks later. The girl is talking with a guy friend, and the boyfriend comes up and gets extremely jealous, yelling and such. Cut to a few nights later: she is trying to break up with him – not because he raped her, but because he got jealous (she says as much). He slams her against a car and her friends have to come rescue her.
The lesson: Sex could turn your boyfriend possessive and abusive, so you should avoid having sex.
In discussing it afterward, I distinctly remember telling my friend that if my boyfriend ever hit me like that, “he would be gone so quickly! Honey, we’re over!” Clearly, I had a great grasp on the nature of abuse.
There was absolutely no discussion of how he coerced her in the first place, no discussion of looking for the warning signs of abuse (which there likely were before sex as well as after), no thought given to how one could extricate themselves from an abusive relationship. No, the lesson was that abusive relationships are the consequence of premarital sex, and while the girl was eventually rescued, there was definitely a subtle implication that she deserved the abuse because she gave in.
That lesson stuck with me. When I thought forward to a future relationship, it was always a situation where he wants to go further and I would have to stop him, and by stopping him, our relationship could be healthy and lead to marriage! I never thought about (because the situation had never been presented to me) how I could stop things if “no” wasn’t enough, how I would deal with it if my consent didn’t matter to him. It never really occurred to me that the relationship before sex could be abusive. And I definitely thought that was how sexual relationships went – the man wants sex, and it’s the girl’s responsibility to say no, and if she doesn’t, or if he convinces her to give in, then she gets what she deserves, whether it’s abuse, an STD, or pregnancy.
I’m kind of sad that I feel the need to explain why that view of men and their sexuality is wrong – it doesn’t do men any credit to say that they are horndogs who will get sex in any way they can. When we convince women that their value is in not having sex, and that boys will push them to have sex, and that the sex they have will have all these negative consequences, we miss the conversation about consent. In wanting to get to the “sex has consequences scare them straight” message, we skip right over how to handle a situation in which consent is in question. We teach women to say no to sex merely because they could get hurt, rather than teaching them the difference between enthusiastic consent and coerced consent. A woman who gives in to her boyfriend's demands ends up feeling immense guilt. In the video, instead of the woman going to authorities (or, at the very least, the school counselor) and discussing the unhealthy sexual relationship she’d been coerced into, we have a woman dealing with her punishment – an abusive boyfriend – on her own.
When we play the premarital sex game as a zero sum game – “If you have sex, you will get pregnant and die” – we remove a healthy view of sexuality. We don’t teach women the difference between sex that is given freely and sex that is coerced from them in order to keep a boyfriend around.
This has long term consequences if a rape occurs.
I’ve already mentioned several times that 1 in 6 women in the US will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. A significant amount of those happen before the girl is 14. When we remove consent from the equation and just spend time talking about how sex is damaging, those who have had that choice taken away – who were coerced into a yes or who did say no – end up feeling like damaged goods. Rather than pinning the blame on the rapist, rather than a conversation centering around consent and what coercion looks like, we end up making women feel like they deserved what they got for something they had no control over.
When we make a woman’s ethical standing the cut and dried “is she or is she not having sex?”, consent flies out the window. We end up teaching women that, no matter the circumstances surrounding the sex, you are a sullied human being and no longer a moral actor if you have done the nasty.
While the girl in the video was eventually able to stand up to her abusive boyfriend, the idea remained that sex was the cause of the situation, rather than a symptom of greater abuse. Rather than seeing how sex could be used to coerce and abuse in of itself, we saw sex as the catalyst for the abuse, and abuse as a natural consequence of having premarital sex.* While this may have the effect of getting a woman to say no, it doesn’t teach her to how to spot the abuse, it doesn’t teach how to recognize coercion, and it doesn’t teach what a yes does look like. Something is definitely lost in translation.
*It should be noted that in the other two situations – STDs and pregnancy – consent was also not discussed, and, in both, the boyfriend abandoned the girl once she came to him about the “consequences.” None of these presented a healthy sexuality, which I guess was kind of the point.