Consent: A mutual, interactive process
I was lucky enough to hear Liz Kelly speak earlier this year about her research on the Give 'n' Get Project, and her articulation of the difficulties around 'consent' stirred up something I'd been worrying about in relation to my own experiences both personally, professionally and in activism, so much that I've been thinking about it ever since. So this piece bears a heavy debt to Liz and her care and thought in delivering that speech and the project work she has done.
In the last couple of years I've seen a multitude of new campaigns spring up around consent education in schools and for young people in general. The idea, and in many cases the practice of this where it has been done, is absolutely something I support, although I've always had the reservation that such education should be grounded in an understanding of gendered power dynamics and how these influence consent and sexual relationships. To look at the problem of sexual violence and male sexual entitlement as purely one of lack of education would be yet another erasure of women's experiences, and in my view is unlikely to resolve the issues.
However, I've also seen a lot of slogans and rhetoric about consent education that I find misleading at best and damaging at worst. One of the things which the Give n Get Project articulated which so much other work and activism has not is that consent is a mutual, interactive process, in which both parties engage in seeking and giving consent. While the model of male sexual entitlement and passive female sexuality suggests that women must either resist or comply, if we are to retain a belief in meaningfully consensual, reciprocal sexual relationships, this can't be the language through which we understand consent. Liz and her fellow researchers found that the language of 'getting' consent is barely understood and incredibly hard to articulate - for example, that although it has long been considered 'best practice' in rape investigations to ask the suspect what he did to obtain consent, this is hardly ever enacted. I would argue that this stems directly from our inability to articulate such ideas in a culture which sees them as almost 'fanciful' and 'ridiculous' given our constant expectation that men will demand sex and, as the best we can hope for, wait for resistance from a woman before they desist.
When attempting to retain this idea of mutuality and reciprocity in our heads, it becomes noticeable that much of 'consent education' and slogans around consent focus solely on the actions, either of resistance or compliance, on the part of a woman or victim-survivor. This sets up a dynamic through which some form of resistance is expected in order to 'demonstrate' lack of consent, which directly contradicts the UK's laws on sexual offences. Furthermore, it can also lead to us 'categorising' violence by means of the type of resistance put up by the victim-survivor ('rape by force'/'coercion'/'intoxication' etc) (and I feel I should add that none of these categories are 'essential' to proving non consent in law, although it's certainly true that even in 'obvious' cases convictions are about as rare as gold dust!).
I struggled immensely in my decision to write this piece because I know that certain 'consent' slogans are deeply distressing and triggering for me in relation to one of my experiences of rape. As I physically resisted but did not verbalise this, and in fact acquiesced to the perpetrators demands that I repeat phrases about how I liked and wanted the rape after him, asking me to shout 'yes means yes and no means no' at a demo feels a little like being thrown under the bus for me. I've stayed quiet (ironically!) about this for a long time as I'm loath to personalise things, but I also feel unwilling to squash my own distress about it. I'm frustrated at watching feminist groups (rightly!) condemn messages which suggest that only physical resistance 'proves' rape, while these same groups, and even several specialist organisations I've seen, include messages in their literature that focus solely on 'no means no' and imply that what women say verbally is the be all and end all of consent. To some degree this also feels like the creation of a hierarchy of resistance to me - the idea that physical force is 'so obviously' not required that we will condemn those messages but that we aren't 'quite there' with coercion such that we have to focus our efforts on 'no means no'.
Sometimes it's almost impossible to drag our own thinking away from a patriarchal hierarchy of violence which makes a distinction between physical and psychological force that we almost replicate this in our own activism by allowing those distinctions to exist, even where we interpret them differently. Certainly my experience highlights the ridiculousness of these distinctions on the ground, and in my experience listening to and supporting other women this is common - we react in whatever way we can at the time, this may well shift and change during the assault, and it doesn't easily map onto slogans or 'categories'. We seem to forget that neither the perpetrator's tactics nor the victim-survivor's resistance amount to the essence of consent itself. I also think my distress on this front goes beyond my individual situation - after all we understand that children cannot consent to sex no matter what they say, and we should also understand that coercion is not consent - why are our loudest messages straightening these creases out to the detriment of victim-survivors? Furthermore, we profess to know that over 50% of rape happens within an intimate relationship - does a focus on specific actions and resistance at the point of one assault reflect this complexity? Does 'yes mean yes' where a man has raped a woman before and she knows there is little point in saying 'no'? Does saying that it does effectively amount to a green light for perpetrators who may well listen to these messages and glean tips about what kinds of coercion they can get away with using?
In a way it would be great if we could simplify respect for the bodily autonomy of women into a slogan that we could chant at marches and expect men to comply. I don't think this is possible. I felt heard and as though my experiences were given voice with Liz's final line in her speech about Give 'n' Get - "consent is an enthusiastic and embodied yes - it's not just words". The law reflects this - can we be careful enough with our activism around consent education such that it does too?