How can men know if someone is giving consent or not?
(Part of How You Guys - That's Right, You GUYS -- Can Prevent Rape, and continued from Who are rapists, and where did rape even come from?)
Sometimes, someone being raped will clearly say no and will NOT clearly say yes. They might say no verbally, with words, they might say no by crying, they might say no by physically trying to push away the other person or get away from them. They might try and change the subject from sex to something else, and some might try and make a deal with a rapist agreeing to a kind of sex they still don't want, but feel might be less traumatic, in the hopes that if they provide that, they won't be forced to do other things they want to do even less, or are afraid of more. They may also be saying no by nonparticipating in sex, by being passive or dissociating (mentally going somewhere else in their heads so they don’t have to be fully present during their rape). In fact, when a person you or someone else is going to have sex with is physically unresponsive, not reacting to sex with some clear expression of enjoyment or is very nonverbal, the chance that pursuing sex with them is, instead, pursuing rape, are high.
There's a weird idea that's been out and about for hundreds and hundreds of years that it's normal for a female partner to "just lay there," -- and disturbingly, this has been a common complaint from heterosexual male partners about women -- or to be totally unengaged in sex. The thing is, while that may be common, it's anything but normal. Someone who wants to be having sex with someone else -- who really wants to, which is the only time anyone should be having sex -- isn't just lying there, silent and prone. They're clearly engaged, and clearly and actively participating in the sex they’re having.
Yes is yes. No is not yes. And neither is maybe. When it comes to sex, "maybe" isn't yes. At best, it’s “Not now, but perhaps another time” -- and so in a scenario where the answer to “Do you wanna?” is maybe, maybe is no. Full and active consent to sex isn’t an “Ugh, okay,” or an “Ummm… I guess.” It’s an enthusiastic yes.
A lot of people have been (and are still) reared to think that sex with someone is something you "get," and if someone will LET you get it – rather than really sharing it with you -- it's all okay. Those same folks have often also been reared with the idea that while no is no, maybe is yes (and that even when someone says no, if they’ll let you get away with ignoring their no, it’s still okay to ignore their dissent). We have a tragically long culture history of men being told then when women say "maybe" it’s a cute way of saying yes, so it can be hard to recognize that under all the bizarre coyness usually affixed to that, being told a woman’s maybe is yes is being told that sex is only about what men want, and that rape is okay, so long as you can get away with it or excuse rape in a way that the victim or others accept.
Let's think about all that for a minute, and play nonconsent out in some other contexts.
• You're making dinner for someone, your favorite spaghetti sauce, which you’re intensely proud of. But as it turns out, they are allergic to tomatoes. You ask them if they’re sure, and they assure you they are. You suggest maybe it’s different with your sauce somehow. They say, again, that they’re pretty sure they’re still going to be allergic. But you worked al day on the sauce, feel like they at least owe you one spoonful to see how great it is, so you ladle it unto their plate anyway, and in time, your nagging gets to tiresome that they go ahead and take a spoonful, even knowing they’re likely to feel sick very shortly.
• Your friend's Dad is huge with football: he’s the football coach for the high school. He will not leave his son alone about joining the team, and belittles him constantly for not having interest. Your friend not only can't stand sports, but joining the football team would take away from the time he wants to put into the debate team to prepare for a career in law, where his heart is really at, and where his life goals lie. As well, he knows that he's going to have to put up with a lot of abuse from other fellows on the team because his dad is the coach, and because he’s just not very athletic. Your friend's Dad is not leaving him alone about this, to the point that it's clear his love is pretty conditional: if your friend gives up his own dreams and joins the team, his Dad is going to be a lot nicer to him. Too, he's just starting to feel really unloved because he's not doing what his Dad wants him to do. So, he joins the team, but only because he wants to escape his father’s insults and pressure, and it costs him the pursuit of his own goals.
• Your best friend has been enjoying boxing a lot, so much that he's started training to compete in pro fights. Not only are you not excited about boxing, even watching is tough for you because you had a bad experience being beaten up when you were a kid. But he wants you to try it with him – even though you know he’s going to be rough with you and will probably hurt you: he’s a lot bigger than you are, and you don’t know how to box -- saying even when he gets hit, HE likes it, and he's also been saying some pretty crummy stuff to try and get you to do it, calling you a girl (including to other people), saying you’re a pussy, saying you aren’t really his friend if you don’t support him by getting into the ring with him. Wanting him to just stop verbally abusing you and maligning you to other people, you finally step in, only to get your nose broken, which he later will tell you and everyone else was your fault for not blocking your face from his punch.
• You and a friend are in an airplane, considering skydiving. You only have some of the equipment you need, and might know some of how to do it, but you really aren't prepared or in a position to be safe, and just haven't made up your mind yet, and are only on the plane so you can get a better sense of what you want. But he really wants you to do it, too, to give him the courage to do it. You’re explaining you’re not sure at the same time he’s just grabbing you with him as he jumps, pushing you out of the plane.
Do any of those scenarios seem like maybe is really yes, or that taking those actions after that maybe is anything but an abuse? Can you see how one party in those scenarios is coercing the other through verbal, emotional or physical force?
The same goes with sex. We can easily suss out that if your pal didn't even ASK you if you wanted to skydive, and just pushed you off a plane with no warning, that'd be a clear assault and abuse. If your friend had the conversation with you above, and still pushed you out of that plane – or even if he just got you to dive by nagging you -- would it be about him wanting to share something with you, and you with him, or would it be about bullying, about forcing you to do something for THEM, without respect for your wishes? In other words, it's still an abuse; it's still an assault.
If they're not yet able or ready to communicate about sex in any way, then tell them – kindly and with care, not as an ultimatum -- that you’d prefer to wait for sex with them until they are more comfortable. With shy people, they often just need more time to feel safe being open. And with young women, given the world we live in and the way many are raised in terms of sex, it can take longer to get to a point where we do feel able to clearly communicate, to initiate sex, to voice our desires. If you’ve a female partner who isn’t there yet, then wait until she is, or choose partners more on your same level.
But prone, stiff or vacant during sex isn't usually about shy: it’s usually about feeling very scared, not feeling at all ready, not knowing how to say no or feeling like your no matters. Someone saying nothing, or really just laying there (and without some form of disability that limits their voice or mobility) isn't usually being shy: they are, for whatever reason, finding it difficult or impossible to voice nonconsent.
When someone wants to, really wants to, have sex with us, we'll know because that person will be taking a very active role, will be saying -- if not yelling! -- "Yes!" or "Please!” or "Do me NOW!" We may know because that person is the one initiating sex, at least as often as we are. (If you’re going to say that younger women just aren’t like that yet, know that isn’t always true. Some are, but those who aren’t likely aren’t because things are either moving too fast, or they really just aren’t ready for or that interested in sex with you yet.) We'll know because it will feel like something we are absolutely doing together, that couldn't happen if the other person wasn't just as engaged as we are (imagine trying to dance with someone else when they’re just standing there or not really paying attention: same goes with sex). We'll know because our partners will absolutely not "just be lying there."
We can easily be sure never to rape someone by making a choice to ONLY have sex with someone else when we are certain we have not only their full consent, but their full interest and attention, and they ours; when they’re clearly as enthusiastic about sex as we are, and we’re just as excited about their enjoyment as we are our own. If we're having sex with a partner and they start to space or zone out, or stop participating physically or verbally, if we stop what we’re doing and say, "Hey, you still into this? It's okay if you're not, we can do something else or just go snuggle," and mean it – rather than saying it to imply they need to get into it, or else -- we can be sure not to rape. If we are interested in sex with someone who seems they will allow us to have sex with them, but who is not taking equal part or deeply desiring and mutually initiating sex with us, we can and should step back and wait for them to take a lead.
Men can also pay attention to what has been found to be factors which create a risk of them raping. The Centers for Disease Control lists the following factors:
Individual Factors: Alcohol and drug use, coercive sexual fantasies, impulsive and antisocial tendencies, preference for impersonal sex, hostility towards women (or, in male-male rape to other men or homophobia), hypermasculinity, childhood history of sexual and physical abuse, witnessed family violence as a child
Relationship Factors: Association with sexually aggressive and delinquent peers, family environment characterized by physical violence and few resources, strong patriarchal relationship or familial environment, emotionally unsupportive familial environment
Community Factors: Lack of employment opportunities, lack of institutional support from police and judicial system, general tolerance of sexual assault within the community, settings that support sexual violence, weak community sanctions against sexual violence perpetrators
Societal Factors: Poverty, societal norms that support sexual violence, societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement, societal norms that maintain women's inferiority and sexual submissiveness, weak laws and policies related to gender equity, high tolerance levels of crime and other forms of violence
Obviously, men can't control some of those factors. But awareness of all of these factors, including the ones no one really can control, is helpful in and of itself. Mitigating the factors -- for yourself, or helping male friends and family to mitigate them -- men CAN control, like how YOU think about and treat masculinity, how you view women, if you drink or drug it up excessively, and what kind of headspace you’re in with sex, can make a very big difference. Too, let's not forget that even when it comes to society and culture, it's made up of people, and every single one of us has the power to do things differently than the generations before us did. When enough of us do them, we have the power to change culture so that we and our next generations don't have the same negative influences.
We can all prevent rape by doing all we can to be sure that the interpersonal sexual dynamics we take part in never make our partners feel like they owe us sex out of obligation, or must have sex with us in order to keep us around, keep us treating them well, or keep us from becoming angry. If our partner says no to something sexual we want, the only right response is “Okay.” We can all prevent rape by remembering that when we want to engage in any kind of sex where we only really want to think of ourselves, that kind of sex should be masturbation, the kind where we are the only people involved and sex IS be completely about us and not about anyone else. We can also easily prevent rape by truly being communicative during sex. I know that lots of us have been raised to think -- and the media often supports that message -- that somehow, talking during sex isn't sexy, or that there shouldn't be any talking in sex. However, those are very dangerous messages, and they're messages that not only do a lot of people real harm, even for people in fully consenting sexual relationships, not talking about sex or during sex can really limit how good the sex both people are having even is, emotionally and physically. Be clear in communicating with your partners about sex, and seek out clear communication from them: clear communication and responsiveness to that means that rape is unlikely and better sex is more likely: it’s a win-win. That doesn’t mean you have to get verbal permission for every single second of every single sex act: just that you pay attention to your partner, check in with them now and then – especially with something new, or when they’re a new partner – and be sure you’re both talking and listening to each other about the sex you’re having.