On Teaching Consent

[CONTENT WARNING: this post contains explicit discussion of rape and sexual violence]

This came to my attention this morning. It’s your fairly standard Feminism 101 stuff that gets shared around facebook. It’s all about how you don’t disregard someone’s wishes when you’re watching movies or playing cards–so why disregard them during sex?

One of the comments asks if it’s rapey to say “hold on, it gets really good in 4 minutes”. They were probably just making fun of the piece but–hang on–good point.

Forcing someone to stay and watch a movie is nothing like rape. Negotiating and nagging at someone to eat something they don’t want to eat is nothing like rape. Waking someone up in the middle of the night to listen to music is nothing like rape. In general, almost all other instances of disregarding someone’s wishes are not like rape, unless they involve violently denying someone’s bodily autonomy.

Because rape is not just disregarding somebody’s wishes.

If you hang around in vaguely liberal feminist spaces on the internet you get a lot of “consent 101” stuff. I’m not going to call out anyone in particular here–I’ve seen multiple people say this, I can’t even remember who they all were, and I’m not sure pointing fingers would be particularly helpful anyway. But when people start bemoaning the fact that from a young age we make children eat things they don’t want to eat, go to places they don’t want to go, wear things they don’t want to wear, and how this contributes to rape culture, I start to wonder if we’re barking up the wrong tree.

Don’t get me wrong–I always think it’s better to explain the consequences of something to a child than to force them to do it. But if you’ve got a busy lifestyle, you’re working and stressed out a lot of the time, you want your kid to be healthy, you know they won’t take vegetables and you can’t afford to buy them the nice-tasting healthy foods (or multivitamins) that they might actually eat…yeah, you might sneak some veggies into a fritter or a soup without telling them. So you’ve made them do something they didn’t want to do, and they never noticed.

Is that disregarding consent? Is that rape culture?

If a child doesn’t want to clean their room, but you explain that if they don’t then the rats will move in, and when they still don’t tidy up you start doing it for them to convince them to do it themselves…is that rape culture?

There’s something wrong about that. On the one hand you have a mother–let’s say for sake of argument a single mother who works non-stop trying to provide for her child, who cares about nothing more than her child having a healthy and happy life, whose child doesn’t always realise what’s best for them in the long term, who therefore persuades and sometimes tricks the child into doing what’s best for them.

On the other hand you have the man who raped her, or the man who rapes her daughter, the same man who comments on pictures of attractive, passed-out women on the internet “10/10 would rape”.

Does one beget the other?

Is it inevitable that if women (it is mostly women) bring children up without giving in to their every desire and whim, their children will grow up rapists?

If so, why are most rapists men?

The idea is that if we are all taught from youth never to force a person to do something they don’t want to do, then rape will cease. But rape isn’t just “one person forcing another person to do something they don’t want to do”. The victim isn’t seen by the rapist as a person. The victim doesn’t “do” anything. They are violated. They are made into a victim of violence. Their bodily autonomy is disregarded; their body used as an object for another person’s pleasure.

There’s something a bit libertarian about all this: the idea that we all have the right to only do what we enthusiastically want to do. That’s not true. People do owe each other some things. But nobody owes anybody their body.

What’s wrong about rape isn’t that it’s “doing something you don’t want to do” but that it’s an act of (usually gendered or ableist) violence in which somebody uses another person’s body as their sex toy. Making someone do something they don’t want to do is not rape. Rape is not just making someone do something they don’t want to do. That’s a false equivalence. Seeing no distinction between having to do something you dislike and having something done to your body that you dislike is rape culture*.

Obviously I am not usually happy with people being pressured into doing things they don’t want to do either–and yes, that can be controlling/abusive behaviour–but still, one friend yelling to another “I SWEAR TO GOD I AM NOT GOING TO LET YOU OUT OF THIS FLAT UNTIL YOU’VE DONE YOUR DAMN DISHES” is not being like a rapist. And after all, there are obscenely rich people who don’t like paying taxes. Tough shit. Yes they should be forced to pay them and I don’t care about their consent.

So. That cartoon, then. “Imagine if you changed your mind about wanting to watch a movie and someone made you watch a movie anyway! You’d think that person was being a right arsehole, wouldn’t you? So just apply that to sex!” People already do apply that to sex. They already do think “yeah, making someone do something they don’t want to is asshole behaviour, but you don’t want to destroy that boy’s life just because he behaved like an asshole once. Just because he made her do something she didn’t want to.”

Being forced into allowing someone access to your body isn’t like being forced into reading a book you weren’t interested in. That’s a ridiculous equivalence, but it’s where the extension of consent theory leads us.

Centering the discussing around a cultural misunderstanding of consent–where true consent is everyone only doing what they’re super-enthusiastic about–erases the gendered, ableist and dehumanising nature of rape. A man who rapes a woman doesn’t misunderstand consent due to his mommy having made him eat broccoli when he was five. He knows perfectly well the give-and-take that happens when two people negotiate what to do next. He probably employs it correctly in a lot of areas of his life and probably all areas involving other men. But when he sees a woman, passed out, beautiful, drunk, or vulnerable, at that point he ceases to see her as a person with whom desires and consent can be considered and begins to see her as a thing that can be used. A lifetime steeped in patriarchy makes him see that woman as his personal sex toy in that moment.

And similarly, the woman in that scenario is not traumatised only because she was made to do something she didn’t want to. This cartoon wants us to think “Wow rape really is absurd–if we applied the logic of rape consistently, we might be forced to watch movies we didn’t want to watch!” But rape is more brutal than any of these analogies suggest.

The cartoonist thinks that the bedroom is the only place where consent is disregarded. But the breakfast scenario is also completely realistic. Of course women in many social circles are expected to cook for their husbands. Two of the other panels: I don’t see why you shouldn’t be annoyed if someone comes around specifically to watch a movie or play a game and then suddenly refuses to do so–but actually forcing them is controlling, asshole behaviour. And women are forced into doing things this way far more than men. If this cartoon actually illustrates anything it’s that women’s consent IS violated in multiple relationship scenarios outside the bedroom.

Violating someone’s bodily autonomy is more than making someone clean, cook, watch a film or whatever, but as it goes, women are at risk of both.

*I realise someone could argue that in some cases of rape the victim is being forced to do something–but those victims would be used in the same way whether they refused to move or not, so it’s still another person using their body.

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