Fore-note; this article contains topics that many readers may find distressing.
It's hard to think that it has been around 12 months since #MeToo and #TimesUp movements began. During that time, numerous people within positions of power have been called out for their abusive behaviour, from Harvey Weinstein to Steve Wynn to actors on film sets and directors of established businesses. This year has seen a huge resurgence of victims of sexual abuse coming forwards to not only name and condemn their attacker, but to pave the way for others in their situation, to show them that not all hope is lost.
Yet one aspect of this year that has been even more prominent is the fact we are now all talking about consent. I think one of the biggest achievements these movements has caused is the discussion it has opened up amongst us all. From opening up over past experiences to learning about others struggles, and for some even identifying how their own behaviour is problematic, this is a conversation that is long overdue.
One aspect of this conversation I think caused a great deal of division was what counts as abuse/an assault, and as a result of this, how can one determine whether consent was indeed given.
Introducing, The Grey Area.
The grey area has been dubbed the place between sex and rape. The part where consent isn’t 100% sure. Be this a result of a person saying “this person has raped me” and them replying with “you never said no”, or during sex, someone changes their mind and wants to stop but doesn’t say anything. It is has frequently been assigned to occasions where sexual assault has taken place but isn’t “bad enough” to warrant the “R” word. At what point during these moments of passion, does our consent “expire”?
My mind has turned to the Grey Area after Aziz Ansari made his return to work. We are all aware of the Babe.net article of which Grace* accused Ansari of assaulting her. This article caused a number of issues.
First and foremost, a division amongst all of us and what we class as rape. Secondly, criticism of the 21st Century Feminist movements. Finally, it made us all question our own experiences of consent.
Through all of this we find ourselves asking what consent even is. by definition, Consent means giving permission.
Does that mean express permission? Is it an explicit yes? Is it the ability to read these very chemical, hormonal and sophisticated signals and body language? At what point can we withdraw our consent in a situation and claim we were unhappy about what has happened?
My understanding of consent is this; in the absence of no, you cannot assume yes.
Whilst I am not suggesting that in the heat of the moment you both ask each other continuous questions on what you can and cannot do, what I am suggesting is that there is some level of intelligence in the situation. Has that person had too much to drink? Are they clearly not in a good place mentally? Are you at this moment in time in a dominant/superior position to them?
Communicate. If in doubt just ask. Still in doubt, stop.
If you are not 100% into the sex you are having, you need to stop. Yeah sure that’s easier said than done, I myself have allowed my body to be used because at the time it felt easier than telling the person to get off. Equally there have been times where I have told them to stop and either they haven’t, or their reaction is so horrible I wish I never said anything.
During my 23 years, I have experienced a variety of different sexual experiences, some good, some bad, some better than others and some I have categorized as sexual assault.
But why do we do this? Why do we feel it is easier to let ourselves be used than fight?
When Grace’s article came out, we all found ourselves comparing it to the victims of Harvey Weinstein and others who have been assaulted by men in positions of power.
Comparison was the first mistake we all made.
When a person is murdered, we don’t immediately compare it to Jack the Ripper. we accept that a horrific thing has been done and we do not put it in a hierarchy. We accept straight away that this is wrong. We do not think; it wasn’t as bad as so and so’s murder, that was much worse and if anything this was just an unfortunate death!
So why do we treat sexual assault differently? I think the main thing we have to understand, no matter how difficult it is to process and thus punish, is that; sexual assault affects different people in different degrees. To one person, being touched up in a nightclub by a stranger may class as merely inappropriate, to others it can be debilitating.
The issue at heart is this; if explicit consent for that moment is not given then it is an attack.
Many said Grace’s experience was purely bad sex. Which to some it may have been. But she left Ansari’s home feeling violated and hurt. This is the problem. It is this feeling that he made her feel that is wrong. No one should feel like this, especially after such a vulnerable moment.
Once again, it is consent. If in that moment you are not being respected, to the point where, like Grace, you asked the person to slow down and they carry on regardless, your consent has been withdrawn. Because they have done something you have asked them not to do.
Why didn’t she run out of the house screaming? Why didn’t she hit him? As the entire Time’s Up movement has been demonstrating, men in power abuse their position. Grace most likely felt that the repercussions of rejecting someone as prolific as Ansari would be worse than just getting it over and done with itself.
Resignation and consent are not the same thing.
Likewise, many of us who have been having sex with a person and suddenly things start to go into a direction we aren’t comfortable with, it often feels safer to wait it out.
We must all do better.
There needs to be a better level of communication between us all during sex. Even when sex finishes, be it a one night stand or in a relationship or friends with benefits, we need to give each other that space to talk about it. As the next generation, we must empower one another to feel confident and able to discuss our sexuality, so that we don't feel guilty for saying no or ashamed for saying yes. I think that with conversations on sex being more open, we all might feel a little more wiser on how to not be a total arse hole***.
Am I suggesting that you need to keep up a narrative between each other to check if what you’re doing is okay? Absolutely. Until you have both clearly established your boundaries and wants, you cannot assume them.
Outside of having sex, we need to give those of us who have had experiences that leave us feeling unsure are listened to and respected. Many who have experienced sexual assault feel that they won’t be believed or respected should they want to talk about it. The entire Babe.net debate truly fuels this notion.
If a person claims to have been sexually assaulted, you do not compare it to other cases to work out whether their claim is legitimate. You help them work out what has happened and what they want to do about it. We need to stop this ridiculous victim shaming and blaming and start with the victim supporting and protecting.
If anything, Gracie’s article highlights just how many “minor” cases are swept under the carpet and how this fuels the notion of silence means yes. The bottom line is, it is down to the individual if they want to class their experience as an assault. In my eyes anything less than me being 100% is a no.
But this is where the grey area gets into a plethora of shades…
For example, I was once in gay club in Soho. The person I was with had gone to the bathroom and I was by myself. A man comes up to me and asks me to dance, I initially decline but he asks again and I agree. He is probably in his 40s and he is grinding against me. His hands are on my hips and suddenly he grabs my bum.
Then I can feel his erection.
He whispers in my ear “it’s ok I’m gay” as he proceeds to reach under my clothes and pull my nipple. I am frozen. The worst part of it was I felt like I was in the wrong. When the song finished he pulled away and I quickly walked off. I immediately told my friend, asking if by agreeing to dance I had in fact agreed to being touched up. She assured me I hadn’t. The moment he went from dancing to helping himself to my body, my consent expired. Why didn’t I run away? Because I didn’t feel able to. At that moment I felt as though I had agreed to this without really understanding it. As though this was the small print of dancing. But he knew what he was doing. His actions were predatory and harmful.
I got home that night and had a cold shower purely to stop myself from feeling the way he touched me. Was I violated? Yes. Was it just a “bad dance” no it wasn’t. What I was wearing, how much I had had to drink had nothing on my body language or my sheer lack of "yes please touch me up".
Yet on average, there are 11 people per hour sexually assaulted in the UK, with only 15% of those accounts being reported to the police. Some of these incidents no doubt started with some mutual flirtation but ended with one member of that exchange feeling unable to say no or stop. Consent is not like lending someone a fiver; we can retract it.
The problem is, many of us feel unable to change our minds. When really our minds change all the time and we make different choices based on that. Yet as soon as we are in a vulnerable position we seem to have signed away our rights.
This business of consent is like being offered a cup of tea;
You say yes, and they suddenly come back with a whole afternoon tea and then they become frustrated when you decline the food. Or sometimes you will feel you have to eat it out of guilt. You clearly aren’t enjoying it and when you go to say “no more” they suddenly start stuffing your mouth full of food. Then afterwards you are sick and they are confused as to why you are sick.
When boiled down, consent is a very basic concept.
Well I am hoping it has given room for discussions of consent and what we classify as an assault to be considered. If there is one thing I want everyone to realise is that you CAN change your mind. You can retract your consent. In addition to this, when you are with a person in any context you need to be attune to them! And if you don’t know, just ask. In fact, ALWAYS ASK.
*** to clarify, I am discussing the aspect of sexual assault that is the grey area, where consent is unsure of because one person cannot read body language and another doesn't feel able to say no. I am not suggesting that rape statistics will go down as a result of us all being more vocal, merely the discussion of consent would be more educated.