Raising the threshold of consent

As the #MeToo campaign winds down, our writer asks if the threshold of consent is something we need to reconsider.

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Courtesy of Chris Brown via Flickr

On January 14th, Babe.net published an account of an anonymous woman, with a pseudonym of Grace, who had a date with actor Aziz Ansari, and as per usual, the internet had some opinions. I saw so many people dismiss it as ‘just a bad date’ or ‘buyer’s remorse,’ and whilst it certainly was those things, it reveals a much deeper issue with our expectations of dating. Given that Ansari’s response was that he believed the encounter to have been consensual, rather than deny anything, it would be redundant to debate the veracity of the account. And even in the statistically tiny chance it wasn’t completely accurate, it is a story that is likely all too familiar for many women.

With the #MeToo movement, TIME Magazine’s Silence Breakers, and the recent powerful sentencing of USA Gymnastics’ national team doctor Larry Nassar, it feels like we are finally at a watershed moment for sexual abuse and harassment. The world is thankfully having more and more conversations about consent, but until there are no longer any stories of sexual misconduct in all its forms, we need to keep having these conversations. It is easier – though by no means easy – to have these discussions over actions that are defined in law or the code of conduct of an organisation. It is harder to challenge social norms. Just because something isn’t literally illegal, it doesn’t mean that it is acceptable; we all need to hold each other and ourselves to a higher standard than just ‘not technically rape.’

Many derisive responses to Grace’s story suggest that she should have known what she was getting into when going back to Ansari’s apartment, or that her consent to some sex acts was default consent to any sex act that he decided he wanted. That is never the case. Consent is an ongoing process that can be revoked at a time, and is non-negotiable. A ‘no’ is not an invitation to wear your partner down until it is too much effort or seems pointless to refuse.

Kristen Roupenian, author of viral short story ‘Cat Person’, spoke of the way that women are generally socialised to take on responsibility for the emotions of people around them, and an over-use of tact and gentleness as a means of self-protection, consciously or not. The protagonist of ‘Cat Person’ decides to have sex with her date because saying no with the degree of tact she felt necessary required more emotional energy than she had. So it was a choice that she made, but it was not a completely free choice. She was not certain how he would reacted receiving a ‘no.’ And this leads us back to Grace’s experience. Even though she did make some unequivocally clear verbal refusals of Ansari’s advances, her reluctance was steeped in softening tones: “let’s relax for a sec”. In her account, she did not describe an explicit fear of violence, but alluded to feeling trapped, that her wishes were being ignored, and it is perfectly reasonable for someone’s reaction to that situation not to be fight or flight, but to freeze.

A few days earlier, actor Catherine Deneuve was one of 100 French women to sign an open letter in Le Monde decrying #MeToo as a growing Puritanism that threatened sexual freedoms, suggesting that unwanted sexual advances weren’t bad enough to be considered actually bad. But if your liberation does not include a person’s right to draw their own boundaries and have them completely respected, then who is your ‘liberation’ really for?