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Consent doesn’t ever resemble the phrase 'I guess'

By Gabrielle Noel

Consent, much like the word ‘intersectional’, has become a familiar buzzword. I hear it mostly from women who identify as feminists, but also from straight men who like the idea of women agreeing to have sex with them. Regardless of context, once states like California and New York passed affirmative consent legislation, and as others started to consider those same policies, it became clear that there was finally a national conversation about rape and sexual assault that could be headed in the right direction.

Now, for the people who understand consent, that’s great news. But considering affirmative consent is only sparingly taught in schools, and the incredibly oversimplified “yes means yes” model for consent, I wonder how we can truly emerge as a consent culture when so few people recognize what that looks like.

Consent doesn’t ever resemble the phrase “I guess”.

In fact, I wonder how people feel comfortable engaging in anything less than “absolutely” sex, or “please, baby, please” sex, because those are significantly more fun. If one (or more) people are leaving a sexual exchange feeling shocked or uncomfortable, you’re possibly having “I guess” sex or “nobody asked you” sex and guess what? Neither of those sound consensual. 

“Stealthing” is a form of sexual assault 

We have normalized sexual encounters that are absent of a continuous, mutual conversation about boundaries. It’s why describing a sexual encounter where someone secretly removed the condom is rarely called rape, and why patrons of sex workers who refuse to pay for the services they received think their crime was only theft. It’s true evidence of how tolerant of rape culture we’ve become.

When I describe a scenario where a partner came inside of me when we’d agreed that he wouldn’t, nobody ever calls him a rapist. In fact, nobody even really sees him as a bad person. He came inside of me, rolled over, and handed me money to purchase Plan B -- making two decisions for me simultaneously, but refusing to see how that violated my consent -- and even my close friends were confused by my pain. They asked, “So it’s because he lied to you? Is it how he treated you?” It’s the kind of rape that still feels emotional and violating but you tell yourself it could’ve been worse.

There is a gender power imbalance when it comes to consent 

There are a number of things we need to understand about consent to understand why referring to the violations of it as “rape” never happens.

Consent often gets described in terms of gender roles, which not only minimizes the existence of sexual violence in queer relationships (and queer relationships period), but it classifies women as the consentors and men as the gatekeepers of consent. I blame this model for why people keep asking me “who’s the man?” when they see me partnered with women. They’re not asking about our gender identity, but rather want to know who holds the power in our sexual exchanges and can’t fathom that the answer is neither.

We also have to understand consent simultaneous to the power imbalances that stem from patriarchy. Women are taught to be polite and docile opposite men who are expected to be confident and assertive, and the normalization of coercion and deception as flirting stems from that. When we understand that consent is meant to be informed and enthusiastic, we can call sexual activity that only person wanted what it is -- which is not finesse, not game, but rape.

Women should not tolerate “small” violations 

Planned Parenthood came up with the acronym “FRIES” for people who struggle to understand the definition of consent. Translated, it means that consent is: freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific. It gives us the exact language to explain why removing the condom without your partner’s knowledge is, in fact, rape, or why continuing a sexual activity when consent has been withdrawn is rape, or why choking someone in bed who has expressed that they don’t like it is rape. It addresses that consenting to penetration doesn’t mean your body forfeits the right to make any other decisions.

But what’s really terrifying is how, despite the infographics and cute acronyms, consent still gets classified as a murky, hard-to-define gray area. This rhetoric creates space for “accidental rape” -- which is in quotations because it doesn’t actually exist -- and gives predators a cop-out.

It transforms actual victims of sexual violence into people who failed to communicate effectively and predators into the new victims, people criminalized for an innocent mistake. It encourages women to tolerate the “small” violations of their consent because there are bigger ones to be concerned about. It functions, like many other tools of oppression, to keep victims from coming forward because they see their rapists as unknowing perpetrators of violence. It allows us to claim that some aspects of sexual violence aren’t a “big deal” even as they take an emotional toll on us -- even as they teach us to tolerate the decisions other people make for our bodies.

So pushing for consent legislation is one thing, but it’s bigger than tweeting “yes means yes”. Consent culture requires us to critique the behaviors we’ve normalized within the context of a rape culture. It encourages us to develop a thorough understanding of consent, and most importantly -- be capable of recognizing when consent is violated.

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