Consent. What does it mean in a sexual context? What counts as giving permission? Do you have to say the words or is it tacit? Why do we place the burden of it on the woman?
I can’t talk about the nuance of consent without talking about the big elephant in the Canadian room, Jian Ghomeshi. Believe me, I have been avoiding it. I listened to his show daily. I agreed with many of his opinions. I even wrote a review of his book and went to his book launch. The night I found out about his being fired from the CBC I thought it was a joke. I, like many CBC listeners, went through the gamut of righteous rage against his firing, feeling weird about his Facebook post where he describes his sexual preferences, and then watching horrified as more and more women came forward with the same story and many posts from many women in the media industry in Canada stating they’ve known for years to stay away from him.
How did I feel? (yes, ’cause it is all about me, right?) But the question has been asked so I will answer it. Duped. I felt duped. I am not one of those people who tend to get excited over celebrities let alone idolize them. But I listen to the CBC and everyday I would hear Mr. Ghomeshi’s opening statement (which, because I never thought about it, I just assumed he wrote himself. Another reason to practice constant vigilance with my media and take everything with a grain of salt.) He was a great champion of libraries, of gay and transgendered rights. He was a self-proclaimed feminist, for christ’s sake.
Anyways. Lesson learned. But my feelings about the man are frankly not that interesting – the whole CBC listening nation went through them after all. But it is a tidy segue to a topic that has been on my mind for a while: the nuance of consent.
If you threw a pebble in a group of women who have grown up in our supposedly “sexually liberated” society, the chances of hitting a woman who has not had a weird, uncomfortable sexual encounter, one where she was was a willing partner at first but then it turned into something she was not ready for, are slim.
Women don’t talk about these incidents. There is no template, no way of separating the initial consent with the subsequent action. Even in our heads (and what we’ve heard from the women who came forward in the Jian Ghomeshi case) the fact that we were initially consenting seems to cancel out the abuse, or at least the world’s perception of the abuse.
Let us not even talk about what kind of fall out happens if we do report it.
Why is this?
Here are a few of the factors I think might contribute to this state of affairs:
1. We still treat women’s sexuality as a precious gift to be bestowed on a lucky recipient. The logical conclusion to this is that once the gift is bestowed, the recipient can do what they want with it.
2. We live in our world that fears female sexuality. From the countries that feel the need to hide the women under tent-like garments to western society where girls these days must walk the line between acceptable objectification (looking sexy, attractive, but don’t touch) and actually acting on their sexual desires. We teach our daughters the above statement, without telling them that it is totally natural to feel horny. We are still suffering from the good girl/bad girl dichotomy which is not only disingenuous but also harmful.
3. We are not doing enough to talk to the boys. The onus for consent should not be on women. As the (generally) physically stronger partner, boys need to check in through out to make sure it is all okay. I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a snippet where a man was talking about doing this with his partners- how it wasn’t always sexy, but necessary.
Mr. Ghomeshi obviously has issues with this (among, many other issues, of course.)
What I would like to see is an evolution of sex education to sexuality education. I would like it to cover not only the biology of sex (my sex education class was not even that – it was the episodes of Degrassi Junior high when Spike gets pregnant) but all the confusing nuances of it. I want our girls to know that it is normal and healthy to feel desire. I want them to know about masturbation.
Honestly, I don’t think it even occurred to me as a teenager that it was possible for women to masturbate. Nobody ever mentioned it and it wasn’t in any of the many books I read and, well, I just figured it was “down there” for a reason, that it wasn’t meant to be explored (I know. This says more about me and my relationship with my body than I would like to admit.) Caitlin Moran has now addressed this deficit in teenage girl masturbation in fiction with her book How to Build a Girl, you will be happy to know. The book opens with the main character wanking off.
I would like to teach them how to act on this desire responsibly and how to protect themselves. I want them to be able to say NO when it is going in a direction they are not comfortable with, without feeling shame for being in a sexual situation in the first place.
I want boys to understand that it is natural and normal for women to feel desire and want sex too. I want them to know that consent is not a carte blanche, that when a woman seems open to sex it does not mean her body now belongs to him.
I would like to change the conversation.