*Warning: This post contains triggering and graphic language, descriptions, and images involving sexual assault.*
You know, there are days when I just can’t handle rape culture anymore. Other days, I’m ready to fight the good fight, to charge at the nearest challenge against the inherent sexism and violence that rape culture perpetuates. But then there are moments when I am so pissed off. Like now, for example.
Last night, I watched a Jon Oliver segment from his HBO show Last Week Tonight on sex education and the lack of it in American culture, about which he is absolutely right. He then talked about the natural link to this lack of sex ed portraying negative outcomes of sex in lieu of positive sexual relationships. This fear-mongering then leads to lack of understanding about what consent is, and he used this video to describe it:
Yes, what you just watched was Yale fraternity members chanting “No means yes, and yes means anal.” The bleeped word in the news segment was “anal,” because we can say “bitch” but not anal. But that’s another problem.
To be clear, I’m not targeting fraternities. In my personal career as a Prevention Educator with the University of Minnesota’s Aurora Center, I’ve worked with a lot of really great guys who happen to be members of fraternities. During violence awareness projects we’d put on, I worked with a couple of fraternities as units, in that the entire fraternity had agreed to fight sexual violence in the campus. I even know a guy who trained to be an advocate at the Aurora Center who is also a fraternity member. However, you’ll notice the reactions in the video, and in particular from one individual, saying the 5-year ban from pledge and recruitment activities for this fraternity was going “too far.”
Before we go further, we need to define a few terms:
Rape culture is the reinforcement of societal expectations and portrayal of sexual relationships that often lack consent. These subconscious reinforcements often default to sexism in which men must be sexually aggressive or utilize a “don’t take no for an answer” mentality, and women are responsible for their virtue and the lustiness of these sexually aggressive men. This sexism and violence perpetuated by rape culture hurts all genders, and if you’d like to learn more, go to Day of the Girl’s website where they have a full fledged definition. Or, you can read this Everyday Feminism article with a short but informative list of examples. We also have a fellow Women’s Center blogger who wrote an article about rape culture with additional sources if you’d like to take a read.
Now, time to define consent. This is my favorite part, because some people like to say “Consent is a gray area.” No, it’s not. It’s actually a pretty simple concept.
Consent is: unequivocal, absolute agreement to engage in any sexual activity of any kind from all partners participating. If that particular definition is hard to remember, just remember consent is an all-or-nothing situation. Either everyone says absolutely “yes,” or it’s a no go to the sex. In order to have consent, you must be entirely clear that the other individual understands and agrees with what is happening. To make it clearer, anything that is not an enthusiastic “yes” or “yes, I get what sex is. I know what you’re saying, I agree to it. Let’s get nasty” is not consent.
However, consent is not: A person fell asleep on the bed where all of the coats are stacked at a party; a drunken person throwing themselves at you; a drunken you throwing yourself at another person; if that person took drugs or alcohol and they are completely incapacitated; when the person says “maybe” or there’s any trace of a question mark in their tone or facial features suggesting that they don’t quite get your intentions; a nod or any body language you’ve interpreted as “suggestive”–this is not Spanish class, there is no need for “interpretation” of intentions; and of course, IF THE PERSON SAYS NO!!
Now that we have the definitions, let’s talk reactions. Normally, I would talk about preventative education, its attributes and the reason we need it to reduce sexual assaults and the perpetuation of rape culture. Chants like these, and the mixed responses to them, make me furious. You know damn well no means no, even if it has nothing to do with sex. So why the threatening, rapey chant guys? I get it; we all grew up in the same rape culture, and now we don’t get what rape is. We think it’s only guys coming out of the shadows, attacking only women, and that women who are truly victims are always virgins dressed from neck to foot in wool. But rape is engaging in unwanted sexual intercourse, which includes sexual assault. And, yes, sexual assault and rape are different things, but sexual assault encompasses rape. Sexual assault is a situation when any unwanted sexual contact is received. An example would be someone at work slapping your behind without permission. If you are still confused, focus on the key words: unwanted sexual contact. If the contact is unwanted then don’t. Just don’t. More imporantly, if you’re not sure if the contact is unwanted, then don’t. Just don’t. And let’s get some terminology right: sexual assault and rape are crimes. They’re not “lover’s disputes,” “just desserts,” or any form that makes it appear legal and okay, and also somehow the victim’s fault. They are crimes.
I tried to understand best how to proceed with this article, because the good news is that both Yale and the Texas Tech universities that used this chant to harass women specifically on their respective campuses have been dealt with to some degree. As stated earlier, the Yale fraternity has been banned from recruitment and general fraternity opportunities for the next five years, which can do serious damage to an organization. Also, the Texas Tech University frat members have been expelled and are expected to complete 10,000 hours of community service. I’m glad that accountability has been placed where it’s needed to, but it doesn’t fix anything when you scroll down and what should read as a resounding “Huzzah!” is a 50/50, or even 40/60, “Huzzah!”/”Well, was it necessary to be that harsh? They were just teasing.”
So, I thought the best way to proceed would be to walk through these responses and react myself, hoping it’s both entertaining and educational.
“Oh, they’re just teasing.”
No, no. No, it’s not. If your expectation is that “no means yes” is a coy teasing mechanism, remember that sex easily becomes rape if you proceed when you’re still not sure if the other person wants to have sex or not, so make sure they do. It can be asked in a variety of ways, but it can be as simple as “Wanna bang?” Two grossly butchered English words and affirmative consent equals a fun, felony free night for you.
“Well, she was dressed that way. She asked for it” or any other variety of that phrase that suggests what I think it does.
I’m always intrigued when people respond this way. Tell me, who asks to be violated in an area that, for many people, is extremely personal. Seriously, who goes around town, saying, “Hey, you know what I would like? To be raped by someone I know, hell maybe even by a partner, in an extremely confusing, intimate, violent way.” Think to yourself before writing/posting/screaming “he/she/it wanted it because (insert bullshit reason here)”: would you want that. Imagine the victim blaming you’d have to endure if you ever talked about it, the degrading questions from legal systems and police such as “Were you drunk?” like it has any relevance to the crime. Would you really ask for that? So, then why are you assuming someone else, particularly women, would?
Also, let’s discuss the sexism behind “She was dressed that way,” a response that tends to be associated with women only. Let’s be perfectly clear about something: what women, or anyone, wears on a daily basis is not for your viewing pleasure. The responsibility of someone else’s actions, violent or otherwise, rests with that someone else, not the victim’s fashion choices. Saying someone was raped because of the short skirt they were wearing is like saying “He deserved to be robbed because he was wearing a Rolex watch at night.” It sounds dumb, doesn’t it? Then why do that with sexual assault? Doing this is called victim-blaming, meaning you’re blaming the person whom the crime was committed against for the perpetrator’s motivation to perpetrate. Isn’t that messed up? We have a situation in which the victim can be blamed for the crime done to them, and the person who won’t be blamed for it is the perpetrator. The one who, by definition, perpetrated the crime.
“Maybe (he/she/they) enjoyed it.”
This is a ridiculous response. Rape fantasy and kink is different than actual rape, because the people who do engage in rape fantasy have consent. Remember, the thing you need to engage in sexual activity at all? In rape fantasy, people participating are all informed about what to expect and what’s going on, and everyone knows the word or method needed to indicate that they’d like to stop. In a kink scenario, consent and safety is super important. So, the whole “some people are into it” is a problematic response because the people who are into it have consent.
“(He/She/They) was/were drinking, so it doesn’t count.”
First, please refer to the definition of consent above, in which you’ll find that receiving consent from someone who is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs is impossible. Second, The Purge was a ficitional movie, and while it had its moments, our government currently does not have a night in which all crime is legal. Therefore, there is no magical stretch of time in which sexual assault or rape “doesn’t count” under certain conditions. In fact, if you use alcohol for someone to have sex with you, you are in fact drugging someone in order to have sex with them. You know how much we hate date-rape drugs and the like? Well, remember kids, alcohol is a drug, and while it’s fun to partake in, abusing its powers can have serious consequences, date-rape like consequences.
“Men can’t be raped.”
False as false is false. Men, just like women, can be raped. This is a way of further complicating an issue that is quite simple, actually. A sexual crime has been committed by someone else onto another individual, and it must be dealt with accordingly. However, the perpetuation of the caricature of rape we talked about earlier, i.e. all men are rapists, all victims are virginal women showing no skin, leads to the assumption that men can’t be raped. This idea that men can’t be raped also stems from the old idea, much like the idea that what one wears controls whether or not one will be raped, that rape is about sexual desire and orientation. But rape has nothing to do with sexual desire or sexual orientation. Rape is a method to establish control and dominance, and affects people of all genders.
“They were just chants. It’s free speech.”
The first amendment, a beautiful thing that allows me to write all of this, does not cover threats. In fact, the full documentation of the first amendment involving free speech and free press specifically states it does not cover “fighting words or true threats,” which means the thing being said has to indicate an “immediate breach of peace.” Throw that in with some trespassing charges, and you got yourself a threatening scenario when those Yale pledges chanted “no means yes, and yes means anal” outside the women’s dorm. It’s not boys being boys (or men being men), or a “teasing affair,” it’s threatening. It establishes a messages that these women should be afraid, and that their right to say no really doesn’t mean anything.
The reason these responses to sexual harassment and instances of rape are so problematic is that it tries to overshadow the truth and perpetuate present misconceptions about rape. As a Preventive Educator, I totally agree that we are socialized to believe that rape is just something to accept, but there is a significant difference between a lack of knowledge and willful ignorance. If you don’t know anything about rape or rape culture, you have a lack of knowledge that makes you liable to perpetuate rape culture, which can be remedied if you’re one to understand that facts are facts. When you classify a group of Yale fraternity members hanging outside of the women’s dorms after hours to chant “no means yes and yes means anal” as an issue of “teasing” while understanding that they were sexually harassing these women, then it’s not about a lack of preventative education. By ignoring the preventative education and ignoring the facts at hand that are directly presented to you, you are perpetuating rape culture, but the problem isn’t a “gray” area or “coy teasing.” The problem is that you refuse to acknowledge that you are part of the problem, and that’s being willfully ignorant.