*Trigger warning: This post discusses rape and sexual assault.*
Last week, the news took me by surprise.
Not the reports of a club of young men participating in gang-rapes and public humiliation campaigns. I am sickened and horrified by their actions and attitudes – but I am not surprised.
Not the reports of the police handling of the case. I am dismayed at the absence of an effective response from the Police – but I am not surprised.
Not the reports of victim-blaming by a series of radio hosts. I am appalled at their treatment of women who bravely spoke out about their experiences – but I am not surprised.
Not the many stories told this week by women who have been sexually assaulted, including some of my friends who have spoken out about their experiences. I am heartbroken by their stories – but I am not surprised.
I am not surprised by these things, because rape happens every day. Victim blaming happens all the time. Rape culture is not some dirty underbelly of society. Rape culture is completely mainstream. Rape culture is so much a part of our culture that we barely notice it.
That is why I was taken by surprise last week: because rape culture made the news.
Not only has it made the news, but now people are speaking out against it, even people I would normally be hard pressed to find common ground with, and their protests are making the news.
Yes, there have been those in the media who have continued the victim blaming, saying that girls shouldn’t be drinking so much, shouldn’t be dressing like sluts, shouldn’t be attracted to bad boys… but there have also been opinion pieces in the mainstream media calling for men to teach their sons to respect women, for onlookers to step in and intervene before assaults happen, and for all of us to challenge misogyny whenever we encounter it. These public conversations give me hope.
Earlier in the year the North American blogosphere was buzzing with commentary about the Steubenville rape trial, the media coverage of the trial, and rape culture. At first I was trying to avoid the topic, which was hard, because even searching for a recipe for vegan brownies could take you to a blog where the next post was about rape culture. One such recipe search led to a blog post that caught my attention, and I went on to read more about the case and the conversations about rape culture. I’m glad I did.
I stumbled on a story about a college lecturer talking to students about consent. I hope I’m remembering this correctly as I can’t find it now, but basically the lecturer was saying that consent means that the person has to say “yes”. Someone in the class spoke up saying they didn’t think women would want to be asked, but then women in the class said actually, that would be great. It seemed like the discussion was a breakthrough for some people.
Reading about it was a breakthrough for me.
Consent is not the absence of a clear “no”.
Consent means saying “yes”.
How had it taken me so long to realise this?
When I was a kid I had a book about how “It’s ok to say no.” I knew there were situations where people could try to do bad things and I could shout NO! and get help. When I was a teenager I saw posters saying things like “No means no.” That is an important message, but it is not enough. In fact I think in some way it reinforced the idea that it was my responsibility to say no.
I should have said no.
As I read more about Steubenville, I came across this blog by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman. In it they wrote:
“Late last year, the Connecticut State Supreme Court overturned a sexual assault conviction for a man who attacked a woman with severe cerebral palsy, who according to court documents has the “intellectual functional equivalent of a 3-year-old.” Because of the way consent is defined in state law around rape and physical incapacitation, the court said because the woman was capable of “biting, kicking, scratching, screeching, groaning or gesturing,” she could have communicated a lack of consent. But why should she have to? Is her body considered free property unless she bites hard enough? In the absence of a law built on affirmative consent, her rapist remains free to strike again.”
Is that the kind of horrific conclusion we come to if we put the responsibility on people to say no to what they don’t want, rather than putting the responsibility on people to check if the person they are with is saying yes?
Despite the fact that pictures from the Steubenville case showed the young woman hanging limp as she was carried around, defense attorneys said that she was alert enough to say “no”, and she didn’t. Here in Wellington, this week, a defence lawyer said that a rape survivor could have just “closed her legs.” Sometimes it seems it is the survivors who are on trial, guilty of not stopping their attackers. Guilty of not saying no.
The first time someone used my body for sexual pleasure I was 13. We had been tickling each other and giggling; then he did it. It happened quickly. My mind didn’t catch up with what was happening until it was over. I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt guilty. I didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, because I’d let him tickle me, because he was only 13 too, but most of all because I didn’t say no.
It was hugely traumatising. I have only once told someone what he did – about 10 years after it happened I described what he did to an ACC independent assessor in order to continue to get ACC funding for therapy. Saying what happened was the hardest thing I have ever said. I still don’t know what to call it. I didn’t say no.
Sometimes we don’t say no.
Sometimes we are too drunk to say no.
Sometimes we are too young to say no.
Sometimes we are in too much of a state of shock to say no.
Sometimes we can’t say no.
That doesn’t mean it is our fault.
I’m trying to believe this.
As a teenager and into my early 20s there were many unwanted sexual experiences I didn’t say no to. Often I froze. I felt like I was 13 again. I tried to talk but my lips wouldn’t move. No sound came out. I didn’t utter the word “no.” Looking back, in some cases it should have been pretty obvious I wasn’t saying yes.
Here are some hints for some of the guys* I’ve met over the years:
If she’s silent and shaking, she’s probably not saying yes.
If she’s crying while you do something to her, even if she said yes at some point, she’s probably not saying yes now and you should stop.
If you’ve taken her to the middle of nowhere and she has no way of leaving, you’d better go out of your way to make sure you know whether she is saying yes or not.
If she is obviously emotionally distressed, err on the side of assuming she has not said yes.
If she has recently confessed to having been sexually abused, err on the side of assuming she has not said yes.
If she tries to push you away, she’s not saying yes.
These are not hypothetical scenarios. These are my experiences.Why did I think it was my responsibility to say no? Why didn’t they think it was their responsibility to check if I had said yes?
There are a couple of experiences I can point to and say yes, that was abuse. He used force, I had no way of escaping, once I even managed to say no… those are the easiest for me to deal with. The rest of the experiences are blurrier. I don’t think of them as rape, but… I now see them as part of rape culture.
These were ordinary guys. Some of them have popped up on facebook as “people you may know – 6 mutual friends”. No thanks.
Diane Revoluta blogs that demonising and dehumanising people who rape “builds on the myth that people who commit rape are the ‘other’: they are evil, inhumane rapists. They are not your best friend, your brother or your workmate.” It shifts the focus from “the wider issues that create a culture of misogyny, a society that doesn’t respect women, and a generation of young people who don’t understand what consent looks like.”
Those wider issues are huge.
I’m sharing my story as part of the “I Am Someone” initiative to raise awareness: these are every day experiences. I know I am not alone because others have shared their stories with me. I don’t want to talk to the men I have written about, that would still be too hard. But I want to share a little of my story here, and with my friends, and one day I will talk to my daughter too. This has been hard for me to write about. My hope is that some of my friends and other readers will start to have conversations with their friends and family, about consent and about rape culture, and some of this information will be shared with the people who most need to here it.
The conversations might be hard, but please, give it a go. Have a look at some of the links below. Talk to your sons and daughters. Talk to your friends. Talk to your colleagues.
Rape culture is our culture. We need to change it. Let’s start now.
Sex ‘N’ Respect (NZ website, suggestions for ways to ask and examples of verbal and nonverbal yes messages and no messages)
Michelle A’Court on bystanders stepping in.
The Harbour (NZ web portal and “point of hope for people currently living the ripple effects of harmful sexual behaviour.”)
*I am a woman and my experiences of non-consensual sex have all been with men. I know it’s not always along those gender lines.