Consent, naming and shaming: A counterculture on rape cultureDate Released: Fri, 3 June 2016 13:42 +0200
Recently on one of the muffin Mondays, my colleagues and I were speaking about the recent protest against rape on campus. It was interesting that people started to discuss the protest and rape in general. One of the issues that came up was that how would one within a relationship (marriage or dating) or in the case of intoxication is able to “prove” that they were raped, and how is consent proved to be given or not (since there is not like a written agreement to be signed prior to sexual activities).
Consent has been defined within the boundaries of verbal language and thus overlooking other ways of everyday communication such as nonverbal communication (social cues) that are part of our everyday language (some people refer to it as body language). Consent can be expressed in writing, by speech (orally) or non – verbally (clear gestures e.g. nodding or shrugging). Hickman & Muehlenhard (1999) defines consent as “free verbal or non – verbal communication of willingness to engage in a sexual activity”. In as much as some people would want to think that reading body language is subjective and partly culturally complicated to read, there still are some basic gestures/ cues that everyone can easily read. For instance, if a spouse/partner/or the other party within a relationship pushes you away/ walks away/ pulls their panties up/ - these are indications of discomfort, hence the one initiating sex should be able to identify these gestures and stop (I don’t think its complicated or hard to read or sense the discomfort if the other person is not interested). However, male chauvinism within our society renders men to feeling entitled to women’s bodies. Thus, in most cases it’s not that sexual violence perpetrators don’t notice disinterest/ discomfort from the survivor, but no matter how much a woman is determined to clearly display rejection, it seems the more determined the perpetrator is, to remind her of its insignificance. In the case of marriage, the discomfort should be clearly more noticeable but perhaps “conjugal rights” play a role in encouraging men to demand sex from their wives despite their unwillingness at a given time. Hasday (2000) refers to these rights as “husband’s legal rights to rape his wife”, because there is no mutual consent to carry on the sexual activity. Conjugal rights became the focus of public controversy almost immediately after the first organised women’s rights movement in 1848 and these have been vigorously contested by feminists.
In one session, facilitating a class on consent and its practicality, the issue of understanding signs of discontent or agreement when one is drunk was raised. This is the kind of situations some students face after a night of partying, clubbing and drinking. Cowan (2008) in his paper about the capacity and evaporation of consent to sex wrote that consent is a state of mind, a set of actions or behaviours performed in a set of ways to signify consent. Which brings us to cases of intoxication, where the individual’s physical and state of mind render consent obscure. The notion of consent can be discussed in different contexts but I would like to think that the bottom line is as Remick (1993) puts it “always take ‘no’ for an answer.” Always stop when asked to stop (or even sensing a slight element of discomfort). Never assume “no” means “yes” if her lips tell you “no” but there is a yes in her eyes, keep in mind that her words, not her eyes, will appear in the court transcript”. In 1991 in Ohio at Antioch University, an Affirmative Verbal Consent policy was developed in response to the campaign to challenge the culture of sexual violence on campus. I am noting expectations of the policy as a way of highlighting what entails consent;
Affirmative Verbal Consent Policy: expectations.
- All parties must have a clear and accurate understanding of the sexual activity
- The person (s) who initiate (s) the sexual activity is responsible for asking for consent
- The person (s) who are asked are responsible for verbally responding
- Each new level of sexual activity requires consent
- Use of agreed upon form of communication such as gestures or safe words is acceptable, but it must be discussed and verbally agreed to by all parties before sexual activity occurs.
- Consent is required regardless of the parties’ relationship, prior sexual history, or current activity (e.g. grinding on the dance floor is not consent for further sexual activity)
- At all times when consent is withdrawn or not verbally agreed to, the sexual activity must stop immediately.
- Silence is not consent.
- Body movements and non – verbal moans are not consent.
- A person cannot give consent while sleeping.
- All parties must have unimpaired judgement (e.g. impairment causes include but not limited to alcohol, drugs, mental health conditions, physical health conditions)
- All parties must use safer sex practices.
- All parties must disclose personal risk factors and any known STIs. Individuals are responsible for maintaining awareness of their sexual health.
When consent or lack thereof is found difficult to prove, survivors of sexual violence face a dilemma in reporting their experiences. More so, anticipated negative reactions from the victims’ disclosure (family members, the police, the criminal justice, health services providers etc.) is a huge obstacle for the survivors to report sexual violence crimes. Furthermore, the pressure placed on survivors to prove that they have been raped places the survivors of rape in a difficult position to wanting to report or speak about a rape experience, and as Ggola (2015) notes, self-blame, victim blaming, disbelief and secondary victimisation manufacture a female fear factory. Rape survivors are often pressured to give evidence of rape by undertaking a variety of tests (being examined for the perpetrators semen, DNA, physical injuries and so forth). This inhibits survivors from reporting rape incidents due to the fear of re - victimisation that comes with the questions asked when being interrogated by the police or even when social services providers (Doctors and nurses) are trying to help. I remember reading one of the comments on the SRC page where someone commented that they were asked, “how many of you got raped after the last silent protest?” These kinds of questions are insensitive and in a way, they do serve as secondary victimisation although the intension might not be the same. So much pressure is put on the survivors to be able to convict a sexual violence perpetrator forgetting the real person that should be interrogated.
Thus, all we hear is how survivors/victims of rape should speak out about their experiences, how they should report the cases to the police, their families and friends, seldom do we hear about the perpetrator. Talking of breaking the silences, there is so much silence surrounding rapists which make them feel safe and proceed to perpetuate sexual violence. As Qgola (2015) argues, rape violence perpetrators are not aliens who come down on earth to rape women and then return to their mysterious places, they are people within us, people we interact with. Breaking the silence about the rapist is one of the interventions that will help alleviate sexual violence. Exposing the rapist places him in an uncomfortable position, uncovering them from their hiding and publicly making them take responsibility for their actions. Thus one of the strategies to ending rape is to involve the rapist – individually and collectively sabotaging rapists and holding them accountable rather than to exclusively focus on rape survivors only (Qgola, 2015).
This takes me back to the recent rape protest on campus. One of the interesting and different thing I noticed about this protest is the determination to expose the rapists on campus. So there was a “list’ of the people who are accused of victimising the girls on campus. This evoked some reactions from people who feared that the image of these people may be tarnished if found innocent, but what about the lives of those victimised? Who should we be protecting here? Alcoff and Gray (1993) reported on the event that took place in 1990 at Brown University in the USA where students wrote a list of rapists on the walls of women’s bathrooms. They argue that this action evoked a frantic response from the admin where the list writers were accused of libel and harassment and of disrespecting the judicial system. This goes hand in hand with those who believe in “not guilty until proven guilty”. The men on the list were offered help to file a complaint against these women. This reminds me of one of my research participants on my master’s thesis (which is about the silent protest) who said,
“Instead of seeing and acknowledging that people are raped in this country and fighting to get the perpetrators prosecuted we have people rather telling that they should not say anything. Rather than fight the perpetrator the society fights the survivors. The very people who have been raped or experience sexual violence. Kanti whose side are we, as society, on? As it seems now society seems to be standing in the perpetrators’ corner, supporting the very rapists. How is that ok?”.
The protest challenged the societal silence about the identity of the rapist, by so doing the perpetrator loses his power which he usually finds in people’s silence by not challenging the perpetrator. According to qgola (2015), it is time to put pressure on the people who rape, those who make excuses and those who make rape “jokes” by breaking the silences around the identities of the rapist in midst of our society and thus, breaking the rape culture in the midst of our society.
By Liz Chitiki
Alcoff, L., & Gray, L. (1993). Survivor discourse: Transgression or recuperation?. Signs, 18(2), 260-290.
Cowan, S. (2008). The Trouble with Drink: Intoxication,(In) Capacity and the Evaporation of Consent to Sex. Akron Law Review, 41(4), 899.
Gqola, P. D. (2015). Rape: A South African Nightmare. Jacaranda education: Johannesburg, South Africa.
Hasday, J. E. (2000). Contest and consent: A legal history of marital rape. California Law Review, 88(5), 1373-1505.ent to Sex. Akron Law Review, 41(4), 899.
Hickman, S.E. and Muehlenhard, C.L. (1999) '"By the Semi-mystical Appearance of a Condom": How Young Women and Men Communicate Sexual Consent in Heterosexual Situations', The Journal of Sex Research 36: 258–72.
Remick, L. A. (1993). Read her lips: An argument for a verbal consent standard in rape. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 141(3), 1103-1151.