This is a guest post written by my dear friend Jinx, who is a cool person trying to change the world while traveling around a lot of it.
I have been seeing a lot of interesting discussions about consent in the past few months, but I feel like a few of them have missed the mark a little bit. I’m going to pick on this article, which compares consent to serving someone a cup of tea. It’s not that I think that this article is incorrect, in fact all of the correlations are spot on. The problem that I see with this is that all of my consent conscious friends are sharing this article on social media, and patting themselves on the back about how awesome and consent conscious they are. (Way to go guys!)
The problem is that most people understand these things already. They know not to have sex with people who are unconscious. They know not to force people to have sex if they don’t want to have it. They know not to force people to have sex even when they said yes to you previously, but they have withdrawn their consent. Yep. People get it. This is the thing that we don’t want to admit. People get it! For the most part, this isn’t a mistake. This isn’t a misunderstanding. So, although it is a good thing to continue to have these conversations, I feel that there is more that needs to be said.
People reject others in a very specific way; we don’t say “no” unless we absolutely have to. If someone invites you to coffee but you don’t want to go, you don’t say “No, I don’t want to have coffee with you” you say “Oh, well I wish I could, but I’m pretty busy, and things have been sort of up in the air since we’ve moved, but maybe after things have settled…” blah blah blah. You don’t say “no”, but people still understand that this is a rejection. We give them and we receive them every day, all the time. It’s how we communicate. There’s no misunderstanding.
We are coming at the consent issue from the wrong direction. We are pretending that there is a miscommunication that we can resolve, but I believe that the vast majority of people who overstep boundaries know exactly what they are doing. They push those boundaries anyway because they know that there won’t be any repercussions. If people think they have their partner’s consent, no amount of tea analogies will help them, because they already think they are on the right path.
So, what can we do to solve this problem? We can teach people to speak up when they hear rapey content in regular conversation. We need to let people know that non-consent is not a laughing matter and that it will not be tolerated. As a society we talk a big game about consent, but when it comes right down to it we let a lot of stuff slide. This undermines everything that we SAY about consent because we don’t actually DO anything about it.
I’m going to use Howard from The Big Bang Theory as my prime example, because hopefully most people are at least a little familiar with the show, and it is such an obvious example of rapey content in regular conversation. The Big Bang Theory is a prime time TV show and it is chock full of rapey content that belittles women and makes jokes out of overstepping boundaries and ignoring consent.
If you have ever watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory, you have seen the character of Howard Wolowitz, played by Simon Helberg, act like a super creep. It’s pretty much the definition of his character, and people find it hilarious, it is a comedy show after all. In many different instances Howard makes women visibly uncomfortable, trots out gross pick-up lines, and invades their personal space… and no one seems to care. If a woman ever rebuffs Howard’s advances, his friends rush to his defense and in the end Howard is placated and soothed, despite the fact that he is the one who is being inappropriate. In many instances Howard touches women, takes pictures of them, and says vulgar things in front of other people, and no one bats an eye. People are constantly apologizing and making excuses for him instead of calling him out or just not being his friend. It is known and accepted that Howard is inappropriate, but it’s just shrugged off.
From my personal experience this isn’t an abnormal experience in the real world. Most women have had inappropriate things said to us in front of friends and have had people shrug it off as being a joke. This is the foundation of our rape culture. The people who are saying these things aren’t saying them because they think they are completely consensual, they are saying them because deep down they know they can get away with it. And then we let them. The people who say inappropriate things are not afraid of being called out, the people who speak out against them are the ones who are afraid.
This is where our problem lies; the people who speak out are afraid. So our message shouldn’t be only focused on the people who are saying the gross, rapey things, our message should also be to the people who listen to it and don’t say anything about it. We shouldn’t be writing articles that just say “don’t force people to drink a cup of tea”, it should include “if you see someone trying to force someone to drink tea, tell them that they are being a jerk”. When you hear those awful news stories about a whole lacrosse team participating in an assault, there has got to be at least one person in that group who is saying to themselves that this isn’t right. Chances are there is more than one person who is saying that to themselves. Let’s write some articles for those people. The person who is orchestrating it doesn’t care about tea and consent, but the people who are watching from the corner and cringing might be reachable.
The conversation needs to start by talking to the majority of people who already understand what consent is and who actually care. The vast majority of people are reasonable people who are empathetic and care at least a little bit about consent. We need to be talking to those people, not just about what consent looks like, but about how to talk out about those who disregard it. Your friend makes a joke that’s degrading towards women? Say something. Your friend is hitting on someone who appears uncomfortable. Say something. Your friend is groping a drunk person at a party? Say something! This is how we change the culture.