Consent and Ending Violence Against Women and Children

03/04/2013 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2013
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)

Or Why a "Small" Consent Revolution Needs to be a "Big" Consent Revolution

The idea of consent, in terms of how we think about sex, sexual abuse, and power, is fairly new and historically radical. Laurie Penny, describing shifting attitudes about these topics, called it a "small revolution," earlier today in The New Statesman. A lot of people, especially those with power, are reeling from the unsettling idea that every person, including those without traditional access to power and status, can claim their bodies as their own -- maybe even legally and without shame. Maybe in offices. At parties. On school buses. In bedrooms and sacristies. Everyday we hear stories about institutions, places and people surprised to be caught in the crosswinds of this evolving understanding.  It's hard to cede power.  But, consent is a basic prerequisite to preventing and ending violence against women and the principles behind it far exceed "just rape."  Consider this list:

These are with little exception examples of men, operating in virtually all male power structures, not respecting the idea of consent and the rights to bodily autonomy of those without. I know that saying "men rape" is disturbing. So is saying that communities, filled with women, support them. But, this is, as we keep seeing, an overwhelmingly gendered crime. Not saying it out loud will change nothing. And, while women do abuse children sexually, they do not have the power to do it systematically, in groups and behind the cover of institutions.

For this to end, men, who tend to be those with greater power in families, businesses, religions, government and in public space in general, need to actively engage in building cultures of respect and consent.

These cases, involving the widespread sexual assault of girls and, most frightening to many, boys, jolt sensibilities because they put into stark relief power differentials that are the scaffolding of rape and abuse and they rudely belie comforting rape myths. Rape myths that say, for example, that violent strangers rape women; that girls ask for it by the way they dress; or that we all lie anyway. They show that rape isn't just "something that just happens" because poor, or dark, or mentally ill men can't control themselves. They demonstrate the predatory nature of rapists who target their victims and depend on social and institutional tolerance to rape again and again. Now add these, which aside from Steubenville you may not have heard about, to the list:

Or in "other places," where names are publicized:

Instead of little boys and girls, these are teenage girls and young women, targeted and raped.  Also graphic, jarring and myth-shattering. These women were targeted because of vulnerability and their cases also demonstrate power differences and institutional enabling.  "Private matters" spilling graphically into public spaces. Yildrem's case tidily disposes the idea that women with victim mindsets, implied apparently by just pointing out crimes against them, must "want it" or they'd put up a fight.

While these are sad and fatiguing itemizations, they are not "new." These are "extreme," well-publicized cases of daily events. Many "everyday" assaults, say on U.S .college campuses where 28 percent of women are assaulted, take place because of of people's differing understandings of consent and their expectations regarding who says "yes" and what "no" means. The point of consent as a norm is to make these situations unambiguous and rare. This means we have to accept that telling rapists not to rape, or to face real consequences, works. As it clearly does.

What IS relatively new is that we know about these cases, and more about rape rates everywhere, and we are not tolerating this manifestation of abusive power and entitlement as we used to. A central part of this intolerance has to do with how we've changed ideas about consent.  This change is destabilizing because the idea of consent far exceeds "just" how we think about sex and forces us to think about power. Which means that now people with power, that would be mainly men, who before may have dismissed rape have to pay attention.

This idea that consent and respect for boundaries is necessary is as "unnatural" and alien to some people as bathing would once have been. The same people who are mystified are also anxious because what an insistence on consent does is reverse the traditional trajectory of blaming victims as individuals for their rapes and assaults and puts the responsibility on the people with power and the structures that protect them.

In the U.S., we have a long and rich historical tradition of the appropriating of people's bodies by the uncontested powerful.  In our near history, where black women were raped day after day after day,  rape was an integral part of social and economic order.  The legacy of this bubbles occasionally erupts.  Similarly, in many contexts still the ability to assault someone sexually is a benefit that comes with a job, a title, a marriage, or simply being a certain kind of man in a deeply misogynistic culture.

I genuinely understand the violence against women varies across nations and problems with sliding up and down scales, but each person experiences their assault as a violated individual whose consent is disregarded. That's why, while the rank injustice of a seven-year old Thai girl being forced to have sex with more than 20 men a day might make you shake if you stop to really think about it, it doesn't diminish the inhumanity of an Irish boy forced to endure regular assault at the hands of his priest or gang-rapes of young women and sexual assaults of very old ones in Texas or New York.

A culture of consent, recognizing this fact, is based on the rights of potential victims instead of on the rights of potential rapists.  Which would you prefer? Because now, locally and globally, what we have are traditional, religious, legislative, judicial and cultural rape tolerances built into our systems that protect the rights of rapists and abusers. Those who rape and sexually assault count on these disparities and take calculated risks because culture has historically rewarded or favored them.

Things DO change.  Rape rates in the U.S., while still absurdly high, have declined steadily - 60 percent in the past 20 years. The less we tolerate it, the less it happens. Still though, today in the U.S. someone is raped or sexually assaulted every two minutes. Globally the numbers are the same or worse. And, of course, this is where I have to say false accusations in rape cases are no more likely than they are in any other type of crime.

Last year, as the result of years of feminist activism, the FBI changed its 80+ year definition of rape to reflect consent (as in unconscious people cannot consent) and include men.  And, while it made this change, consent as a legal standard is still a very difficult one for most people to grasp and employ.  For a good overview of what affirmative consent in the law means read Thomas MacAulay Millar's excellent and comprehensive piece on the topic at Yes Means Yes.

We are in the early, early, early days of what consent represents. Today is the opening day for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. As Michele Bachelet, head of UNWomen, said only moments ago while addressing the Commission, "We have made progress in norms and standards. Now we must talk on the challenge of implementation and accountability." And for that, we need men do it with us.

I talk to people all the time who refuse to acknowledge that rape and sexual assault are abuses of power.  If you still doubt this, think about why a man took the time to carve the words "mine."  In North Carolina. Not New Dehli. People are not born to rape other people. We teach them that it's defining, useful and acceptable. We can teach them them that it is none of those things. Misogynistic custom, culture, religion and so-called honour are not worth preserving.

Resources

YOU CAN LIVE STREAM THE UN COMMISSION'S WEEKLONG EVENTS HERE. or follow on Twitter at @UN_Women.