"I said no in the same way women say no when they mean yes.”
It was a joke. By a man. I was supposed to laugh.
But I didn't. I couldn't.
All I managed was: “women don't say no when they mean yes.” That's it. The delivery wasn't great either. It was a flustered mumble.
That's what happens when you're surprised. That's what happens when a joke like this comes from an unlikely source.
And, because rape and sexual assault are often justified by statements like that, I was incredibly sad. Sad for myself for knowing people who'd say something like that, and sad for a world in which we have largely been unable to teach men how to respect women. For, a statement like that is not merely a statement, it is a statement that denigrates one of my identities that I wear on the outside, it is a statement that is reflective of the patriarchal system that governs us, even in little moments like that.
But, we must remember that language like this comes from our social environment, individual men and women learn such language because it is all around us. After all, this man's “joke” was a version of Rush Limbaugh's comments: “No means yes if you know how to spot it” and “consent takes the art out of seduction.” I'm not excusing this man, but pointing out that he participated in the regurgitation of a rape myth that benefits him and other men, a rape myth that is so widely accepted and normalised that he could say it with a straight face, without pause.
Part of our work is, perhaps, to figure out how to get people to pause, reflect, and then speak their mind, act.
A knife wielding intruder raped a woman in Texas in 2009. The woman insisted on having the man wear a condom to protect herself from sexually transmitted diseases and an unwanted pregnancy. A Texas grand jury did not find it reasonable to try the man of rape because they argued she consented to it when she asked him to wear a condom.
Closer to home in Bangladesh, an 80-year-old woman, a 5-year-old girl, and two university students were raped within days of each other. (I am not using the word alleged because when we don't believe victims of rape, we side with the rapists. We live in a world where rapists, especially those of means, are able to buy their way out of the justice system. We live in a world where law enforcement personnel themselves are sources of oppression including rape of women they have power over). A father-daughter duo committed suicide because the father could not protect his daughter from harassment by local goons as law-enforcement personnel would not take him seriously. A teenager committed suicide after being raped and forced to marry a neighbour as a cover-up of the rape. And these are the ones that we know of. All of this in May 2017.
These anecdotes make clear two things:
One, we are unclear about what constitutes consent.
The normative discourse on violence against women should make clear that sex without consent constitutes rape. But, somehow, that has not happened, which is why here is a brief primer on the various ideas associated with consent.
No means yes
No. Never. If you think that is true you need more help than I can offer at this point. This is a harmful rape myth that is perpetuated by a culture of impunity that allows rapists to go scot-free—sometimes with a slap on the wrist. Often framed as “women playing hard to get”, it is an excuse to rape women, an excuse to take agency away from them. [Men are and can be raped too, and they are, mostly by other men, and this would apply to those situations as well.]
Silence means consent
No it does not. We need to stop pretending that women are shy and therefore unable to be forthcoming about their (sexual) desires. We need to stop thinking that consent does not matter if the two people concerned are in a relationship, or married. We need to stop thinking that because there was consent on one particular day, we have been granted lifetime privileges and access to someone else's body. Moreover, we have to stop believing that some people are beyond consent because we have privilege over them. For example, those of us who think sex workers can't be raped because of the nature of their work need to re-examine where such ideas come from, where we have learned to dehumanise others.
No means no
With good intentions, I'm sure, we often speak of the notion of “no means no” as a way to advocate for women's right to not be raped. This notion however assumes that women are always well-positioned—or free—to say no when they often are not. It assumes that women can and are able to shout out an emphatic “no” to indicate their disinterest. This notion assumes that women are able to fight off unwanted sexual attention.
This notion puts the onus on victims to resist violence. It makes them responsible for their own safety, while rape culture and the culture of violence against women make violence against women inevitable in all settings, from the home, to the workplace, to the streets; while we have done nothing to keep women safe.
It perpetuates the rape myth that women are responsible for their own rapes.
Yes means yes
It's because women are often not able to say no, even when they want to, some advocate for affirmative consent, moving away from “no means no” to “yes means yes” because consent must be given, not taken.
Affirmative consent constitutes a higher standard than negative consent, requiring both parties to verbally or non-verbally indicate their consent to having sex. But, we have to be careful about equating that with desire, says Kelly Oliver from Vanderbilt University, particularly because we live in a world where women often consent to sex without actually wanting it. This is because patriarchal social norms dictate that women please men, that men have power over them, that women are subordinate to men, that women must submit to authority, and these norms tell women to acquiesce even if they have no desire to do so. These norms are part of our upbringing, they are so ingrained that we sometimes don't even see it.
The discourse on affirmative consent, we must note, still assumes men as the active subjects of sex, and women reactive; it assumes that women should be asked, not the other way around. It holds traditional heteronormative relationships as the norm. And, again, this notion assumes that women are able to consent, ignoring how both sexual partners as well as sexual social norms can be coercive.
As we try to make sense of consent, we have to recognise that consent is a nuanced issue. We have to unlearn what the media and mainstream entertainment have taught us about rape—that it has to be violent and involve physical coercion for it to be rape. We cannot underestimate the power of coercive control, or manipulation.
Most importantly, we have to understand why yes may not always mean yes, while still insisting that, to quote Kelly Oliver, only yes means yes.
Two, we cannot rely on the justice system to tell us what constitutes rape.
This, of course, we already know. In Bangladesh, Section 375, Penal Code 1860 reads: Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under thirteen years of age, is not rape.
Subsequent laws such as the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000, though commendable in terms of identifying and criminalising various forms of oppression against women, have not explicitly addressed the issue of marital rape. Instead marital rape can be categorised as a form of sexual oppression (Section 10 of the 2000 Act). However, it is unclear, at least to me, as to whether that categorisation is actionable in court. Knowing that law enforcement officers often dismiss women's reports of rape and violence because they deem rape a “personal problem,” I am sceptical.
But, just because the law is not explicit does not mean that we can't be.
Sex without consent is rape. No matter what.
The author is Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, University at Buffalo, State University of New York.