Washington, DC (TFC) – A topless female at a Slutwalk with Still not asking for it scrawled on her skin. Facebook-ready memes that declare, My little black dress does not mean yes! A never-ending array of fun slogans like, “Consent is sexy!” “Ask first!” and “Fuck rape!”
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: the liberal feminist approach to solving rape culture.
Rape culture, as you probably know, is the term used to describe the way society normalizes sexual violence, blames victims, and makes excuses for sexual predators.
“Consent culture” is its counter-concept, intended to override rape culture by teaching people 1) what consensual sex is, 2) how it’s different from rape, 3) how to consent, and 4) how to ask for consent. The implication of the consent culture movement seems to be that if rapists were simply informed that “yes means yes” and “no means no,” they would suddenly realize the horrors of their rapey-ness and not-rape anymore. Problem solved!
No, for real, this is an actual quote from an actual website: “Some ways you can generate consent culture are by… not raping people.”
Seriously? This suggestion is tantamount to shouting “Swiper, no swiping!” three times at a potential assailant and expecting them to slouch away while groaning, “Oh, maaaaaan!”
While this campaign to state the obvious may stop like, .002% of rapes (and I’m being generous here), what are we to do about soldiers who use rape as a weapon of terror in war? How are we to approach the man at the bar who buys an excess of drinks for his target with the conscious intention of making it harder for her to say no? What are we to tell the rapist father or the rapist uncle who believe their diapered babygirls to somehow be asking for it?
I’d wager a fortune that most rapists already know what “no” means. But apparently we need to be reminded that sexual predators are, um, predators.
Rapists are strategic in picking their victims. They test your boundaries, stepping too close during conversation, putting their hand on your arm or knee to see if you’ll be bold enough to say “stop touching me,” and in their twisted mind, your obviously nervous response (or lack thereof) is their signal to keep going. They get aroused by your discomfort, your shrinking, your silence. Even if you pretend to be interested, they can tell you’re only pretending because you’re too afraid to say “no.” And that’s exactly what they’re aiming for. Rapists don’t want your consent, or your enthusiasm, or your desire. Those things turn them off.
Most rape is not driven by an ignorance of what healthy, consensual sex looks like, but by sadism. And considering the severely gendered nature of this sexual crime, we must acknowledge that this sadism is generally a male phenomenon. We’re talking men hating women. Men wanting to own and dominate and punish women. When men rape women, it’s not an oopsie-daisy or a my-bad. When men rape women, it is a taking-of-pleasure in female pain. It is fear-mongering, it is woman-hating, it is a reminder to stay in your place.
And when rapists claim “b-b-but I didn’t know her little black dress didn’t mean yes!” or that they “didn’t know she was too drunk for sex,” they’re taking advantage of your gullibility and exploiting your empathy to cast themselves as oblivious victims. In harsher terms, they’re lying to you. By creating educational campaigns supported by thought-stopping slogans in lieu of critical analysis, in the hopes that next time they’ll behave themselves, you’re falling for it. Rapists don’t need it spelled out for them. Stop catering to their bullshit. Stop empathizing with predators. Stop.
If the push for consent culture accomplishes anything, it’s validating the pain of rape survivors. Too many victims don’t know that the “sex” they experienced was, in fact, assault, and that they do, indeed, have the right to feel victimized by it. The consent culture movement may provide them with a linguistic and conceptual framework in which to make sense of their emotions and trauma. Plus, it never hurts to learn to communicate more clearly and assertively in an intimate context. And I’m sure events like Slutwalk give survivors a sense of safety and community of which our system otherwise starves them.
But my concern remains, that mainstream feminism has become too comfortable with its non-strategy — so much so, that it’s practically an anti-strategy. Consent culture, as it currently operates, unintentionally enables rape culture by oversimplifying it, gender-neutralizing it and hyperfocusing on semantics rather than examining sex-based power dynamics. (For more on this, please see Freya B.’s excellent article, Let’s Talk About Consent.)
What we’re doing might have some vague benefits for a handful of people, but it sure as hell isn’t stopping rapists from raping — which should be our goal. It’s time to go back to the drawing board:
For starters, we know that teaching women self-defense significantly reduces their chance of being sexually assaulted. There are also a handful of women’s groups taking matters into their own hands, like India’s all-women police force, Charlie’s Angels. In an ideal world, of course, we’d figure out how to stop rapists from wanting to rape in the first place, so that the burden of preventing rape didn’t fall on women’s shoulders. Perhaps that part would require an overhaul in how we raise our children altogether.
The sheer volume of women and girls who live in constant fear of sexual violence is a global emergency. So we need to consider our options. We need to formulate actual strategies. We need to optimize results. But before we can do any of that, we need to stop talking about rape like it’s an accident.