The conviction of two young men for rape of an unconscious 16 year-old women in Steubenville, Ohio should lead us to much-needed discussion about attitudes towards sexual assault and the type of education and social changes we need to end it.
Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media coverage of the verdict was atrocious: sympathy was expressed not for the victim but the rapists. Fortunately, there were many excellent blog posts in response, for example, Megan Carpentier’s post in The Guardian.
There are many things required to end sexual assault. But, to name just one thing, when I speak on university campuses and in schools, I’m often struck by the confusion about what is and what isn’t sexual consent. That, plus continued beliefs in men’s sexual entitlement and a culture of silence around many forms of gender-based violence is the terrible recipe that too-often leads to sexual assault.
In those campus and school talks, I focus on what I call the four rules of consent. In part, they were shaped by a seminar by friend and colleague Harry Brod who, like me, has been inspired by feminist activists and thinkers working to end violence against women. (Check out his video on sexual consent.)
The text and images below are reprinted from my booklet, Mantalk, and also appeared in Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. Although addressed to men and focusing on male-female relationships, they obviously apply to all of us whoever we are with.
The Four Rules of Sexual Consent
We have a phrase for any type of sexual act when one person doesn’t want to do what the other person is doing with them: it’s sexual assault.
Consent is when both people agree to do the same thing and let the other person know. There are four rules of consent:
Rule 1: When it comes to sex, only yes means yes. “Maybe,” doesn’t mean yes. “I guess so,” doesn’t mean yes. “Let’s see what happens,” doesn’t mean yes. And “no” never, ever means yes. Unless you want to be committing date rape, you’ve gotta hear a “yes” to have consent and, likewise, there has to be a “yes” on your side too.
Sample: “Hey, do you want to tear off our clothes and have sex?” “Yeah, that sounds cool.” That’s consent.
Rule 2: It’s your responsibility to know if you have consent. If a cop pulls you over when you’re speeding it doesn’t help to say, “Officer, I didn’t know there was a speed limit here.” Ditto with sex, whether it’s kissing someone, feeling them up, or going all the way. It’s your responsibility to learn the other person’s limit and it’s their responsibility to learn yours. You can’t just “believe” they want to do what you’re doing, you’ve got to know for sure. And remember, it’s not her responsibility to say “no”; it’s your responsibility to know she says “yes,” and vice-versa. Some people say, “Well, how can you know for sure?” My friend Harry responds, “Man, how could you not want to know? Can you imagine waking up some morning and wondering if you’re a date rapist?” Or, to put it differently, how could you not want to have good sex?
Rule 3: Nothing you’ve already done gives you permission to do the next thing. You’re kissing like mad; she’s totally into it; that must mean it’s okay to get your hand under her shirt. Wrong. You’ve got your clothes off and you’re all over each other; that must mean it’s okay to have intercourse. Wrong.
The truth is that, unless you’re involved in a regular relationship and have already worked out a set of rules, every time you go to a new “level” you’ve got to get consent.
Some people say, “That sucks. That totally breaks the flow.”
I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s a bit of truth in that. On the other hand, by both knowing you’re doing what you want, there’ll be a thousand times more sexual energy than if one person is getting off and the other would prefer to be watching reruns on TV or is uncomfortable or scared.
Even better, because you’ll know for sure and because both of you have to talk about what you like or don’t like, we guys become much better in bed.
Rule 4: If you’re drunk out of your mind, you can’t give or get consent. If either of you is too drunk or too stoned to completely know what you’re doing, then it’s impossible to have informed consent. You can’t give it and you don’t know if you’ve truly got it. Afterwards, neither of you know if you’re a date rapist.
If you’re with someone and you make a decision together to get wasted and have sex, that’s not assault because consent happened when you were sober. (Of course, either you can still change your mind and, if you express that, withdraw your consent.) But, if it’s the other way around, there can’t be consent. It’s the law.