CW: Sexual Assault
“It’s not rape if they didn’t say no.” In the light of the #MeToo campaign and as we witness the outpour of sexual assault allegations against perpetrators across the world, a conversation about consent and victim-blaming is an important one to have.
It has of course been made clear that the simple use and implication of the word “no” means any sexual activity thereafter would, actually, be assault. The catchy and confirmative “No Means No” slogan was the star of the movement fighting sexual assault – to the point, uncomplicated, and easy to register. However, assigning such a modest rule to understand and avoid sexual assault brings about a technical issue. Would it still be assault if the victim didn’t utter the word “no?” “If they didn’t say no, it can’t possibly be rape,” many suggest.
This is what makes consent a seemingly gray area; Sexual assault isn’t defined by the straightforward presence of the word “no,” but rather, the absence of voluntary, uncoerced, affirmative, excited, and clear-cut consent. If one (or more) partners stay silent or have been forced into “consenting” to something, that’s not valid consent. A pressurised and demanded “yes” is not consent. An eventual “yes” after several “nos” is not consent. A “yes” when inebriated is not consent. Little to no hesitation is not consent. Silence is not consent.
Unless everyone involved is completely conscious of their decisions and can provide affirmative and free consent that clearly depicts sincere interest, it is sexual assault. It is this misunderstanding that usually leads to victim-blaming.
Often, victims undergo rigorous interrogations, during which they are exposed to triggering questions that, more often than not, attempt to place the blame on them rather than the perpetrator. Leading questions such as, “Are you sure you didn’t say no? If you said no, they would have stopped,” or, “Why did you go to the party with them if you didn’t want sex?” Are examples of demeaning queries that assign the blame to the victim.
A key tactic employed to support this train of thought is to undermine the victim’s memory and character. In particular, sexual assault apologists attempt to highlight how faulty memory can be or how “questionable” victims’ characters are with such inquiries. As women share their #MeToo stories, sometimes after years or even decades, there are heavy expectations for them to be able to accurately recall every single detail from the incidents that they report.
The burden of both memory and consent thus falls onto the victim. The reason this is unfair is that society fails to realise that human beings are not capable of recalling minute details, even on a regular, day-to-day basis. On average, most of us don’t easily remember the fine details from our everyday lives – what we wore last Wednesday or what we ate for breakfast two weeks ago, for instance. In the case of a traumatic situation like sexual assault, this already imperfect memory becomes a lot more vulnerable. During the event of an assault, the victim is barely focused on the colour of the assailant’s shirt or what the time on the clock is. Most if not all of their attention is devoted to trying to stay alive and safe; to find the strength to resist the attack. Relying on the victim’s memory and highlighting the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of their statement is not a fair method to approach such cases. It was this very strategy that caused Anita Hill in 1991 and Dr. Ford earlier this year to lose the cases they filed against their rapists.
Therefore, it is vital to recognise that consent is a process of communication between all the parties involved in sexual activity. The #MeToo movement has shown us that we need to reevaluate our understanding of consent; from its importance, to its value in relationships, to how to give and receive it, assess and analyse your own understanding of consent and patterns of victim-blaming.
Guest Writer: Twesha Dhar
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