The Sex Column #2: Consent
While I appreciate your writing to me, I will not be responding to questions in this column as I feel compelled to focus on recent events; namely, the torrent of sexual assault allegations, and the resultant ‘Me Too’ campaign, wherein women have been sharing their stories of abuse.
I didn’t say ‘me too’, and I distanced myself from the digital furore for the sake of my own mental health. I couldn’t go on twitter or Facebook without being exposed to things that I found triggering. Women’s voices were being amplified—an indisputably good thing—so why was my internal dialogue conflicted?
Why do I find the chant of ‘me too, me too’ oppressive? And why don’t I wish to add my voice to the chorus? Have I insufficiently processed my own experiences, and therefore require more time before sharing them? Or do I feel protective over the imagined uniqueness of my hurt? Is that why I’m unable to offer it up as ammunition? Am I ashamed of my experiences: do I feel they negate my credentials as a ‘sex positive’ voice? Do I think that they don’t count?
I want to discuss consent, what it means. So it feels necessary to confess that I too inhabit a body that has been treated carelessly, violated, and otherwise made to feel as if it doesn’t belong to me. There has been confusion, manipulation, physical force. My boundaries have been ignored, and so too my protests. I don’t want to describe the litany of offences against my body, although I understand some of the complex motives behind doing so. It is a catharsis to say them out loud, to finally, emphatically, acknowledge abuse as abuse. It is also important to make men uncomfortable, to force them to consider their own actions and comprehend that they have done wrong. That the ‘abusers’ we refer to are not mysterious men with casting couches but our friends, our employers, our husbands. And there are hundreds more singular desires and needs behind every ‘me too’ that I can’t profess insight into.
When I think about my personal history, I ask myself: why did these things happen to me? Well, because I am a woman. Because I was a very young woman who was vulnerable. Because these men assumed they could do these things with impunity. Because these men had power over me. Or simply because I liked them well enough and felt, perhaps, that I owed them something. I considered consent a nebulous thing. Something I might have accidentally been offering over the course of an evening, which I later felt unable to revoke at a critical moment. Not just on dates, but also at work. While modelling, I asked myself whether I would be fired for recoiling from an un-asked for massage. It’s only a massage, after all. I was broke, and if I could get a funny story out of it then who cares? Except—I did.
I have re-drafted this column several times, putting in specifics and taking them out. Naming names and removing them. To a greater or lesser extent ‘confessing’ to other people’s crimes. And I have done the same thing in relationships. How much does one’s partner deserve to know about past trauma, let alone strangers’? The truth is that nobody is owed anything of your past, and though I felt a compulsion to make a list of bad men, it is out of self-protection that I find myself (arguably) protecting them. The ‘Me Too’ campaign urged a purging, one that by its nature will flare up and dissipate. However, the acts of those men—momentary, fleeting—continue in me. I still carry them with me. And it is up to me to resolve those acts in a way, and at a pace, that I find most comfortable.
The truth is that if someone had asked me if I had ever been abused, I would have hesitated to say yes until recently. It took me a long time to change my disordered thinking, and I did that by listening to other people’s experiences, by empathising, and by telling them that what happened to them wasn’t acceptable. And upon hearing those stories and reacting as I did, I finally got round to telling myself my own stories, and realising that what happened to me wasn’t acceptable either. It is a gradual thing, an unfolding of the self—a re-telling of the same old anecdote that suddenly gets an unexpected and upsetting reception. Why is nobody smiling, I asked myself. And I realised—oh. Because it is so sad.
I don’t believe any one event changed me significantly. I was made hurt, heartbroken, bored or angry by each individual experience. But it is their cumulative effect that has rendered me vulnerable when hearing stories of abuse: an imperceptible thinning of the skin, which has left me flinching.
Do not lay your hands on a woman who has said no, or pulled away, or even half-formed an excuse in her beautiful mouth. Did she mumble? Are you frightening her? Is she drunk? Are you drunk? You must ask yourself these questions. Every time. Do not cause harm. Don’t touch us without consent. Don’t sexualise us without consent. Don’t interrupt us. Don’t shout at us. Don’t manipulate us. Don’t demand things you don’t deserve. Don’t prey on women who are sad, or who have low self-esteem, or who are financially beholden to you. Behave better. We can see you.
I expect that men who I have never met will read this piece and will wonder if they are on somebody else’s list of bad men. I hope very much that they consider the ways in which they have let themselves down, have been complicit in acts of abuse that occur over and over again until women have no choice but to chant ‘me too, me too’; no longer able to distinguish their own voice from those of their friends, their sisters—a mass incantation, a howl of grief. I am here, and I can hear you chanting. And although I haven’t been able to form the sounds, I hope you know that I have been wetting my lips and I have been trying.
Photograph by Eli Goldstone