As the names come forward – today, Aziz Ansari, tomorrow, a new one – it’s the same formula. A story about an incident. Some backlash or dismissing. Some condescending reminders that sexual violence is wrong. And then a new story breaks.
The relentless focus on the incidents continues to polarize discussions about sexual violence in ways that actually prevent us from addressing it. Sexual violence is, of course, wrong. But people who do wrong things are usually still people. And both perpetrators and victims of sexual violence are negatively impacted by the very same culture.
In the midst of the death march of incidents (which doesn’t even scratch the surface of those whose perpetrators are not celebrities), two more complex conversations are on my mind – conversations that require more than a single news cycle:
Let’s start with consent. The thing that seems so simple, but is rarely discussed with any imagination or depth.
Consent is not about no means no. It’s about yes means yes. Consent is not the absence of no, it’s the presence of yes. And it’s not really just a yes, it’s a HELL YES. This is especially true if you are hooking up with someone you don’t know very well. Teach this and preach this to everyone you know.
But at the end of the day, it’s not about the concept, it’s about the practical application of the concept. If you have practical questions about sex and search the internet, you’ll find porn. Porn does not teach men or women how to communicate their desires during sex. Porn does not teach men, women or transgendered individuals how to negotiate how fast a hookup should move, what to do if you like it rough but your partner does not, or what to do or say when initial chemistry turns awkward.
Your ability to communicate consent with a partner depends on how well you know them, their preferences, their cues and what they do when something isn’t feeling good. With a closer partner of a long time, you may be able to read their body language. If you just met someone, you need to take more time to communicate – and do it sober. Your way of communicating consent is not necessarily the same as your partner’s.
Consent is a language, not a multiplication table. Yet we spend so little time teaching it to anyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Consent education is not typically taught at home. Or in elementary school, middle school or high school. Or even on college campuses after a significant percentage of sexual assault has already taken place.
And a word about culture:
The things that make rape culture, well, rape-y are the exact same things that put pressure on men to dominate sexual interactions – and incorrectly interpret silence as consent. Rape culture expects men to be up for sex all the time. Rape culture expects men to make the first move. Rape culture shames men for their sexual prowess, penis size and libido. Change the culture – don’t dehumanize the people who have been negatively impacted by it.
And finally, we have to think more broadly about pathways to learning, accountability and reconciliation. This requires us to hold two uncomfortable truths: sexual violence is always wrong and still, no perpetrator deserves to be dehumanized. Sexual violence is both an individual choice and a cultural phenomenon.
When we talk about other crimes, like murder or drunk driving, we offer a chance at redemption, if the perpetrator takes responsibility and is justly punished. We forgive. We recognize the role that circumstances beyond the individual were at play. We understand that humans make mistakes, sometimes big, ugly, awful ones that result in another person’s pain or death. We can recognize the difference between a serial killer and an angry kid who had a gun – without saying that it’s okay someone was killed. How do we bring these more complex understandings to sexual violence? A survivor never has to forgive a perpetrator. But as a society, we have to make space for people to evolve. Or else we’ll just be stuck here forever.
It’s easy to rip into the latest perpetrator, to shame them, to call for consequences. It’s harder to think about The Uncomfortable Conversation we still aren’t having. Perhaps first with the reflection in the mirror, and then our parents, our kids and our partners to navigate healthy boundaries, safe bodies and consent.