Amidst all the media coverage of the #MeToo Movement, gallery owner, and community builder Maceo Paisley, began to wonder whether we were actually learning anything from these events or just yelling at each other from across the room. The answer, he found, was in how we talk about sex before the sex even begins.
You can tell because a Drake album just dropped. Ironically, it is also that time of year when the conversation of sexual assault gets thrust into the national limelight. It happened in Fall 2016 when Donald Trump admitted to “grabbing them by the pussy” in an off-camera discussion with Bobby Bush. Then, in 2017, the Harvey Weinstein case opened the floodgates on a slew of sexual assault and harassment incidents that brought the Tarana Burke-led #MeToo movement back into focus. Fall of 2018 brought the hearings of now Supreme court appointee Brett Kavanaugh to light, which seemed to add insult to injury for Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford when the case was ruled to show no evidence of sexual assault. Now we’re back, talking about what we do with our bodies, with other peoples’, and trying to talk about consent. Again.
Like so much else, the conversations surrounding consent and sexual assault frame each idea in a binary. But let the news tell it: if you “believe women” then you are accepting their accusations as fact without investigation, overriding due process, and professing guilt before trial. Conversely, if you think that all sexual assault claims should be investigated, then you are professed to be someone who wants to subject victims to additional traumatic scrutiny and therefore inherently a bastion of the patriarchal court system. The line in the sand that has been drawn doesn’t actually seem that different from the one delineating consent. You either don’t have consent and you are a sex offender, or you do have consent and you are in the clear.
But perhaps the nuances of these events can provide us with some insight on how we might address the accounts of the events between people in relationships. In both cases, it comes down to the stories we tell. We, humans, are narrative-based, so we make sense of the world in sequential ways that help us understand cause and effect. Naturally, we want to troubleshoot each person’s story and find the facts of what happened. The thing we miss about stories is that they require a perspective, and when two perspectives differ, our impulse is to try and negate one perspective as false. What’s different about a sexual encounter is that both people have equal authority over the retelling of their experience and that is not something that the courts, the media, or society-at-large has made any space for. Personal accounts defy the laws of logic in that two separate perspectives can both be true at the same time.
Part of our endowment as conscious people is the ability to interpret events in our own way. So if a woman says “I didn’t give consent,” there is no argument to be had. She didn’t. At the same time, a counter-narrative can also be true, meaning that a woman’s actions can be interpreted as consensual without the intent for them to be so. We keep getting into trouble trying to draw lines about consent, how it should be delivered, and what best practices to put in place in order to protect people, but the reality is that we don’t have a shared language and certain actions can be perceived completely differently.
We keep getting into trouble trying to draw lines about consent.
I know that some women like men to be assertive. But I also know that the assertive actions that those women enjoy may make me too aggressive for other women. Now it’s really easy to label women who like assertive men as one thing, and the ones who would call those same behaviors aggressive another thing entirely, but there is no way to know which kind of person I am dealing with before I try to approach them. The first step to all of this is realizing that people are made differently. We have different cultures, experiences, and ideologies all swirling around in our heads which means that every interaction we have carries some risk and is open to interpretation.
Some cases fall well outside of the realm of what we generally view as OK. I think we can agree that no one should be flashing their genitals in the workplace, or forcibly doing things to someone else’s body. As we move closer to the “grey” range of actions that are more normalized, it becomes harder to define the exact definition of “catcalling” versus just striking up a conversation. The more rules we put in place, the more responsibility we take on to educate people and enforce those rules. Still, we can’t sacrifice freedom for safety, and we do have to acknowledge that we have a long history (and present-day) of not granting women authority over their own bodies and sexual experiences. This means that our problems are complex and our solutions have to be more than just silver bullets. If the upgrade to “no means no” is “enthusiastic consent,” it changes the paradigm of what an entire generation of adults has been taught. We need to shift the expectations of behavior. If you ask me, we need men to be willing to slow the hell down, listen, and really be invested in the pleasure of their partner. It is also 100% necessary that women be willing to step into leadership and be vocal, upfront, and affirming about not only what they don’t want to happen, but what they do want. It’s fine if you are old-fashioned and like the traditional cat-and-mouse style of dating, but recognize that that comes with the odd chance that your words or actions may be misunderstood in a society that is becoming more straight-forward.
The more rules we put in place, the more responsibility we take on to educate people and enforce those rules.
Enthusiastic consent is delivered along clear signals, and the more we blur those signals, the more room we leave for harm. The process by which we address these issues in the news should be much more like the way we address them in person. We need to go back and retell our stories of what happened, women speaking up, and men listening and believing. Ironically, the work we need to do after a sexual assault allegation is exactly the work that should have done before the sexual encounter; I repeat, women speaking up and men listening. We can rely on vibes all we want but feeling the vibe is not a defense, and if we are talking about consent, we need to practice giving it. We cannot keep relying on men to always be the initiators and moderators of sexual interaction. Things are changing and we need to be able to adjust. It has to be okay for women to take the lead and for men to learn without being emasculated, and hopefully, women can be okay with teaching sometimes, too. Do what you do, but at least learn to talk about what you like and what you don’t. Hopefully, this leads to more people hearing each other and less hearings. When we advocate for nuanced reporting, we are really advocating for the complexity to hold everyone’s stories together. When we advocate for consent, what we are really advocating for is communication.
Written by Maceo Paisley for Undo Magazine: Issue 8.