Much as I’ve written with some regularity about the underlying issues with the redefinition of rape and sexual assault, starting on campus and filtering through to real courtrooms, and even worse, social media mobs, that’s just me saying so. So maybe I’m just making this stuff up because I’m male and, by definition, just don’t get it.
Rather than consider my characterizations of the problems, consider the words “Kaitlin Prest, a sex-positive feminist and podcast producer who often discusses the issue of consent, and educational consultant Hanna Stotland.”
During a segment titled “In the No,” Stotland and [podcast producer Kaitlin] Prest discussed many of the hoarier questions that surround the consent debate, particularly the “gray zone” areas of the issue: The myriad cases that involve a woman expressing regret over a sexual encounter with a man, but where it’s not clear whether she was truly victimized.
By “gray zone,” we’re beyond the obvious, that a guy who drugs a woman, forces her at gun point or takes advantage of a woman who is incapacitated, and into the far vaster realm of conduct that comprises the bulk of what is characterized as sexual assault and rape today.
Stotland attempted to get Prest to reconsider her unflagging support for affirmative consent as a cure-all by introducing several real-life counterexamples that muddled the issue.
While “no means no” provided a clear and certain line that would serve to clearly prevent unwanted sexual activity, affirmative consent has replaced it with uncertainty that lends itself to the problem. How so?
She discussed the case of a recent client suspended from school for two years, even though he had obtained affirmative consent, because his sexual partner claimed the affirmative consent she’d given was produced under duress.
So there was affirmative consent, but it wasn’t really affirmative consent even though it was affirmative consent because the woman contends, after the fact, that she only gave affirmative consent because she felt that she couldn’t refuse. It’s not that the guy did anything to make her feel that she couldn’t refuse, but that’s how she felt.
In the podcast, Prest explains at length the ebb and flow of feelings giving rise to the sense of duress, and it’s not that her feelings are outrageous or facially nonsensical. Indeed, they seem like quite legitimate feelings. But that fails to address the problem: she gave affirmative consent and, as far as the man knew, he had affirmative consent, regardless of the secret feelings swirling around in the back of her mind.
What’s a guy to do? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
And perhaps most striking was the story Stotland related involving a girl who initiated oral sex with another of her clients but never gave a verbal “yes”: “If you go in somebody’s dorm room and she touches you, and places your penis in her mouth, she has not conveyed consent,” she said.
What could possibly go wrong here? There was no verbal “confirmation” to the male that the woman who did this to him consented to it. This would be the natural place to point out that a critical prong of affirmative consent is that verbal confirmation isn’t required, as consent can be established by conduct as well as words.
It would seem that this would be as clear an indication of consent by conduct as humanly possible. But no, apparently, as the woman complained of his sexual assault by not obtaining affirmative consent before allowing her to place his, well, you know.
As noted in the podcast, the “rules” exist to protect the person who “feels violated,” and that feeling violated is tantamount to being violated, since feelings are what this is all about.
At Tablet, Kat Rosenfeld notes the conflict.
A throughline emerges in all these cases: These are women who made decisions under their own power, but couldn’t cope in the aftermath when those choices made them feel terrible. Under other circumstances, this might lead a person to contemplate the gap between her actions, her desired outcome, and the actual result—and to recognize that this kind of miscalculation is normal, human, and an essential part of the trial-and-error process by which we eventually become better judges of what will make us happy.
But consent culture increasingly doesn’t leave the door open for that kind of nuance. There is no room within the framework for a desired choice to lead to regret, or for a woman to say, “I wanted this in the moment, even if things didn’t work out as I’d hoped.” Instead, women retroactively strip themselves of their agency: “I didn’t consent to feeling bad about this, hence I didn’t consent to any of it.”
Prest’s contention is that this untenable rule is justified by historical gender oppression, somehow making this absurd approach suffice despite the fact that it’s untenable. As Rosenfeld responds, if women want to enjoy their agency, be big girls who get to make big girl choices like sex, then they have to also face the possibility that they may regret their choices afterward, and not blame the guy for their post-hoc feelings of regret.
But if your goal is to protect women at all costs from feeling bad about their choices—because you don’t think they can handle it, and they probably don’t know what they want anyway—then we already have a word for that,
It’s not feminism. It’s paternalism. And it denies women a fundamental if unglamorous freedom: to not just make decisions, but to live with and learn from the consequences of their less-than-great ones.
The problem isn’t that it’s unreasonable for women to regret their choices, but that they can’t shift their regret to the man and accuse him of rape because they feel terrible about their choices afterward. And yet, that’s precisely what’s happening. This is what’s considered rape and sexual assault these days. Now you don’t have to take my word for it.