Like many men, the #MeToo movement has got me thinking a lot more about harassment and sexual consent these days. Many of the stories making the news have been about powerful men doing whatever they feel like to women. In some cases the stories have been about powerful men assaulting other men.
Recently a story was published about the actor/comedian Aziz Ansari and his apparent inability to understand consent. I don’t know much about Ansari other than the events detailed in this story. I am not going to write about that specific incident.
I’m more interested in the discussion about men and sexual consent.
This story got me thinking about why many men may not actually fully understand what consent is and when it is required. I think that a significant number of men in my generation were not taught a lot about sex or consent in any formal setting.
No Means No!
We have all heard this and we all understand it in theory. Obviously if someone says no, whether it is in a sexual context or a parent telling a child that they can’t do something, they mean no. That is of course, unless they don’t really mean it.
“You like me because I am a scoundrel”
Here is where we run into a problem. In Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope – that would be the original Star Wars movie for those of you who don’t go by episode numbers – Han Solo corners Princess Leia and even though she has not expressed a desire to kiss Han Solo and in fact she is busy working and tells him to stop, he ignores her and forcefully kisses her. Of course they fall in love and eventually get married, have a kid who turns to the dark side and they get divorced as a result. Also Darth Vader is Leia’s dad – that should cover off most of the spoilers for you.
So Leia said no – or at least she said stop. Han continued in his pursuit and got to marry a princess as a result. This is only one example where men are taught that No doesn’t always mean No. We learn through numerous movies and books and stories that men who like women and who want to get the girl sometimes need to push a little harder.
The stories we see in media about rapists tend to be about stranger rapes, which are pretty rare. They are about rapists who murder their victims or attack them on bike paths, in dark alleys or on deserted highways.
We don’t often see stories about date rape.
The same is true about sexual harassers/abusers. It is often about the powerful man or sometimes older family friend who gets caught and is featured in media stories.
We don’t tend to see stories like the one about Aziz Ansari where the assault took place on a date – in no small part because so few date-related sexual assaults are reported.
I’m not that guy
If you are a man who isn’t inclined to kidnap people off the street and assault them and you generally respect women who say no, it can be easy to believe that you wouldn’t be guilty of assaulting someone while on a date.
If you have seen lots of representations of men who get the girl after successfully overcoming their initial reluctance to go on a date, accept a kiss, or engage in sexual activity, it is also possible that you may believe that “NO” doesn’t always mean ‘No, absolutely not!‘
What is sex?
Dumb question right?
I used to be a sexual health educator and in some sessions we talked with workshop participants about setting limits and discussing those limits with your partner/potential partner before engaging in sex. As a part of that session we talked about how people define sex.
In one activity we would ask everyone to stand up and express whether they agreed or disagreed with statements we would read out. Depending on their response they would stand with the Agree, Disagree or Undecided signs we had placed on the wall around the room. We would then discuss why people had made the choices they made and sometimes people would change their positions as they thought through the question more thoroughly. One of those statements we read was “Oral sex is sex” Often with high school students we would end up with a majority of participants in the disagree section of the room.
Do I need sexual consent?
If you don’t define oral sex as sex, then is sexual consent required?
Researchers have determined that youth who pledge to maintain their virginity until marriage often engage in other types of sexual activity that don’t involve vaginal intercourse. The assumption seems to be that if you take a virginity pledge, everything else is on the table.
If you don’t define groping, manual stimulation of your partner, oral or anal sex as sex then that leaves a lot of avenues for sexual activity where you might not think you need consent.
What is consent?
Technically speaking, consent is permission for something to happen.
In terms of sex it means agreeing, and your partner agreeing, to engage in sexual activities. We need to be clear and understand what is being agreed to. Just because your partner agrees to kissing, doesn’t mean they are open to engaging in intercourse.
No means no
This is what we have been told consent means. It means we listen when our partner says no and we back off. Does that means we can engage in whatever sexual acts we want to and that we can get our partner to do until they say no?
Yes mean yes
This is the concept of enthusiastic consent. It is proactive and it is a more engaged form of consent. Instead of waiting for your partner to say no, you seek affirmative consent before engaging in a new activity. If you seek their agreement and you get anything other than a hell yes you probably don’t have enthusiastic consent.
An OK or Maybe is not very committal and you likely don’t have consent. You are likely in a situation where you are pushing you partner’s comfort levels and they don’t feel safe enough to say no to your request.
Drunk = no consent
If your prospective partner is impaired by alcohol or drugs, they cannot consent. They lack the capacity to make informed decisions. If your prospective partner is passed out or asleep, they cannot consent.
Verbal and non-verbal language
Pay attention to what your partner is saying with their words and their body. If your partner says yes while leaning back from you, it might mean they are feeling pressured to say yes, but they really are feeling too uncomfortable or unsafe to say no.
Assault is about power
If you aren’t seeking consent from your partner, that means you are only focused on what you want to do and you are denying them the choice of whether they want to participate or not. You are taking away their power to decide. That is assault.
Where do we learn when consent is necessary? How do we define sex and our own limits? Where do we learn about the needs and limits of our partners?With all the stories of harassment the #MeToo movement is revealing. I have to wonder if men actually understand what sexual consent means and requires.Click To Tweet
Lack of education
In Ontario where I live, all publicly-funded schools are required to deliver comprehensive sexual health education. Ontario recently introduced a new sexual health education curriculum which now includes consent education.
I retired from my sexual health educator role well before the new curriculum was introduced so I don’t know if youth in Ontario have a more comprehensive understanding and definition of sex these days.
I do know that the quality of sexual health education has been lacking in the past. I know that when I was in high school the focus was on biology and the dangers of teen pregnancy. I don’t recall learning much about consent or how to define my limits. I also don’t remember anything about the importance of talking with your partner about what kinds of sexual activities they are willing to engage in.
In many jurisdictions there is a focus on abstinence-only education where the focus is on encouraging / frightening youth into waiting until marriage to engage in sexual activity. We know that abstinence-only education is unsuccessful in achieving its stated objectives. The people who receive this kind of fear-mongering sex-ed generally don’t receive much in the way of information about the types of sexual activity or consent out of concern that it may encourage them to try sex before marriage.
If we don’t teach kids about consent and what constitutes sexual activity, it is easy to see how we can end up raising up adults who don’t know when consent is required or who don’t consider it to be important. I think there are many men who grew up with the same kinds of education that I received who do not fully understand what it means to seek sexual consent.
Parents teach values, educators teach facts
This has been my sex-ed mantra for years. Of course parents can and should also teach facts.
When sexual health education is focused on biology or on creating fear of sex, the recipients of that education are poorly served. When young people don’t receive facts and quality information from educators and parents, they go to other sources. When we lack information we tend to go to two sources: friends and/or older siblings, which often includes myths and misinformation, and the internet.
Information from friends and older siblings not only means that misinformation is passed on, it also means that sexual culture is passed on. If those friends/siblings don’t talk about the importance of consent and if parents and educators don’t talk about the importance of consent, that means young people – young men – are only getting their information from the internet and media.
The internet can be a great source of information and education, if the sources are good. The internet is also home to porn and porn isn’t great at showcasing examples of consent being asked for and given or refused.
I for one would rather that my kids have accurate information with which to make informed decisions. It is up to us as parents to ensure that our kids are getting the facts about sexual health and consent.
Time to change our culture
We know that the majority of sexual assaults and incidents of harassment are perpetrated by men. We know from the #metoo movement that a significant majority of women have experienced sexual harassment or assault.
It is on us as men to change this situation. It is on us as dads, it is on us as brothers and as friends. We are the only ones with the power to reduce and eliminate the harassment and assault of women. We need to take responsibility for our own actions, our own knowledge and our understanding of consent. In addition to rectify failings in your own sexual health education, we as men also need to step up as bystanders.
Take a stand
Whenever you see a woman being harassed or assaulted, step up and tell the abuser to stop, or if you don’t feel safe, get help. If you see it happening in the workplace, report the behaviour and abuser to the human resources department. If you hear your buddies or other men making jokes about women or telling stories about how they took home a drunk girl or overcame her protests, call out his behaviour. Let him know he has committed assault.
If you think you have harassed or assaulted a woman in the past, take some time to think about how you are going to make sure that doesn’t happen again. if you have her contact information it wouldn’t hurt to reach out and apologize for any harm you may have caused.
In your future sexual encounters, focus on your partner’s pleasure. Focus on reading all of their verbal and non-verbal cues. Listen to what they are saying before you engage in sexual activity and while you are engaged. Actively seek consent and listen with all of your senses to their response.
You can do these things. Together we can step up, change our behaviour and change the male culture we have been trained to join and accept.