The Absence of “No” is Not Enough

For the last week I’ve been watching the #MeToo movement rise and fall in the media. Women are sharing, in great detail, personal experiences in order to highlight just how pervasive the problem of sexual harassment and assault really is.

What I’m also noticing is that men, on the whole, have been largely silent.

Now, I hope–sincerely–the relative silence is about allowing a safe space for women to talk about their experiences without trying to interrupt or explain why those experiences are wrong or mistaken or taken out of context. Sincerely.

My worry, however, is the silence is due to many men not hearing what women are shouting over the chasm. The chasm which exists between the way women define and view sexual assault, harassment, and consent, and the way that men do. That chasm is so wide and deep when you shout across it no one on the other side can hear you. All you get in return is a fading echo.

Generally, there are things which both women and men see as obviously and categorically wrong. A woman raped and beaten by a stranger. A child sexually molested by an adult. They tick the boxes of what we agree is defined as rape or sexual assault.

We go down the list. Is it any better if the person who rapes and beats a woman is someone she knows? How about if it’s her spouse? How about if the child is thirteen and the adult in question is twenty-two and swears she told him she was eighteen?

How about if a woman doesn’t bear any marks from her rape or assault? Rape is a crime of violence against women, regardless of bruises or ligature marks. Yet some feel a woman has to have noticeable marks of that violence as evidence of a man raping her. She must bear physical evidence of having ‘fought back’ in order for some to believe her consent was not given.

Already we’re wading into murky territory. And that’s just rape.

What about a man who badgers a woman into some sort of quasi-consensual act? I know women who have had sex because having sex was safer than continuing to be bullied, badgered, stalked, or harassed. I know women who have had sex because it was easier to have sex than to keep fighting against it. Think about that for a moment. Women, especially young women who are still defining their own boundaries, will sometimes have sex simply to shut men up, to stop further harassment, to control the situation, or to be able to walk away. 

If you don’t see that any of those as wrong, it’s a good indication of how wide the chasm really is.

If a woman has sex or sexual contact with a man because she knows the danger of him forcing himself upon her violently is real, does that make it any better that what we classically define as rape? Does it make it right or ok? How about if a woman has sex or sexual contact with a man because she knows the real danger of him ruining her financially? Does it make it any better? Does it make it right or ok?

Sometimes men will grind a woman down to a point where she does not say ‘no’. She doesn’t say ‘yes’. She simply stops saying ‘no’.  To some, the lack of the negative implies consent. I’m guessing this is where Harvey Weinstein’s defense of the accusations of rape is going.

He’ll argue because his victims didn’t say “NO”, there was implied consent.

This is important and this is where the chasm is the deepest: consent is NOT JUST the absence of ‘NO’. It must be the PRESENCE of ‘YES’. 

This is what sexual harassment is. It is badgering. It is pressuring. It is using the power held over someone else to wear them down, not to the point of yes, but to the absence of no.

And if that absence of no is taken for consent, or seen as ok or justifiable, or not that bad, that’s a massive, massive problem.

What women are trying to do with campaigns like #MeToo is show what all the badgering, the pressuring, the threats, the bribes, the blackmail does. They are showing, with their own stories, how the very real potential for serious harm–bodily, psychological, financial–plays out in real life. Women are not dumb. Women will do what they need to do to take control of the situation in any way they can to mitigate the damage.

Out of all the articles I’ve read recently, this paragraph from Lupita Nyong’o’s account of her time with Harvey Weinstein, stood out to me, yet it will likely get lost in the shuffle of more salacious details.

“Harvey led me into a bedroom — his bedroom — and announced that he wanted to give me a massage. I thought he was joking at first. He was not. For the first time since I met him, I felt unsafe. I panicked a little and thought quickly to offer to give him one instead: It would allow me to be in control physically, to know exactly where his hands were at all times.”

Harvey Weinstein will use that as evidence of consent. Many men will read that as evidence of consent.

Women who have experienced a similar situation will read it for what it is: a woman swallowing a smaller indignity to save herself from a larger one.

All of the lewd comments, the innuendo, the leering, the lurking, the touching, the insinuation? All of that is done without a woman’s consent. No man on the street has ever asked a woman if she wanted her booty to be commented upon. No boss has ever asked a female colleague if she wanted him to opine on what she’s like in bed. No supervisor has ever asked a woman if she wanted to view his porn collection or hear about the dirty dream she featured in.

Harvey Weinstein did not ask Lupita Nyong’o if she wanted a massage. He announced what he wanted, to the complete and utter disregard of the woman standing before him. She was nothing more than a vessel for his sexual gratification. Not dissimilar to the potted plant he allegedly ejaculated into in front of a female reporter.

Women do not exist for the sexual gratification of men. Women do not exist for the viewing pleasure of men. Women do not owe men sex, sexual acts, sexuality, politeness, smiles, sashays, exposed legs, cleavage. Women are not human repositories for male sexual fantasies, they should never be expected to bear the weight of those fantasies outside of consensual relationships. And by consensual, I mean one which is clearly marked by the presence of yes, not just the absence of no.

We need to have an open and ongoing dialogue about sex, about power, about violence. About consent. And that conversation needs to between women AND men, not just women shouting ME TOO in an echo chamber. And not just men shouting NOT ALL MEN in their own.

Maybe #MeToo will be the rickety, dinky little rope bridge that allows a few people at a time to cross that chasm.

One can hope, right?

 

 

 

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