Before you click away from one more article on sexual misconduct, what do you think of this: gadgets as the answer to sexual violence? The article details a number of ingenious repellants to rape. My first thought was, while a gadget might prevent vaginal rape, the resulting rage may very well provoke physical injury or death. Surely the answer lies elsewhere.
The article reminded me of the teaching tool I used in high schools – the continuum of consent. I would draw a line on the board. At the right end of the continuum, I wrote violent sexual assault. Starting at the left side of the continuum, I wrote mutual consent, then playful seduction, coercion and so on back in the direction of forcible sex. The current tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations lives here in the centre of the continuum: coercion due to male entitlement and power.
On a call-in show today, I heard the phrase “feminist agenda” regarding the latest misconduct allegations against local politicians. The caller blamed media’s political leanings and feminists for ruining careers. Callers also wanted to know why women do not just walk away from a bad situation. “She was of age”, is the argument. Susan Cole writes, “…women tend to want to ‘solve’ the situation rather than remove themselves”. She adds, “How about talking? Ask a woman what she wants and when she answers, take her seriously”.
But even mutual consent on the left of the continuum is not always straightforward.
After an early dismissal from jury selection the other day, a young woman recognized me from puberty classes I had taught about two decades before. She said she had thought of me lately as she was trying to figure out what consent means. To celebrate this unexpected gift of time, we decided to continue to chat over coffee.
She believes one should ask for consent every time. I asked her, “every time what? Every time you kiss, every time you seem to be heading towards intercourse?” She is married and said that her husband knows her so well that consent for any intimate activity is unspoken.
As an educator, my question is, how do we promote affirmative, ongoing consent for adolescents, for adults who have just met, and, yes, even for couples that have been together for years? How do we engage all genders to desire true intimacy and the communication skills to find it?
People who were brought up in a society where rape culture is prevalent may experience misguided expectations leading to miscommunication: mixed signals coupled with a lack of self awareness and clarity. Even if one has overtly agreed to a particular form of sexual intimacy, there may still be discomfort, distaste or regret during the act – or afterwards.
Zosia Bielski quotes Karen B. K. Chan, a Toronto-based sex and emotional-literacy educator. “We have been saying for a while now that consent is a low bar. It is the lowest bar there is. After that, we need to talk about sexual pleasure and good sex – sex that you actually want to have…” . Her article raises the notion of good sex .
Lili Loufbourow takes up the issue writing about pain during vaginal sex.
“Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and ‘large proportions’ don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.”
During classes on sexual assault I would pose the following question: Is it OK to say no at any time? In other words, is it ever OK to interrupt sexual activity once it has started? Most students were ready to acknowledge that one could. The question remains, do we actually do this?
While there may not be pain during a sexual activity, there may not be pleasure either; for example, it may be boring. If it is not pleasurable, what is the point of continuing? We agree to sexual activities for a variety of reasons; and we may not be proud of all of them. We may acquiesce because it is expected, or because of our partner’s needs; we may not want to hurt their feelings; we may not want to jeopardize the relationship; we may hope that it will start to feel better soon – as it sometimes does. While we may have progressed beyond the Victorian dictum “close your eyes and think of England”, we want a great deal more. Why should we have to work ourselves into a state of desire with a partner who is unaware of its absence?
I remember an incident with a long-term partner. I had lost interest in the proceedings and told him so. He got very angry, sat up in bed and said in a menacing voice, “But I want to”. That incident could have ended up quite differently than our turning away from each other in distress and anger.
The WHO definition of sexual health includes “the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence”. No gadget will get you there.