You know what, I just can’t get enough of all those responses to the Aziz Ansari story which, like Bari Weiss’s, deny that ‘Grace’ denied consent. They just keep yielding up more for me to get my teeth into.
“If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you”, writes Weiss in the NYT. She defends Ansari, saying he would have had to be ‘a mind reader’ to have known the woman did not consent to penetration.
Of course Weiss’s views are not idiosyncratic: they are the dominant historical model.
It is a model in which the female body itself signifies consent. And that is rape culture.
By being born female you have consented to sex with men. (And as trans women will know, to become female-bodied or -identified after birth also qualifies as consent; trans men, meanwhile, will know that not even by becoming male-identified can they withdraw the original consent of their birth.) This consent granted by your female body can only be withdrawn through a perpetual and vocal effort. And be careful, because a number of your attempts to withdraw it will be refused: saying ‘next time’ and ‘I don’t want to feel forced’ will not be accepted. You will be cross-examined on whether you uttered the monosyllable ‘no’, regardless of whether you were asked a question that invited a yes/no answer.
And as often as not, your ‘no’ will be understood as a deferred ‘yes.’
Note that there are certain situations in which nothing you say – not even ‘no’ – can qualify as the withdrawal of your consent. For example, if you are naked. Your nudity in the presence of a man (even if you didn’t take your clothes off yourself) invalidates anything you may say. Also if you are within a man’s home: once you have stepped over that threshold you have no more right to withdraw your default consent and would have to leave again to be considered dissenting (“use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door”, as Weiss puts it).
As I pointed out in my last post, there are 127 countries in which marriage legally negates your right to withdraw your consent. This is true, in practise if not in law, in many more countries: marital rape remains more difficult to prosecute than rape outside of marriage – which is already difficult enough. In the UK it is only since 1991 that consent can be withdrawn within marriage; in the US, since 1993 – although exemptions for spouses remained in some states up until 2015. Attitudes certainly haven’t changed much: Donald Trump’s lawyer and campaign spokesperson Michael Cohen declared in 2015 ‘you cannot rape your spouse.’ Such attitudes extend to rapes by unmarried partners, too: women raped or sexually assaulted by partners face even greater scepticism than the rest.
(And this in despite of the fact that almost 50% of recorded rapes in the UK are committed by a current partner – and that partner rapes are twice as likely to result in injury to the victim, too, belying the belief that such rapes are less violent – and as such perhaps less ‘real’. Figures from a UK Home Office Crime Survey.)
Which other crime or violation must victims fight so hard to dissent from? You do not have to say ‘no’ in order for it to count as stealing when someone takes your property. We do not operate on the basis that everyone has consented to murder unless they specify otherwise.
Men must unlearn this reading of consent in the very lines of the female body. And women need to stop reinforcing that reading with their reactions to stories like Grace’s.
We have to challenge this deeply engrained notion of the female body as inherently consenting. We need to fight for a paradigm in which women have by default not consented, and in which consent must be explicitly, actively, enthusiastically and continually established.