Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Blurry Line Between Yes and No, Negotiating Consent

The subject of what is and is not "right" to do with/to a person who has had some liquor came up this week in two conversations with two different friends about the same event.  It shows me exactly how unclear the line between yes and no can be.  Here's what happened:

One of mine friend had an extra drink in celebration at a night club.  We later encountered some other friends of mine.  The first friend accepted one of that group to dance with her and was having a good time.  They accompanied us out of the club when the night was over and we walked with them to the car of the person who was to pick them up.  The two friends that had been dancing together were walking together enjoying eachother's company and keeping from getting cold.  As the group was loading into the car, the guy that was dancing with my original friend took a moment to put his hands in places they didn't belong and attempted to steal a kiss before he left.  No luck, but still in my mind he had really crossed the line.  I can safely say this because I know what my first friend's boundaries are.  I can understand the attempt to kiss her.  It was the general forcefulness (pushing her up against a wall) and touching her in uninvited ways that I felt was inappropriate.

The next day, one of my friends from that group asked me about the situation and I responded that [the guy] seemed cool until the end there when he really crossed the line.  This confused the guy that I was talking to, who thought she seemed like she liked it.  I disagreed, but to be sure, I asked my friend about it and she didn't remember too much of that last part, but remembered thwarting the kiss and mentioned being disappointed by the overall grabbing at the end of the night.

This is a common scenario to varying degrees that I feel needs to be honestly explored.  I can't say that inadvertently or purposefully taking advantage of someone who is drunk is unique to men.  It is not.  What I can say is that I find many of the men that I know personally are unclear on what is and is not taking advantage of a woman, especially one who has been drinking.  In effort to shed light on the subject, I offer the following analysis:

It is a strange policy, in my opinion, to find a person's limits by pushing until that person actively resists.  It is even stranger to try to circumvent that resistance once it is received.  It is much easier and much less offensive and legally dangerous to find out through asking or by passive suggestion whether a person wants whatever it is you're offering.  One of the interesting side effects of alcohol in many people is apathy.  As in my friend's case, her attitude was much less, "Awesome, this guy is grabbing me," and much more, "Whatever, we're leaving now."  I can see how someone who is not attentive or doesn't know my friend very well might not notice her passive disapproval.  However, I cannot imagine perceiving her overall stumbling drunken apathy as her "liking it", especially after she still managed to evade the attempted smooching while in such a state.  Regardless, the majority of onlookers assumed that that was the case.

All that said, I cannot speak to the date rapists out there who really are selfish enough to intentionally hurt another person in order to get what they want.  I am not an expert on the subject, but I don't see how trying to reason with such a person would make any sense.  For the rest of you, please consider that the opposite of no should be an enthusiastic yes, not a drunken apathy.  It appears to be common practice to assume that a lack of firm disagreement is encouragement.  It also appears that many are under the impression that agreeing to one thing counts for automatic agreement to other things.  This seems to be the basis of the "that person was asking for it" mentality.  Really, they did not ask for it unless they really *asked* for it.  Furthermore, just because one has consented to something once, it does not mean that they have consented to other instances.

To illustrate my point, I would like all of my readers to imagine meeting a new person in the neighborhood.  Perhaps you've had a good conversation and they appear to be a nice person.  You may feel inclined to introduce that person to other neighbors and maybe even invite that person to a barbecue at your house.  All of this is invited.  So how would you feel if they suddenly entered your house or began eating your food all on their own?  Is it safe to say that you've "asked for it" simply because you've been friendly and invited this person to your house to share your food in the past?  Of course not!  It is your home and you decide when someone shares it and when they do not.  Even though all of your behavior has led that person to believe that they are welcome in your home, they are expected to know that they cannot just enter as they please.  So why is it different in reference to sex?  It isn't.

My point is, for those of you who are good at heart and do not mean anyone any harm, please remember that people's affections, especially those that are sexual in nature, must be constantly evaluated.  Trying to enter into sexual relations with another person is treading delicate ground.  Think of it like driving.  Simply assuming the light is green can have horrible consequences.  Even in the absence of a red light one can still move forward at the wrong time.  In social/sexual situations in which people are consuming alcohol or other drugs, it is much like a defect in the red light signal, like the power being out.  Tread carefully.  Make sure the agreement you get is actually agreement, not just passive acceptance or tolerance.

As it turns out, I am not the only one to feel this way about it.  For further explanation, check out The Opposite of Rape is Not Consent, the Opposite of Rape is Enthusiasm.  While you're at it, read Schr√∂dinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced.  Both articles offer a good deal of perspective, which is good to have if you're having a hard time getting your mind around a situation.

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