The Sexual Taboo, Ignorance and Consent

Hi everyone, sorry for the lack of updates recently. Just…haven’t felt like blogging and I’m ill now. But today is International Women’s Day, and yesterday I was prompted to think about my past (extremely disastrous) relationship – in particular about certain things that may have been done to me and that may have involved dubious consent. How I might still be traumatised (or at the very least affected) by what happened, how I lived in fear of being victim-blamed, even victim-blaming myself.  But more importantly, how it taught me to be aware of the issue of rape and sexual assault, and how complex the issue is.

So let’s talk about the relationship between these three things: sexual taboo, ignorance and consent.

Let’s take a young girl in her late teens, who has just started dating this guy for the first time.  She’s not sure if she likes him, but he’s nice to her and kind to her, and she figures that’s good enough.  Raised in a fairly conservative household, she has been conditioned (through the church, through the behaviour of her family, etc.) that sex is bad, and that to talk about sex is a taboo.  One should not mention sex until marriage.

The guy she is dating introduces her to sexual acts.  Touching him, him touching her.  It’s physically satisfying, but it’s not long before guilt begins to set in.  She begins to associate sexual acts with negative experiences, and starts dreading physical intimacy with her boyfriend.  She doesn’t want to do any of this anymore, but her boyfriend expects her to, because she did before.  Sometimes there is force used,  but not enough to constitute sexual violence.  He pushes her head down when she raises it and turns her mouth away.  She feels like a vessel for someone else’s satisfaction.  She feels violated, forced to do sexual acts against her will; even though every time she never says no.  Neither did she say yes.  Because she is too afraid, too ashamed, to even acknowledge the sexual act she is performing every time.

Because of the sexual taboo, she is too shy to raise the issue with her boyfriend.  The boyfriend, on his part, is ignorant about her issues and also ignorant to her signals that she is reluctant to engage in sexual acts.  Because of the sexual taboo, she is too ashamed to raise the issue with any of her friends, her family, or anybody.

When we talk about rape, we always talk about consent – because that’s how we legally define rape.  But in this case, where is the consent? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Is it the absence of the no? If the girl, feeling pressure to conform to the boyfriend’s expectations, simply obeys when told to do this, or do that, or when he pulls down his pants, is that consent? Which matters more in rape, the outward consent, or the actual consent?

This is where ignorance comes in.  The boyfriend was ignorant to the girl’s reluctance, ignorant to the girl’s outright disgust and dread with regards to sex with him; in other words, he was ignorant to her lack of actual consent.  Why? Because there was no communication between the two regarding the sexual act, how they felt during it, how they felt after it.  Because discussing it felt like something shaming, something damning, reifying the act and acknowledging that it happened.

Because the girl (and possibly both of them) were conscious of a taboo in discussing sex, there was a lack of communication that led to an asymmetry between one’s outward consent (or in the case of the girl, her outward acquiescence, which you could interpret as outward consent), and inward consent.  When there is asymmetry between outward consent and actual consent, of course there is ignorance on the part of the other party.  And he will continue to do what he likes, unaware of the pain and trauma he is causing.  Let me illustrate this triangular relationship with this lousy diagram I drew up in Powerpoint:

I call it the Triangle of Fail

I call it the Triangle of Fail

So who is at fault here? If we go by legal definitions, it is very difficult to charge the guy with rape, or sexual assault.  Is the guy to blame for not listening to his girlfriend, not being aware of her body language, for being ignorant of her non-consent? Is the girl at fault, for not being brave enough to tell the boyfriend he was hurting her? I think it is all very grey.  Because of this weird triangle relationship between sexual taboo, ignorance and consent; it is very hard to pinpoint the blame in this case – and therefore why there is no legal case for sexual assault.  Perhaps this is the reason that rape cases often get dropped or dismissed; because we keep looking for that scapegoat, the one person to put the blame on; when in reality it’s often very hard to say that all the blame was on one person or the other.

For the past one year I have struggled with the idea that I am at fault for my own trauma; that I brought this upon myself because I didn’t have the balls to say no.  My boyfriend told me as much when I broke up with him (which is when I finally revealed to him that I felt violated and even feared being raped by him).  I struggled with the fear that nobody would believe me. I still hesitate to tell people what happened to me, for fear that they say ‘well that taught you a lesson didn’t it’, or ‘well if you didn’t speak up that’s what happens i guess’.  Yes, I know all that.  But I guess what I really want to say at the end of all this is:

1. It’s difficult to pinpoint blame
2. Yes, that’s frustrating because humans like to have simple, singular-cause-singular-effect relationships
3. When we talk about rape and consent we don’t often take enough account of societal taboo and ignorance.
4. omg guys communication is so important in relationships
5. Let’s stop being ignorant.  Let’s stop being wilfully ignorant and pretending sex doesn’t exist. Let’s stop pretending that sex and libido is a switch you can turn off and then magically flick on again once you sign an ROM.  There’s an excellent article somewhere floating around EliteDaily or something where a girl talks about how she resisted sex her entire life – and then realised on her wedding day that she couldn’t have sex because she felt guilty, dirty and unclean.  (edit: it’s Thought Catalog/xojane; and it’s here)

Above all else, today is International Women’s Day.  If you know a girl (or woman i guess), (and well, I guess most of you will know at least one), go and give her a hug (ask her if she is comfortable with a hug first). You don’t know what she might be going through. Let her know she is respected and loved, and a treasured human being.

And to all the women, Happy International Women’s Day!

-Nat

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