Plenty of people have commented on the idea of rape culture—the concept that we are surrounded by cultural ideas and predispositions that promote rape and protect rapists. It’s the culture of “but look at how she was dressed,” or “she was drunk,” or “women want it but don’t like to admit they want it.” It’s the culture that allows some people to read that last sentence and not stop to ask why there are no masculine pronouns, because, after all, rape only happens to women. Right? It’s the culture of “you know you shouldn’t walk alone at night” and “well, you have to expect those kinds of reactions.” It’s the belief that all rapists are strangers in alleyways. It’s refusing to acknowledge that the majority of rapes are committed by people the victim knows. It’s the belief in the word victim and the refusal to acknowledge the word survivor. It’s all of these things and many, many more, from Robin Thicke’s “I know you want it” to idiot politicians who insist that “legitimate rape” is a real term.
But sometimes the solutions are just as indicative of the problem. This brings us to the concept of “affirmative consent.” If you haven’t read about affirmative consent yet, it’s the idea, now being written into policy in some places, that both partners in any sexual encounter need to firmly state their consent to the act, and this will somehow end rape. Granted, the reaction to affirmative consent has been mixed already, with some people complaining that it takes “the fun” out of sex if everyone has to be clear about consent (though, shouldn’t we ALWAYS be clear about consent?). So why do I hate the idea of affirmative consent? Shouldn’t it be the perfect solution? No, it’s not. Because the very concept of affirmative consent as some form of solution for the problem of rape comes back to the idea that rape, in many cases, is simply a “misunderstanding.” One partner thinks that the other is consenting; the second partner doesn’t mean to consent, but doesn’t speak up either. Yes, this is a situation that does occur in some cases of rape, but to turn affirmative consent into a policy that says that all people within a community (in this case, mostly college campuses) need to practice affirmative consent to make sure that rape can be ended seems to promote the assumption that rape is an accident. If only we’d communicate.
Yes, in some cases, rape may be a “misunderstanding,” but in most cases it’s not. And it’s possible to get someone to consent when they don’t really want to. Some of these policies try to combat this by stating that both partners should express “enthusiastic consent.” Now we have to be excited about it too, and somehow that proves that everyone wants to do what they are doing.
Affirmative consent does nothing to address the issue that there are people in our culture who simply think they are owed sex when they want it. It does nothing to address the fact that some people in our culture are taught that they, in fact, do owe sex to someone, even if they don’t want to have sex. It does nothing to combat the “but I bought you a drink” or “well, he did get me a lovely dinner” mentality. It also does nothing to combat that sometimes you do consent, and in the midst of the act you change your mind. But haven’t you, essentially, “signed the contract” by that point in the affirmative consent model?
I write this as a survivor of rape when I say that affirmative consent is a terrible idea that promotes some of the worst stereotypes that allow rape to persist within our culture. Rape may sometimes be a misunderstanding, but it’s never an accident. In the strictest sense of the policy, I did, in fact, consent to the first rape I experienced, since the option I was presented with was being shot. Given the choice, I opted to be grossly violated by someone I barely knew rather than take a bullet in a dorm full of other people who may have also wound up on the shooting end of his gun if I said no. Looking back, the likelihood that he would have actually killed me in a dorm built with paper thin walls with over 50 other residents sleeping in the rooms all around us was probably pretty low, but in that moment, I didn’t know that for sure. So yea, technically, I “consented.” Call me crazy, but I don’t think consent that is prompted with a weapon should count as actual consent.
What does any of this have to do with poetry, you might ask. When I first started this website, I originally decided to only talk about poetry on this blog, as it was my outlet for promoting my work and I didn’t want to muddy the waters by talking about my personal life or politics, but my personal life and politics cross over into my work. Furthermore, one of the several projects that I am working on right now is a book called Rape Culture, which pulls together a group of poems both about my own status as a survivor and about rape culture in general—the idiot politicians who legislate from a place of ignorance, the advertising campaigns that sell to us with ideas of sexual dominance and violence, the fact that the world should come with a trigger warning, but doesn’t.
This opens the door to be a bit more political on this blog. I realize this might alienate some people, but if that happens then that is the unfortunate fallout of being honest. I likely would have lost the same people when the book actually comes out within the next year or two.
I don’t pretend that I can speak for every survivor out there. I can only speak for myself, but hopefully my writing will connect with people and give them a prompt for finding their own voices. When I was a college freshman, that first time that someone took something from me that I was not willing to give, I had trouble even attaching the word “rape” to what had happened to me. Rape didn’t happen to men. I didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t know how to talk about it, and when I did try to talk about it, there were people who lived with the same misunderstanding that men can’t be raped who thought I was joking, or that I was at least a joke. It was over 20 years before I reached the point that I could begin to put what had happened in words, and by that time it had also happened a second time—this time with a family member. Speaking out about that lost me my entire family. I’m still speaking out anyway, because I don’t want to be the reason that someone else goes through what I went through thinking that they are the only one. Rape happens to women and to men.
It’s up to all of us to speak out. As I’m working on Rape Culture, I’m finding more and more situations covered in the media that show me that we are so backward in our way of thinking about sexual assault and the sanctity of a person’s right to their own body and to control who has contact with it. I’ve read some of the pieces out in public at various readings, and I’m overwhelmed by the people who come up to me afterwards to tell me how much it meant to them to hear someone else say publicly what they had been afraid to say for so long.
In addition to my own book, I plan to work on an anthology through Jane’s Boy that will gather together the work of multiple survivors into a collection of outspoken poetry that addresses that which is not unspeakable, but simply unspoken of. There are millions of people out there with stories to tell and to share, and my hope is we can work together to raise awareness of the real impact of rape on our entire culture, with the proceeds benefiting a victims’/survivors’ assistance network. If you think you may have something to contribute to this project, please contact me. The formal call for submissions will be going out through the Jane’s Boy page within the next few months, once I’ve firmed up the details of what agency will benefit from the proceeds and what we can put together for additional support and participation in the project.