Remedial Lessons in Consent

by Cara on December 5, 2008

in books, feminism, misogyny, patriarchy, rape and sexual assault, reproductive justice, violence against women and girls

I’m reading Subject to Debate by Katha Pollitt, which is an old collection of her columns from the 90s.  It’s an interesting history lesson on what was going on in progressive politics back when I was too young to care.  I love Katha.  But in one column (Precious Bodily Fluids) about a guy who accused his girlfriend of lying to him about using birth control and becoming pregnant by “intentionally acquiring and misusing his semen,” she made a really disturbing comment.

In Slate, Scott Shuger opined, “A woman’s promise to take charge of birth control and then not do so remains the only form of monetary fraud . . . that is not only not punished but in fact regularly rewarded.”  If this is fraud, then should we call a man’s insincere promise to “put it in for just a minute” assault?

Let’s be very clear: this is no “if, then” situation here.  The answer is “yes,” plain and simple.

And this should be obvious.

Any person has the right to revoke consent, and also to place conditions on their consent.  For example, consenting to oral sex is not the same as consenting to vaginal intercourse — if you consent to one, and your partner forces you to do the other, it is rape regardless of your previous and differing consent.  This is unclear to some people, but really should be clear to everyone.  If you tell your partner to stop during intercourse (or any other type of sexual activity) and they do not, that is rape, regardless of your previous consent.

And if you say “just a couple of seconds” and your partner knowingly and intentionally goes on for significantly longer than that?  Yes! That is assault!

But the placement of Polllitt’s words seems to me to be a clear indication that the idea is laughable.  Particularly considering that the column is used to call the guy filing the lawsuit a jackass, the question answers itself with “of course not — see, this idea is preposterous, just like the previous notion put forth by Shuger.”

Except the idea is not preposterous.  You might have a lot of difficulty getting an attempted prosecution on the matter, let alone a successful one, but since when has that been the feminist measure of sexual assault? And what’s going on when even feminist are in need of this kind of remedial lesson in consent?

cross-posted at Yes Means Yes

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{ 5 comments }

1 SunlessNick December 5, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Welcome back. And Hugs. And good post.

2 Rj December 5, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Great post! Society in general needs a lesson in consent. Sadly, people either don’t know it, don’t recognize it, or don’t give a damn.

3 KG December 6, 2008 at 7:58 am

Hey,
I’m usually a lurker, but I just wanted to say that I always admire your ability to find words for things I find so baffling. Thank you so much for sharing your inspired writing; it’s great to see you back.

4 Jay December 12, 2008 at 3:03 pm

While I agree that society needs a lesson on consent, I’m actually not sure about this one. The way I see it, there’s something cooperative about the ‘just a few seconds’ rationale. Both parties irrationally believe it, and I don’t think we typically take ‘just for a minute’ to mean ‘refresh consent in 59 seconds’. Rather, we take it to mean, ‘this is dangerous and we both have to be vigilant about going too long’. Each party is relying on the other to prevent an outcome that is disadvantageous to both. (And really I don’t see men offering it any more often then women, except insofar as men are more likely to be in the pull-out position instead of the get-off-me position.)

5 Cara December 12, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Jay, it says explicitly, right there, insincere. If you enter that “cooperation” insincerely with no intention of adhering to your part of said cooperation, that is wrong and it is assault. Further, if you don’t feel the need to refresh consent after a minute before continuing when your partner has said “just a minute,” there is something seriously fucking wrong with you, and yes you are in fact guilty of assault.

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