Contrary to popular belief, consent is not just verbally or physically agreeing to have sex. There is a lot more to it than just saying yes. It baffles me that people believe agreeing to one thing means an agreement to everything. When an individual consents to one thing, it does not mean they consent to everything – and consent can be withdrawn at any point.
Consent can be a topic of discomfort for many but it is an important conversation that should not be avoided. In order to progress individually and as a society we need to keep talking about consent. A common misconception is to take on a “yes means yes” approach to avoid any uncomfortable conversations in the future. This is where the problem stems from. People are not always in a position or state to say no.
Sexual consent does not exist within the context of hegemonic power structures because hegemonic power is inherently abusive. The phrase ‘abuse of power’ is redundant because the only function of hegemonic power is abuse. In order to be able to consent to sex, you need to have equal power to consent to the person initiating sex with you. Power, however, comes in different forms. It comes in the form of emotional, psychological, neurological, physical, status access, etc.
Similarly, saying ‘yes’ to sex when one is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is not consent. Saying ‘yes’ to sex when you are emotionally, psychologically, neurologically unwell, or experiencing cognitive/psychological distortions OR influenced by your desire for proximity to power, access, is not consent either.
The argument that ‘they were two consenting’ adults is alarming because a large proportion of people who have been sexually abused do not even realize that they have been abused.
There are several reasons as to why people who have been sexually abused do not know that they were sexually abused. Below are just a few of those reasons:
- Misinformation can result in a lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual abuse.
- Manipulation and/or lack of emotional maturity. More often than not, people who have experienced sexual abuse are under the impression that the abuse was a romantic/love affair. It is not until later that they realize that, what they thought was love, was in fact, abuse. It is important here to recognize that sexual age gaps can be problematic. The older person is more likely to convince the younger person that it is love or romance.
- Sex is pleasurable (for many people), which is why it can often confuse the victim. They may be under the impression that pleasure signifies consent.
- More often than not, victims of sexual abuse may have been deprived of love, affection, and intimacy during their lives. Therefore, any form of sexual interest may be perceived as love or affection.
- Dissociation is a common coping mechanism for people that have experienced abuse. It involves dissociating oneself to escape the trauma of what they experienced.
- People may experience psychological, emotional, neurological, and cognitive distortions. This can be due to mental illnesses such as depression and other neurological issues.
- Many people are in a state of denial. They refuse to accept they have been abused due to fear, pain, or shame. Additionally, former victims often go on to become sexual abusers themselves. Therefore, they deny admitting to their own experiences of abuse to avoid having to recognize themself as an abuser.
- Fear plays a crucial role in sex abuse. More often than not, there is a power dynamic, and victims of sexual abuse face fear and not entirely acknowledge their experiences as abuse. They may not have the power to control their narrative and feel helpless. As a result of this, people are more likely to suppress or deny experiences of sexual abuse to avoid shame or feeling helpless.
It is more than likely that victims of sexual abuse have ‘consented’ to sex due to one or a combination of the aforementioned reasons. It is impossible to progress and reduce sexual assault until we expand our conversations about consent and acknowledge that it goes beyond a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
While we are at it, it is also important to draw attention towards the illusion that ‘women are sexually liberated’. The sexual liberation movement has fallen into the hands of men. Women’s sexual liberation is reframed as sexual availability for men in patriarchal structures. This is more apparent in the media where women’s sexuality was once censored in film, art, and literature. It is now explicit and sexualized. Either way, production structures have always been patriarchal and exploitive.
The de-stigmatization of sex was expected to liberate women. However, it has further reinstated the patriarchal perception of women as nothing more than sex objects intended for reproduction. And this is why we need to complicate our conversations about consent in today’s age of freedom and liberation. In patriarchal structures, men actively exercise possession and abuse towards women, which is institutionalized and protected by the law. Essentially, women do not have humanity in a system of male domination.
Dismantling patriarchy is another conversation on its own. It is, however, imperative that we realize consent goes well beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Therefore, instead of shutting someone down the next time you hear them open up about their experiences of abuse remember that consent is not always black and white.
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