Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 27 March 2013

Just because she’s saying nothing, doesn’t mean she is saying ‘yes’

The twisted logic is that if she’s drunk, she’s a bad girl. And if she’s a bad girl, she likes sex: drunk girls don’t say “no”; drunk girls are fair game. Which is why the bar for consent has to be raised much higher than saying “no”.

The recent Streubenville case got so much attention, both in the US and globally, because the victim was undeniably, totally and utterly drunk. She was passed out. Finito. Gone. 

Which is precisely why it was a pretty straightforward rape case: she couldn’t have given consent if she was passed out. 

But as the case (and the hate speech heaped upon the young woman who was the victim of the crimes in the aftermath of the sentencing of the boys who raped her) shows, for many people, drunk girls are fair game. The logic is that if she is drunk, then she is a bad girl.  If she is a bad girl, then she deserves whatever she gets. Ergo, if she is drunk, she deserves what she gets. Indeed, there has been a strong emphasis on the idea that drunk girls don’t say no to sex. Somehow this gets interpreted as: drunk girls don’t say no to sex, which means they must want sex, even if they are passed out. Which makes it not rape. Easy peasy. 

The idea comes from a deeply sexist place; which is that women don’t really ever want to have sex unless they are drunk.  In fact, good women don’t like sex, and don’t get drunk.  But bad women – those deserving of rape and other degrading treatment – like sex and they like getting drunk. 

A Canadian ad campaign has begun to tackle these ideas head-on. The city of Vancouver has developed a campaign that shows a young woman passed out on a couch, with bottles of empty alcohol next to her. The tagline reads, “Just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she is saying yes.” It’s an important distinction, and one that has to be taken seriously. 

With the rise of “hook-up culture” not only in the US, but in many parts of urban South Africa, many girls are no longer shrinking violets when it comes to sex.  Despite the high levels of violence in sexual relationships, there is no doubt that there are also normal, healthy heterosexual sexual relationships in which partners want to have sex in equal measure; that is relationships in which women want sex just as much as men do. Indeed, in spite of sexism and peer pressure, there are also girls who want to have multiple sexual partners, and who want to be safe in the contexts of those “hook-ups”. This means using protection and establishing boundaries through clear communication about what is mutually acceptable and what is not. For some girls this will means having penetrative sex sometimes and other times not. For others it will mean exploring and getting close, but not having sex.

The bottom line is that in these contexts, women are choosing what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. And as this mini-revolution (I say mini because there are still too few of these kinds of choices available to women) takes hold, it is time to throw away the idea that the only way to determine if a rape has occurred is by asking a rape survivor if she said “no”. 

The bar for consent has to be higher than saying “no”.  Indeed, need for the word “no”, puts the responsibility for rape on the victim. You can just hear the defence lawyer saying, “Well, if you didn’t say ‘no’, then how was he to know that you didn’t want to have sex?”

This is the height of ridiculousness. If crying, head-shaking, cowering, trying to run away, being immobile, looking terribly frightened, sad and lonely, and/or repeatedly turning away from someone who is trying to penetrate you is “confusing” and require the use of the word “no” to make the point clear, then we are giving men way too much responsibility by allowing them to hold jobs as CEOs, heads of state and academics. 

The idea of active consent, the notion that good, healthy consensual sex involves both parties saying yes – enthusiastically and unequivocally – has to become part of the psyche of our educational campaigns aimed at young people. DM 

Read more:

  • Mary Elizabeth Williams, at Salon
  • Steubenville vs. Delhi: A tale of two coverages, at Salon
  • Rape culture and the Steubenville trial, at On The Media
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