“Why don’t they just…” are four words that I’m beginning to recognize as a warning signal. Uninformed Idiocy Ahead!
Sometimes it’s about specific actions. For example: Person A passes Person B in the hallway, and decides to suddenly start some kind of kink play. Person B doesn’t want that kink play to happen, so obviously they should communicate that, right?
“Why don’t they just safeword?”
Well, because it wasn’t play, at least from their side of things (remember the “non-negotiated” part?) Perhaps a better question would be “Why don’t they just say no?” After all, let’s assume that Person A is at least somewhat aware of the idea of consent (in spite of their uninvited hallway play). So how about that simple “no“?
There ain’t nuthin’ simple about it, though. For starters, it’s dependent on any number of relationship factors: size. Wealth. Gender. Social standing. Reputation. While I would never endorse the scenario in reality, I wish that some of the “Why don’t they just say no?” crowd could try that strategy with, say, Dwayne Johnson in a crowded hallway. Or Angelina Jolie.
Past experiences are also a factor. Maybe Person A is not all that intimidating, but Person B has had past encounters in other hallways that were triggering. This could trigger a survival mechanism – and remember, that’s far more than “fight, flight, freeze, or fuck.”
Often, the response to sexual violence by an intimate partner involves “appeasement” coping or survival strategies. These strategies—such as giving in or avoiding one threat by submitting to a less harmful one—are frequently used by the victims of intimate partner sexual violence for a number of reasons. Victims often found that trying to talk their assailant out of attacking was ineffective… source
Which also answers the follow-up question: Why didn’t they just tell me afterwards? Or the common refrain from people who hear about the situation from the outside: Why didn’t Person B just stop being Person A’s friend? First, because it’s more complicated than anything just and second, because fuck you, it was Person B, not you.
Meanwhile, Person A…
Lest you think I’m being all social-justice warrior here (which I really would find rather flattering, actually) let’s also talk about Person A. “Why don’t they just ask before they start playing?” is the common refrain. Which would be great if everyone felt that way, but we are all beautiful special snowflakes, and for some people that explicit asking is exactly the mood-killer that they don’t want. Other people are not capable of that kind of verbiage (nor are all Person B’s able to respond directly) and to assume that doing so is a requirement for any kind of play is just another kind of One Twu Way-ism. Why don’t you also teach them the correct way to masturbate while you’re at it?
In most cultural norms, in fact, that kind of sudden passionate overture is not known as “sexual assault” (except in courts of law) and instead is known as “romance” (cue Liza Minelli telling the clueless Fritz to “Just…pounce!”).
Person A is also coming to this hallway with a whole bunch of past experiences as well, and if every single person who was similarly approached responded positively – or even publicly praised the actions – then suddenly it’s less “clueless behavior”. Instead it’s a feeling more akin to how you’d feel if the next person to whom you said “thank you” responded with “fuck your mother with a rusty chainsaw.”
Not excusable. I’m not pretending this makes the hypothetical hallway assault an OK thing. I’m saying that what makes it assault is the way they both frame it: Person A frames it as “It’s ok to just start play without asking first” and Person B frames it as “It’s not ok to start play without asking first.”
That’s not victim-blaming. It’s specifying the contributing factors to a situation, which personally I find much more useful than blame.
“Great! Now that Person A knows that what happened is OK, why don’t they just apologize and not do it again?” Ah, such a simple world that would be! Unfortunately, that particular approach – the “romantic” one – may be an integral part of Person A’s sexual or social identity. Worse, they may feel that to admit to the mistake is the same as admitting that “consent violator” is part of their identity.
The reality, of course, is that while that may be true, it is far more common that “consent violation” is one of many possible results of Person A’s actions. It is impossible to avoid the risk of violating consent in any interaction – it entirely depends on how the cultural mores of the people involved overlap. Shaking hands? Better hope the person is ok with touch – or isn’t offended that you didn’t kiss their cheek, as they expected. That’s just social niceties; when you mix in sex and attraction and then things like power exchange…it gets complicated. As a commenter on Emily Nogoski’s blog The Dirty Normal so beautifully put it:
I spent a lot of time in college talking about consent (I was on the Sexual Assault Task Force), and I routinely found that a significant fraction of persons I would discuss consent with (more than half of the menfolk) would have no real knowledge of the meaning of “informed” consent, and were very surprised to learn about the ramifications of such. (In the tea analogy this would be asking someone if they want earl grey tea, giving them instead green tea, and not realizing that some people may be allergic to green tea – or perhaps more in a more murky example asking someone in London if they want tea, making them green tea, having them reject the green tea, since they had contextually assumed that you were offering them black tea, and then gracefully taking that tea away, even though you did all this work to prepare it, because there was a misunderstanding and you don’t force someone to drink tea that they didn’t actually want).
It’s in that beautiful analogy that I think the key to consent education lies: gracefully taking that tea away. If Person A reacts defensively or dismissively to the revelation that Person B had a different paradigm in that hallway, then they are exacerbating the incident. They are increasing the chances that it will happen again, because they are refusing to change their behavior based on new information.
There needs to be a place for Person A to be able to say “I did this, and I don’t understand why it was damaging?” without being lambasted. It absolutely is not Person B’s responsibility to create or even take part in that space, but until it is created, the scenario is going to play out, over and over again.
Why don’t we just create one, then?