Sex­ual Evo­lu­tion

In the wake of #Metoo, a con­ver­sa­tion is emerg­ing around the def­i­ni­tion of con­sent

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Sarah Bar­mak

A new con­ver­sa­tion is emerg­ing around the def­i­ni­tion of con­sent

Tanya Pillay was look­ing for­ward to an evening walk on the beach. It was 1994, and she was at a friend’s cot­tage on Lake Erie, vis­it­ing from her home in Sim­coe, On­tario. Pillay was nine­teen and had just grad­u­ated high school. Mark, an ac­quain­tance of hers from school who had al­ready started univer­sity, was at the cot­tage party as well. “When he said, ‘Hey, would you like to have a walk?’ I was happy,” Pillay says. “I thought, ‘Oh cool, he’s re­ally smart, he’s re­ally suc­cess­ful.’”

The beach was dark when they ar­rived. It wasn’t long be­fore Mark (whose name has been changed and who did not re­ply to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment) was try­ing to kiss her and pulling at her clothes. “He was a very pop­u­lar, at­trac­tive guy,” Pillay re­calls. “There was a part of me that thought I was sup­posed to like this and want this.” But she didn’t. Pillay was confused by how quickly he was mov­ing and how lit­tle her re­ac­tions seemed to mat­ter. It felt too soon — there was no sense of in­ti­macy. Then, Mark some­how had her down on the ground. “He had a way of al­most gen­tly or lightly push­ing me,” she says. “Like a grad­ual ero­sion of my bal­ance.”

Pillay ob­jected, say­ing they didn’t have a con­dom, that she didn’t want to do this there, on the sand, in the dark. Sud­denly, Mark pushed her head down to­ward his lap, say­ing that it was okay if they didn’t have a con­dom, that she could just go down on him. She said no, but he kept push­ing. She felt like she was in a trance. “He was so un­re­lent­ing,” she says. “I just kind of thought, ‘I’ll let this hap­pen.’ I didn’t know how I could make it not hap­pen.” She re­mem­bers the rough­ness of the motion in­jured the in­side of her cheek. At some point, there was in­ter­course — a part she doesn’t re­mem­ber well.

When it was over, they got up and got dressed. “We ba­si­cally chat­ted like old ac­quain­tances,” she says. “It was all ca­sual and cool.” But the night changed her: she felt like some­thing about her had been con­tam­i­nated. Yet Pillay didn’t think of what had hap­pened as a sex­ual as­sault — not un­til her best friend sug­gested it a few days later. Pillay had thought an in­ci­dent could only be called an as­sault if it matched “the cliché — if you’re vi­o­lently at­tacked and re­strained.”

Sex­ual con­sent — the de­ci­sion to take part in sex­ual ac­tiv­ity, ex­pressed via words and be­hav­iour — was once largely taken for granted in het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships. Faye Du­n­away and War­ren Beatty in Bon­nie and Clyde didn’t dis­cuss whether to have sex; they just looked deeply into each other’s eyes and kissed as the cam­era panned away. If two peo­ple were alone to­gether in a car’s back seat, or in a bed­room, it was gen­er­ally as­sumed that sex could fol­low. A woman’s in­ter­est wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily part of this par­a­digm (“Close

your eyes and think of Eng­land”), and if a woman did say no, her part­ner might treat it as a tease, an ex­pected game of play­ing hard to get. Sex­ual as­sault was viewed as a rar­ity and an in­tru­sion from out­side — a vi­o­lent attack by the stereo­typ­i­cal stranger in an al­ley­way. As the term “date rape” came into pop­u­lar par­lance in the 1970s, many peo­ple sat un­com­fort­ably with the re­al­iza­tion that sex­ual as­sault was more com­mon than that Bon­nie and Clyde scene sug­gested. Anita Hill’s 1991 tes­ti­mony about United States Supreme Court nom­i­nee Clarence Thomas’s

“sex­ual over­tures” to­ward her gave voice to a re­lated epi­demic: work­place ha­rass­ment.

This past fall, we reached another col­lec­tive tip­ping point, a pub­lic ac­knowl­edge­ment of how thor­oughly the tex­ture of women’s ex­pe­ri­ence is shaped by sex­ual ha­rass­ment and sex­ual as­sault. (Women are the vic­tims in 87 per­cent of self-re­ported sex­ual as­saults, ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada.) A flood of rev­e­la­tions ex­posed the ex­tent of at­tacks rou­tinely per­pe­trated by pow­er­ful men — ac­tors, jour­nal­ists, restau­ra­teurs, politi­cians. Dozens of women went pub­lic with long-stand­ing al­le­ga­tions that they had been raped, sex­u­ally as­saulted, and sex­u­ally ha­rassed by Hol­ly­wood film pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein. Co­me­dian Louis C.K. and tele­vi­sion host Char­lie Rose, among many other prom­i­nent me­dia fig­ures, were re­moved from their jobs af­ter fac­ing mul­ti­ple al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment or as­sault.

The #Metoo move­ment, which was ini­tially de­vel­oped more than a decade ago by Amer­i­can ac­tivist Tarana Burke, took on re­newed en­ergy soon af­ter al­le­ga­tions about We­in­stein broke in the news. The hash­tag cir­cu­lated rapidly on Face­book and Twit­ter, a way for peo­ple to pub­licly iden­tify as hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual ha­rass­ment or as­sault. #Metoo was tweeted more than 5 mil­lion times, by peo­ple in more than 200 coun­tries, in 2017.

This lat­est wa­ter­shed was about be­hav­iour that, for the most part, our so­ci­ety read­ily de­fines and at least pub­licly agrees is wrong: A stranger ex­pos­ing him­self on the sub­way. A boss fondling an em­ployee who is hop­ing for a pro­mo­tion. A woman meet­ing a friend of a friend at a party who rapes her later that night. But what this con­ver­sa­tion ex­posed, too, is a less dis­cussed kind of as­sault — less dis­cussed not be­cause it is less bad but be­cause it is found within the con­text of “nor­mal” sex­ual dy­nam­ics. Vi­o­la­tions by dates and spouses and boyfriends, in sit­u­a­tions where some sort of sex­ual in­ter­ac­tion is part of the re­la­tion­ship. To say no, only to have some­one push for more. To agree to one act (pro­tected sex) and have your date do another (un­pro­tected sex). To play it cool af­ter you’ve been as­saulted, be­cause you’re sup­posed to get along. To have a part­ner feel en­ti­tled to sex. To let sex hap­pen be­cause the per­sis­tence re­quired to refuse, to get out of the room, to make him leave, is too great.

En­abling some of this murk­i­ness is a long-stand­ing cul­tural trope that sex is hot­ter in si­lence. Our ro­man­tic come­dies, erotic thrillers, songs, and lit­er­a­ture are steeped in the idea that ex­plic­itly ask­ing some­one what she wants — whether she wants — will mean sac­ri­fic­ing the mys­tery, the se­duc­tive­ness, the sex­i­ness of sex. Oth­ers main­tain that such trans­parency sim­ply isn’t fea­si­ble. Laura Kip­nis, a North­west­ern Univer­sity cul­tural the­o­rist, makes the ar­gu­ment in her 2017 book, Un­wanted Ad­vances: Sex­ual Para­noia Comes to Cam­pus, that at­tempts to stamp out all un­wanted sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences from young women’s lives are doomed to fail be­cause women “are of­ten ex­per­i­ment­ing to find out what they do and don’t want or like.” (The 2015 es­say on which the book is based sparked stu­dent protests af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion.) Stu­dents’ sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences are awk­ward, full of fum­blings, am­biva­lent mo­ti­va­tions, and un­equal power dy­nam­ics, she writes; peo­ple don’t know whether they want sex or not, and they may change their minds about it af­ter­wards. As a re­sult, she ar­gues, “this makes any­one who’s ever had sex a potential rapist.”

The no­tion that sex will al­ways be fraught with am­bi­gu­ity makes it more dif­fi­cult for us to un­der­stand that sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences that take place un­der pres­sure or duress are a form of as­sault. This is the type of sex­ual as­sault at the high­est risk of be­ing nor­mal­ized — dis­missed as “just a part of life” — and the type that rarely makes it to court. This is dan­ger­ous: when women can’t iden­tify that what they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing is wrong, much less il­le­gal, they find it harder to re­port it to au­thor­i­ties af­ter­wards. A 2007 sur­vey sub­mit­ted to the US De­part­ment of Jus­tice found that 35 per­cent of sex­ual-as­sault sur­vivors who did not re­port their at­tacks did not do so be­cause it was “un­clear [to them that] a crime was com­mit­ted or that harm was in­tended.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence of front line work­ers bears this out. “I’ve had sur­vivors say to me, ‘It was weird be­cause I didn’t feel right — I don’t want to do this, but I still went along with it,’” says Yamikani Msosa, a spe­cial­ist at Ry­er­son Univer­sity’s Of­fice of Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Sup­port and Ed­u­ca­tion in

Toronto and an ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber of the On­tario Coali­tion of Rape Cri­sis Cen­tres. “There are a lot of times sur­vivors are like, ‘I didn’t have the lan­guage.... I had no idea that this was sex­ual vi­o­lence....’ It can be so con­fus­ing and over­whelm­ing some­times, es­pe­cially when [the per­pe­tra­tor] is...some­one that you care about.”

Many of these less vis­i­ble as­saults are known to sex­ual-as­sault re­searchers un­der the name co­er­cion: be­ing ver­bally, emo­tion­ally, or psy­cho­log­i­cally pres­sured into un­wanted sex­ual con­tact. The cat­e­gory has been in­cluded in ques­tion­naires given to sex­ual-as­sault sur­vivors dat­ing back to the

1980s, in­clud­ing those de­vel­oped by Univer­sity of Ari­zona pro­fes­sor of pub­lic health Mary P.

Koss, which have been widely adopted. (“Have you given in to [ sex­ual con­tact] when you didn’t want to be­cause you were over­whelmed by a man’s con­tin­ual ar­gu­ments and pres­sure?” went a 1982 ver­sion of the ques­tion.)

There is no re­cent na­tional ran­dom­ized study of co­er­cion rates in Canada. A 2015 sur­vey conducted by Char­lene

Senn, a pro­fes­sor in the

Univer­sity of Wind­sor’s psy­chol­ogy de­part­ment and women’s stud­ies pro­gram and an ex­pert on sex­ual vi­o­lence, and sev­eral col­leagues, found that at least 25 per­cent of 442 first-year fe­male univer­sity stu­dents had been co­erced or faced at­tempted co­er­cion into pen­e­tra­tive sex by men, through tac­tics in­clud­ing ma­nip­u­la­tion and threat­en­ing to end a re­la­tion­ship, in a twelve-month study pe­riod. The US Na­tional In­ti­mate Part­ner and Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Sur­vey pub­lished in 2017 found that 13 per­cent of Amer­i­can women were vic­tims of co­erced pen­e­tra­tion, which it de­fined as un­wanted pen­e­tra­tion af­ter non-phys­i­cal pres­sure, such as be­ing lied to or “be­ing worn down by some­one who re­peat­edly asked for sex or showed they were un­happy.” It also found that per­pe­tra­tors of co­er­cion were more likely to be cur­rent or former in­ti­mate part­ners of their vic­tims and that 6per­cent of men had ex­pe­ri­enced co­er­cion. (Nei­ther study ad­dressed rates of co­er­cion for types of sex­ual con­tact other than pen­e­tra­tion, such as grop­ing.)

Bor­der­ing on co­er­cion is a cat­e­gory of ex­pe­ri­ence that re­searchers call com­pli­ance: sex that you don’t par­tic­u­larly want to have but aren’t be­ing di­rectly pres­sured to ac­cept. Sex re­searchers rec­og­nize that there are many sit­u­a­tions in which ( pri­mar­ily) women agree to sex even if they’re not par­tic­u­larly turned on — ex­pect­ing that they might be­come aroused in the process, want­ing to emo­tion­ally con­nect with a part­ner, or be­cause they know their part­ner wants to — and gen­er­ally con­sider these in­stances con­sen­sual. There’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween de­sire and will­ing­ness, and the lat­ter can be present even if the former is not. (Women aren’t the only ones who do this; re­search has shown that men also have sex when they don’t feel like it, says Senn. This is of­ten be­cause they feel that de­sir­ing sex is ex­pected of them, as men.) The line be­tween con­sen­sual com­pli­ance and non-con­sen­sual co­er­cion gets fuzzy when women agree to things they wouldn’t have if they had felt more em­pow­ered to de­cline — for ex­am­ple, if a woman has sex with her hus­band be­cause she knows he’ll be in a bad mood other­wise. He hasn’t di­rectly pres­sured her; she’s de­cided, based on previous ex­pe­ri­ence, that not hav­ing sex is worse than the al­ter­na­tive.

“Most sex­ual-vi­o­lence re­searchers em­brace the idea that this is a con­tin­uum of sex­ual be­hav­iour,” says Senn. Mapped out by ex­perts and the­o­rists such as Liz Kelly, a so­ci­ol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Child and Woman Abuse Stud­ies Unit at Lon­don Metropoli­tan Univer­sity, this con­tin­uum is not a rank­ing of the sever­ity of as­saults — a fre­quent mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion that Kelly is quick to cor­rect — but in­stead shows how com­mon, and how well-rec­og­nized, dif­fer­ent forms of as­sault are. On the more com­mon end of the spectrum are acts (street ha­rass­ment, for ex­am­ple) that are the least rec­og­nized; at the other end are more widely un­der­stood and con­demned acts (gang rape, stranger rape) that oc­cur much less of­ten. Co­er­cion falls to­ward the more com­mon and less rec­og­nized end of the spectrum.

Co­er­cion has been ren­dered as murky as it is in part by our cul­ture of si­lence about sex. Pornog­ra­phy and sex­ual im­agery are ubiq­ui­tous; frank dis­cus­sions about our ac­tual de­sires, fears, and ex­pe­ri­ences are not. The way sex is de­picted in pop­u­lar me­dia is “very dif­fer­ent from hav­ing real com­mu­ni­ca­tion about de­sire,” says Senn. These cul­tural norms mean so­ci­ety is more likely to tol­er­ate male be­hav­iour that is ma­nip­u­la­tive or ag­gres­sive and to in­ter­pret fe­male be­hav­iour as com­pli­ant, be­cause these in­ter­pre­ta­tions fit tra­di­tional as­sump­tions about each gen­der. (It’s James Bond hold­ing down and forcibly kiss­ing Pussy Ga­lore in Goldfin­ger, or it’s the lyrics “Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?” which are played for laughs in

the Grease hit “Sum­mer Nights.”) These norms make it eas­ier for men who want to take ad­van­tage to do so, be­cause they can ar­gue later that some level of pres­sure in het­ero­sex­ual sex is ac­cept­able. It also means that ex­ist­ing law about sex­ual as­sault is some­times mis­ap­plied, be­cause lawyers, judges, and ju­rors fall prey to these as­sump­tions as well.

Canada’s Crim­i­nal Code de­fines con­sent as a vol­un­tary agree­ment to en­gage in a sex­ual ac­tiv­ity. It also clar­i­fies what falls out­side this def­i­ni­tion, by of­fer­ing five ex­am­ples of con­di­tions un­der which sex­ual sit­u­a­tions do not qual­ify as con­sen­sual: if you com­mu­ni­cate, through lan­guage or ac­tion, that you are un­will­ing to en­gage in sex­ual ac­tiv­ity; if some­one else con­sents for you; if you are in­ca­pac­i­tated; if con­sent has been in­duced through an abuse of power, author­ity, or trust; if you with­draw con­sent part­way through. In other words, both your words and your body lan­guage must be pos­i­tive — must af­fir­ma­tively sig­nal that you are as­sent­ing to sex. You can’t be fall­ing-down drunk. And you can change your mind at any time.

The def­i­ni­tion of con­sent, spelled out in sec­tion 273.1, was added to the Crim­i­nal Code in 1992 af­ter lob­by­ing by ex­perts who had spent years working with sur­vivors at sex­ual-as­sault cen­tres. Sec­tion 273.2, added the same year, lim­its an as­sailant’s abil­ity to in­voke a com­mon de­fence: that they had sim­ply mis­un­der­stood and be­lieved a vic­tim was con­sent­ing. The law stip­u­lates that such a belief can­not arise from “reck­less­ness or will­ful blind­ness”: one can’t ig­nore signs that some­one isn’t con­sent­ing and then ar­gue af­ter­wards that they didn’t re­al­ize the per­son was un­will­ing. An ac­cused at­tacker must also demon­strate that they took “rea­son­able steps to as­cer­tain” that some­one was con­sent­ing.

By pro­vid­ing ex­am­ples of con­di­tions un­der which in­ter­ac­tions do not qual­ify as con­sen­sual, the law ex­plic­itly ad­dresses some com­mon sit­u­a­tions in which the ap­pear­ance of con­sent can be man­u­fac­tured, in­clud­ing many in­stances of co­er­cion. “The Crim­i­nal Code states that you don’t need to say no and punch some­one in the face for that no to be heard,” says Julie Lalonde, an Ot­tawabased sex­ual -as­sault ed­u­ca­tor. “Si­lence means no. Some­one push­ing you away means no.”

Ex­perts say the 1992 changes put Canada among the lead­ers in sex­ual-as­sault law in­ter­na­tion­ally. “It re­quires ac­tive con­sent, as op­posed to an ab­sence of a lack of con­sent,” says On­tario lawyer Pamela Cross, who spe­cial­izes in cases of vi­o­lence against women. “Shift­ing the onus from the potential vic­tim to the per­son who wants to have the sex­ual con­tact [is] an im­por­tant step.” Many states in the US, for ex­am­ple, do not re­quire that con­sent be af­fir­ma­tive.

By embed­ding con­sent in the def­i­ni­tion of sex­ual as­sault, Canada’s law makes the crime less about weigh­ing acts than weigh­ing in­ten­tions: it’s not bruises that show you were as­saulted; it’s that your wishes were ig­nored. This is a big change from how rape was orig­i­nally con­ceived in the English laws that shaped Cana­dian ju­rispru­dence: as a crime against another man’s prop­erty. (The word “rape” comes from the Latin rap­ere, which means “to seize.”) In older laws, feminist his­to­ri­ans point out, it wasn’t a woman’s pref­er­ences that were piv­otal to the def­i­ni­tion but the as­sess­ment that she had been stolen from her fam­ily or right­ful hus­band. The rape of men was not rec­og­nized in law un­der this con­cep­tion. In Canada, mar­i­tal rape was not il­le­gal un­til 1983.

For all that it was hailed at the time, the law has not fully taken hold. Many Cana­di­ans don’t know that the Crim­i­nal Code in­cludes a ro­bust def­i­ni­tion of con­sent, nor is that def­i­ni­tion re­li­ably driv­ing ju­di­cial de­ci­sions. Nova Sco­tia pro­vin­cial court judge Gre­gory Lene­han in­fa­mously com­mented that “clearly, a drunk can con­sent” in the 2017 case of a woman found un­con­scious and par­tially un­dressed in the back of a taxi, her clothes wet with urine; her taxi driver was ac­quit­ted of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing her. (Nova Sco­tia’s chief jus­tice or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the de­ci­sion in Septem­ber.)

The will­ful ig­no­rance about the dif­fer­ence be­tween con­sen­sual sex and co­er­cion is some­thing that many ex­perts say can be re­duced. Do­ing so will take a rev­o­lu­tion in our sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion — some­thing Senn and oth­ers call “eman­ci­pa­tory sex ed.” Con­stance Back­house, a pro­fes­sor of law at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa and an ex­pert on the le­gal his­tory of sex­ual as­sault, says this kind of re­me­dial ed­u­ca­tion would ideally hap­pen at all ages and lev­els of so­ci­ety. “Crown at­tor­neys need train­ing,” she says. “Po­lice need this kind of train­ing. We need sex­ual-as­sault 101 cour­ses in uni­ver­si­ties. We need ed­u­ca­tion in high schools, in mid­dle schools, in primary schools. It has to run re­ally deep.”

On its sur­face, con­sent ed­u­ca­tion has evolved along with the law. In the 1990s, there were “No Means No” cam­paigns: posters, pam­phlets, and but­tons with that slo­gan were distributed on col­lege and univer­sity cam­puses, ex­hort­ing (mainly male) stu­dents to listen to no rather than treat it as a chal­lenge to over­come. Now, the posters on dorm walls dis­play an in­verted, more ac­tion-ori­ented, ver­sion of con­sent: Yes Means Yes. But the def­i­ni­tion of con­sent now widely es­poused by sex ed­u­ca­tors — gen­er­ally termed en­thu­si­as­tic con­sent — is far from uni­ver­sally ac­cepted.

En­thu­si­as­tic con­sent means that agree­ment should be com­mu­ni­cated clearly and con­sis­tently through­out a sex­ual en­counter. Al­though it’s of­ten car­i­ca­tured as a sort of legalese, a re­quire­ment that some­one stop and ask, “Can I do this?” be­fore ev­ery new kiss or touch, it sim­ply means that con­sent should be ex­pressed in both words (“yes,” “more,” “I want this”) and body lan­guage (turn­ing to­ward some­one, kiss­ing back, touch­ing them, un­dress­ing your­self, ini­ti­at­ing ac­tiv­i­ties). This is why si­lence, or the ab­sence of a no, does not in­di­cate con­sent.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 sur­vey of men and women by the Cana­dian Women’s Foun­da­tion, 96 per­cent of Cana­di­ans be­lieve con­sent is im­por­tant, but there isn’t agree­ment about what it means. Thirty-four per­cent of re­spon­dents did not think it was nec­es­sary

“You don’t need to say no and punch some­one in the face for that no to be heard. Si­lence means no. Some­one push­ing you away means no.”

for con­sent to be on­go­ing (demon­strated through­out a sex­ual en­counter), and 39 per­cent did not think con­sent needed to be en­thu­si­as­tic (shown through par­tic­i­pa­tory be­hav­iour in ad­di­tion to words).

We also of­ten get drunk be­fore­hand — a bad state in which to read some­one’s sub­tle cues. Half of all sex­ual as­saults in Canada among col­lege and univer­sity stu­dents, Lalonde points out, in­volve al­co­hol. Yet young men fre­quently push back when she sug­gests they shouldn’t have sex with very drunk peo­ple. Lalonde holds work­shops for univer­sity stu­dents and, she says, “the sec­ond we say there’s such a thing as a girl be­ing too drunk to have sex with her, a switch gets flipped.” Men say, “‘No no no. Now you’ve lost me. You’ve gone too far.’” (She be­lieves this re­ac­tion re­veals an un­der­ly­ing in­se­cu­rity about their abil­ity to find sex­ual part­ners with­out al­co­hol.)

A healthy con­sent cul­ture doesn’t just em­power peo­ple to ar­tic­u­late what they don’t want. It helps them ar­tic­u­late what they do want. Char­lene Senn has de­signed a sex­ual-as­sault re­sis­tance ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram for fe­male-iden­ti­fy­ing first-year stu­dents called Flip the Script. It has four three-hour mod­ules; one of them helps par­tic­i­pants iden­tify and re­sist co­er­cive lan­guage and another helps them imag­ine what sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties they are in­ter­ested in. “What many young women tell us is this was the first time they had con­sid­ered their own de­sires out­side of a con­text of some­one ask­ing them to do some­thing,” she says.

Clarity about what kind of touch at­tracts you and feels good helps peo­ple be more un­equiv­o­cal about the acts that feel wrong. In a ran­dom­ized, con­trolled trial, the results of which were pub­lished by Senn and her co-au­thors in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Medicine in 2015, par­tic­i­pants in the course saw a 63 per­cent drop in the prob­a­bil­ity that they would ex­pe­ri­ence an at­tempted rape and a 46 per­cent drop in the prob­a­bil­ity of a com­pleted rape, com­pared with a con­trol group that only re­ceived stan­dard cam­pus brochures about sex­ual as­sault. (The re­searchers found in­di­ca­tions that re­sis­tance pro­grams “may in­crease a woman’s abil­ity to de­tect and in­ter­rupt men’s [threat­en­ing or co­er­cive] be­hav­iour at an early stage.”)

It’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to iden­tify their own de­sires be­fore they have sex with some­one else, Senn says, in order to pro­vide an an­chor — some­thing for them to hold on to in the midst of other peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions. In in­ter­views she’s conducted with women about their sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, Senn says, “Where some­one is pres­sur­ing them to en­gage in be­hav­iour, such as anal sex, they’re pretty sure they don’t want to, but they’re be­ing told other women do it, that they’re a prude.”

Sex­ual-as­sault re­sis­tance and self- pro­grams for women have been proven to be the most ef­fec­tive ways to re­duce as­saults, de­spite decades-long at­tempts to de­sign pro­grams that teach men not to com­mit as­sault. “Many of our good ideas failed,” says Senn. “Es­pe­cially the work on how to stop men from per­pe­trat­ing. There have been many, many stud­ies start­ing in the 1970s and 1980s try­ing to make a dif­fer­ence and they don’t.”

Pro­grams for women raise a con­cern that we’re still largely leav­ing the task of sex­ual-as­sault preven­tion to them — that it re­mains the re­spon­si­bil­ity of potential vic­tims to de­fend them­selves rather than of per­pe­tra­tors to con­trol their own be­hav­iour. But in­stead of plac­ing the onus on women to pre­vent rape, Senn says, pro­grams like hers re­duce self-blame among the women who have taken them. “We make it clear in the pro­gram that there is no risk of sex­ual as­sault if there is no one present who is will­ing to com­mit it,” she says. Her pro­gram is also meant to be one part of a multi-faceted ef­fort against sex­ual as­sault.

One ini­tia­tive that has proven to be ef­fec­tive is by­stander ed­u­ca­tion: pro­grams that teach peo­ple of all gen­ders to step in when they see their friends cross­ing a line. It sets out to train peo­ple to chal­lenge abu­sive be­hav­iour they see among their peers — to in­ter­rupt if they see a man at a bar who is pres­sur­ing a woman for sex or grop­ing her, for ex­am­ple. To­gether with Anne For­rest, the di­rec­tor of women’s stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Wind­sor, Senn has done re­search on such ef­forts at that univer­sity and found stu­dents who took a by­stander course said they were more will­ing and pre­pared to in­ter­vene when they iden­ti­fied a sit­u­a­tion that could lead to sex­ual as­sault. Be­gin­ning in 2018, the Bring­ing in the By­stander pro­gram will be of­fered to all first-year stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Wind­sor.

When ed­u­ca­tors do speak to young men about what clear and en­thu­si­as­tic con­sent is, the re­sponses can be pow­er­ful. Lalonde, the Ot­tawa-based ed­u­ca­tor, works with as many as 5,000 young peo­ple a year, and says she sees the re­al­iza­tion dawn on men when she speaks. “You see it in peo­ple’s faces, that they’re re­think­ing ex­pe­ri­ences that they’ve had and say­ing, ‘Oh shit.’”

If our trou­ble with con­sent is in part due to our dis­com­fort with speak­ing sex out loud, that is also where growth can oc­cur. In her work on cam­puses, Lalonde fre­quently bat­tles mis­per­cep­tions that con­ver­sa­tions about con­sent are “un­sexy,” she says. “There is at least one per­son in a room at ev­ery pre­sen­ta­tion I give who makes some com­ment about [con­sent rules] be­ing im­pos­si­ble to fol­low.” She of­ten tries to con­vince par­tic­i­pants with a joke, say­ing, “What woman in this room would be turned off if a guy was like, ‘I just re­ally wanna kiss you right now?’...and the women laugh. Like, no, that would be amaz­ing.” She takes on a flir­ta­tious verve as she ex­plains: “It’s not about, ‘Ma’am, may I please hold your hand now?’ You can be cute about it. You can be suave about it.”

Carly Boyce runs con­sent work­shops across On­tario and encourages peo­ple to flirt while pur­pose­fully leav­ing space open to hear no. While most ex­perts say that con­sent ed­u­ca­tion should start in child­hood, be­gin­ning with ba­sic con­cepts such as bod­ily au­ton­omy (teach­ing a child she doesn’t need to hug fam­ily mem­bers if she doesn’t want to is one com­mon way of in­tro­duc­ing con­sent), Boyce says that work­shops, in­clud­ing hers and Lalonde’s, can of­fer re­me­dial epipha­nies. Our so­ci­ety “imag­ines sex as a trans­ac­tional ex­pe­ri­ence rather than as some­thing you’re cre­at­ing to­gether,” she says. But “if you imag­ine sex as some­thing you’re cre­at­ing with another hu­man, you don’t just need them to ac­qui­esce.” Even “I don’t know”

“Imag­ine get­ting to a cul­ture in which no­body wanted to have sex with some­body who didn’t want to have sex with them.”

can play a key role in flirt­ing and se­duc­tion, Boyce says — ad­dress­ing crit­i­cisms that de­mands for ex­plicit con­sent leave no room for peo­ple who feel am­biva­lent or who are try­ing some­thing new.

The proof that other mod­els for con­sent can ex­ist is that they al­ready do — of­ten out­side the con­ven­tions of tra­di­tional het­ero­sex­ual sex. Fae John­stone is an Ot­tawabased ed­u­ca­tor who teaches other ed­u­ca­tors and ser­vice providers how to work with queer and trans youth, and says that con­sent is more fre­quently, and openly, dis­cussed in LGBT Q com­mu­ni­ties. In part, this is be­cause so many LGBT Q peo­ple are sur­vivors of sex­ual as­sault and don’t take con­sent for granted, she says — those iden­ti­fy­ing as gay, les­bian, or bi­sex­ual are as­saulted at a rate six times higher than those who iden­tify as het­ero­sex­ual, ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada.

(Though Cana­dian data is lim­ited, the 2015 US

Trans­gen­der Sur­vey re­ported nearly half of trans­gen­der peo­ple in that coun­try were sex­u­ally as­saulted in their life­times.)

There’s also less of a cul­tur­ally or­dained script that dic­tates what sex is sup­posed to look like among LGBT Q peo­ple, says John­stone. “There’s the as­sump­tion [in con­ver­sa­tions about het­ero­sex­ual sex] that it’s the man who would ask con­sent, and that’s not the re­al­ity that a lot of queer and non-bi­nary folks ex­pe­ri­ence, where con­sent is ne­go­ti­ated be­tween part­ners.” Tra­di­tional mod­els of het­ero­sex­u­al­ity have a built-in nar­ra­tive for how sex is sup­posed to go: first kiss­ing, then touch­ing and un­dress­ing, then oral sex, then vag­i­nal in­ter­course. (It’s why some­one knows what you mean if you talk about “go­ing all the way.”) In a cul­ture that takes that script for granted, it may be easy to as­sume that one act will lead to another and that when some­one con­sents to one part, they are agree­ing to that whole se­quence. Ab­sent these pre­sump­tions about who will do what to whom, says John­stone, part­ners talk more about what will hap­pen, be­fore it hap­pens and through­out a sex­ual en­counter. “It’s not just about say­ing yes or no,” she says. “It’s yes to what? No to what?”

Many kink and polyamorous com­mu­ni­ties, by their very na­ture, also have more nu­anced and clearly ar­tic­u­lated prac­tices for con­sent. Par­ties in which ex­plicit sex takes place of­ten have de­tailed con­sent guide­lines — es­pe­cially ones at which bondage takes place, where no doesn’t al­ways mean no, but con­sent is still para­mount. (Some hosts dis­trib­ute con­sent menus for guests to fill out, ask­ing them to cir­cle the names of sex acts they’re open to that evening.) It is com­mon at such gath­er­ings to hear that “con­sent is sexy” and that whip­sand-leather bondage in which con­sent is ex­plicit is safer than “vanilla” sex in which it is as­sumed.

Those ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault, es­pe­cially co­er­cive as­saults, of­ten de­fend them­selves on the grounds that it was all a big mis­un­der­stand­ing — that they be­lieved the vic­tim was con­sent­ing or that an ini­tial re­luc­tance ul­ti­mately gave way to agree­ment. The hitch in this the­ory of crossed wires is that it’s not sup­ported by stud­ies. The ma­jor­ity of sex­ual as­saults are not the re­sult of mis­un­der­stand­ings, says Senn. “We know most women who ex­pe­ri­ence a rape ac­tu­ally [give] strong ver­bal cues,” in­clud­ing say­ing no or stop. A ma­jor­ity of women “make those strong ver­bal state­ments and the men pro­ceeded any­way,” she says. “We also have re­search on per­pe­tra­tors that shows there’s good rea­son to sus­pect that their claims of not un­der­stand­ing that there wasn’t con­sent are ac­tu­ally self-serv­ing. In other words, the most co­er­cive men are the ones who are mak­ing those claims.”

Me­lanie Beres, a so­ci­ol­o­gist from Ed­mon­ton who teaches at the Univer­sity of Otago in New Zealand, has found that even if we don’t have nu­anced lan­guage for con­sent, peo­ple of­ten do un­der­stand when a part­ner doesn’t want to have sex. Beres’s re­search shows that both men and women have a gen­uine un­der­stand­ing of sex­ual cues, in­clud­ing non-ver­bal in­di­ca­tions that some­one isn’t con­sent­ing. In in­ter­views she conducted with men and women be­tween the ages of nine­teen and thirty in Jasper, Al­berta, she found peo­ple had nu­anced views of ways part­ners could com­mu­ni­cate non-con­sent, in­clud­ing phys­i­cally tens­ing up, pulling away slightly, or stop­ping kiss­ing for a mo­ment. At the same time, she saw ev­i­dence that women and girls are so­cial­ized to pro­tect men’s feel­ings from a very young age, no mat­ter their own de­sires — to be nice, to smooth things over. One fe­male re­spon­dent quoted in Beres’s pa­per said as much: “I think a lot of girls — a lot of times it has hap­pened to me, too, I didn’t re­ally want to have sex, but I didn’t know what else to do. So you just end up hav­ing sex.”

The prob­lem, says Beres, of­ten isn’t with in­ter­pret­ing con­sent but with cul­tural norms that en­cour­age men to go ahead in its ab­sence. There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween not un­der­stand­ing some­one’s no and un­der­stand­ing it but feel­ing en­ti­tled to a yes any­way.

These dy­nam­ics are of­ten mag­ni­fied when power im­bal­ances are greater. When #Metoo erupted last fall, some black women pointed out that the al­le­ga­tions get­ting the most at­ten­tion were ones made by white women and that the al­le­ga­tions We­in­stein pushed back hard­est against were those com­ing from ac­tor Lupita Ny­ong’o.

Women of colour are hy­per­sex­u­al­ized, says Ry­er­son Univer­sity’s Msosa. “There’s a claim to their body,” she says. “There’s an as­sump­tion that [if] she’s black, she must be easy.” A US study pub­lished last year, for in­stance, found that white fe­male col­lege stu­dents were less likely to in­ter­vene in a sit­u­a­tion where another woman seemed at risk of sex­ual as­sault if she had a stereo­typ­i­cally black name, such as LaToya, rather than a more generic name, such as Laura. Women of colour, more broadly,“are ex­oti­cized and eroti­cized through colo­nial own­er­ship and in­trigue,” says Pillay, who is of Tamil an­ces­try. Indige­nous women are of­ten stereo­typed as well; in Canada, they are sex­u­ally as­saulted at rates three times higher than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 sur­vey by Sta­tis­tics Canada. (Race­based data on sex­ual as­sault is scant in Canada.)

To re­duce as­saults, we don’t just need ed­u­ca­tion about en­thu­si­as­tic con­sent; we need to re­vise the norms that ren­der con­sent unim­por­tant to per­pe­tra­tors. “It’s not [just] ‘This is how you un­der­stand yes and this is how you un­der­stand no,’” says Beres. “It’s about un­do­ing some of the as­sump­tions we have around mas­culin­ity, fem­i­nin­ity, and re­la­tion­ships.” As Back­house, the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa le­gal pro­fes­sor, puts it, “I think we could imag­ine get­ting to a cul­ture in which no­body wanted to have sex with some­body who didn’t want to have sex with them.”

Even as #Metoo was shift­ing pub­lic aware­ness about just how per­va­sive sex­ual ha­rass­ment and sex­ual as­sault are, many women lamented that they were now, in ad­di­tion to be­ing the tar­gets of as­sault, bear­ing the bur­den of speak­ing out about it and, in the process, be­ing the ones charged with mak­ing things bet­ter. To many, this was no dif­fer­ent than what had al­ways been asked of women: tak­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity for pre­vent­ing sex­ual as­sault — whether by be­ing more chaste in 1918 or by shar­ing their pain on so­cial me­dia a cen­tury later. In re­sponse, the hash­tag #It­wasme emerged to share ad­mis­sions of cul­pa­bil­ity. “There are too many times to count when I have made my hunger more im­por­tant than her feel­ings or bound­aries,” wrote one man on Face­book in a post that was shared more than 200 times, and in which he de­scribed how he had tried to sex­u­ally pen­e­trate a woman who was asleep af­ter she had de­clined his ad­vances. “#It­wasme and I was a piece of shit,” another man tweeted. “I can’t take it back, and no apol­ogy is enough. I can only work to be a bet­ter hu­man.”

The no­tion of per­pe­tra­tors shar­ing their sto­ries is con­tro­ver­sial. Some sur­vivors feel that as­sailants should not be given a voice in this dis­cus­sion, be­cause they’ve dom­i­nated it for so long with their de­nials and dis­missals. Oth­ers feel that pub­lic con­fronta­tions are key to in­spir­ing change. The 2017 Na­tional Film Board doc­u­men­tary A Bet­ter Man fol­lows co-di­rec­tor At­tiya Khan as she has a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions with an abu­sive former part­ner. She made the film, af­ter years of dis­cus­sions with her ex, to show the ways that abusers can change and take re­spon­si­bil­ity.

When com­ing for­ward, men must tread care­fully to help, rather than rein­jure, the peo­ple they’ve hurt, says Steph Guthrie, the film’s im­pact pro­ducer. “I think that hear­ing a per­son take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the harm they caused to you—it can be very heal­ing if you do get the sense that it is truly for you and your well-be­ing,” Guthrie says.

In the course of my re­search, I posted a mes­sage on Face­book ask­ing if any men who had been con­fronting their own be­hav­iour since the start of #Metoo might be will­ing to talk. Within a few days, I heard con­fes­sions from men in their thir­ties to their six­ties. Some seemed un­able to stop once they started; oth­ers were halt­ing, ham­pered by shame or fear. Some had com­mit­ted as­saults that they had al­ready tried to apol­o­gize to their vic­tims for. Some were un­sure if they had crossed a line or not and wanted to fig­ure it out. Some seemed bent on un­bur­den­ing them­selves or get­ting out­side con­fir­ma­tion that what they had done wasn’t that bad af­ter all — they were try­ing to use me, and this story, to get ab­so­lu­tion.

Guthrie, who of­ten en­coun­ters this range of re­ac­tions in her work, says a good op­er­at­ing prin­ci­ple for per­pe­tra­tors is not to per­sist in con­tact­ing any­one you’ve harmed un­less they ex­plic­itly want you to. She also sug­gests that, be­fore ad­dress­ing be­hav­iour pub­licly, per­pe­tra­tors should con­sider the effect of do­ing so on any­one they have hurt. She and her col­leagues “are big pro­po­nents of men cre­at­ing vul­ner­a­ble spa­ces to have these con­ver­sa­tions with other men,” she says, “and not ask­ing women and non-bi­nary peo­ple to hold their shame and their guilt.” The cre­ators of A Bet­ter Man cre­ated a home dis­cus­sion guide for men who want to watch the doc­u­men­tary to­gether and talk about it af­ter. The guide in­cludes a prompt for them to “think back to a time they hurt some­body,” she says. “We ex­plic­itly en­cour­age them to think of an in­ci­dent that makes them feel shame to re­mem­ber.”

Pillay says her un­der­stand­ing of co­er­cion has changed a lot since that day on the beach. “I had a strong de­sire for sex­ual re­lat­ing and af­fec­tion and in­ti­macy from a young age,” she says. “I think in my head, be­cause I had that de­sire, it was hard for me to dis­en­tan­gle trans­gres­sions from the fact that I did want sex­ual ac­tiv­ity — I just didn’t want it with those peo­ple, in those ways.” She says that later on, “I came to un­der­stand that sex­ual ap­petite does not equate to de­serv­ing what­ever any­one wants to do.” Her long­stand­ing struggle with self-blame for her abuse (which also in­cluded another as­sault she ex­pe­ri­enced about a year af­ter the attack on the beach) has lifted con­sid­er­ably in the wake of the pub­lic dis­cus­sions of as­sault that fol­lowed Jian Ghome­shi’s trial.

She says peo­ple around her are shift­ing too. “I’m see­ing a col­lec­tive el­e­va­tion, be­cause there have been so many groups talk­ing about how to han­dle these things” since #Metoo, she says. Late last year, a man at a house party she at­tended re­peat­edly tried to shift from cud­dling with her to more overtly sex­ual touch­ing. She said no, got up, and walked away. Two days later, she alerted the party’s hosts, who spoke to the man about his con­duct. She says that, even when habits and power dy­nam­ics make it dif­fi­cult, “I want ev­ery­one to know that we all have the right to speak up about any dis­com­fort and to be well-heard. No one is en­ti­tled to ac­cess another’s body with­out per­mis­sion. Af­fec­tion is a birthright to be shared, not taken.”

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