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CHARLES WEBSTER: Rape culture 'prison' and the importance of consent

OPINION

This is the second in a series of articles on rape culture, adapted from a speech given by the author at several boys’ high schools across South Africa.

The first article in this series on rape culture detailed the "game" of Rape Culture Roulette and pointed out how even “mild” forms of misogynistic disrespect contribute to a South African culture where gender-based violence and rape are endemic.

Maybe you’re still unconvinced - maybe you think remarking on a woman’s body isn’t so bad. Maybe you’re thinking, as a guy, that you’d quite enjoy it if women did that to you, and that it’s actually a compliment. Women should be flattered, really – right? Wrong. In my view, you’re lacking empathy, and some very important perspective. Let’s introduce some into the conversation.

The key underlying principle here is consent.

GO TO JAIL. DO NOT PASS BEGIN. DO NOT EXPECT CONSIDERATION

To help clarify consent, gentlemen, imagine you’re in prison. You’re a new inmate. Understand the fact that in this world, you’re seen as someone’s potential “bitch”. Someone’s “piece of ass”. That someone is twice your size and ten times as tough. He wants power over you, and whatever he decides to do about it – you’re powerless to stop him.

A quick aside: even though the articles in this series are addressed primarily to men, I remain conscious of the fact that I myself am a man – and wherever possible, it’s important to make space for women to speak, rather than taking up all the airtime. So, when preparing the speech on which this series is based, I asked women on my social media networks to send me comments they’d share with 1,000 young men if they had the chance. I got ten pages’ worth of comments – which is probably indicative in itself of women’s need to be heard on these issues.

One particularly incisive comment from a female Facebook friend highlighted “…a [prison] system…being at the mercy of the very real threat of both physical and sexual violence all day, every day, and the fact that nowhere and no-one is actually 'safe'. The feeling of being powerless to do anything about it, while the people in your life who are present (family and friends who can visit you there) have no real understanding of what it's like and can leave whenever they want to, or not think about it whenever they want to, because it doesn't directly affect and impact them”. Just like men (and even some women) in the lives of rape victims who can withdraw to safety because they are unaffected.

The bottom line is – how would you feel if the brute in the cell block was looking at you and licking his lips while commenting about the shape of your butt, or grabbing his crotch while winking at you? The bottom line: you shouldn’t be saying or doing anything to women that you’d be uncomfortable with some big guy in prison saying or doing to you. Crucially, the fact that you haven’t said “no” doesn’t mean you’re okay with it, either.

THAT’S NOT A CAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT

Perhaps you understand, in the light of my prison scenario, why consent is important. In talking about rape culture – the conversation starts with consent.

We need to face it, guys. The kind of pussy you’re referring to when you go “kss, kss!” as a woman walks past is not a cat, and I doubt you’d enjoy the guy from the cellblock crowing like a rooster when you walk by – because he is keen on your cock.

To reiterate: ask yourself whether “not saying no” is the same as saying “yes”. If you’re alone with a bad guy in your jail cell and he’s about to do things to you that you don’t like – would you be quiet because you’re actually keen – or would it be because you’re hoping he won’t murder you as well as rape you?

Understand that the prison analogy applies even to “nice guys” on the outside. The physical and social power differences between men and women can mean that often women don’t object to sexual advances out of fear. Tragically, woman sometimes don’t want to face the idea that they’ve been violated, don’t want to “cause a scene”, simply feel threatened, or know that if they do report a problem, they themselves are likely to be put on trial. For what they wore, where they were, how much they drank – or for “leading him on”.

The prison analogy is useful. In the cell block where you have little to no power, consent suddenly becomes a much clearer concept. I find it noteworthy that consent is very important when other people do things to us, but is somehow less important when we are doing things to others. So, let’s talk about the characteristics of consent.

Real consent is enthusiastic (not saying no isn’t consent), specific (a “yes” to a kiss isn’t consenting to other things), temporary (anyone can change their minds at any time – even during sex), freely given (not coerced in any subtle way) and informed (secretly removing birth control nullifies consent, for example).

It’s easy (and vital) for guys who care to make it clear to their sexual partners that they mean it when they ask for permission – that they’re prepared to accept any answer.

WOMEN LIVE IN PRISON EVERY DAY

Women live in precisely the kind of world that prison would be to you. The kind of world where half the population is superior to you in terms of physical strength, and where that half of the population has grown up in a society that largely still thinks of women as possessions. A world where that half of the population is sexually attracted to you, and you could be the means to satisfy their urges.

In a country where four in ten women get raped , women don’t owe you anything. Not a conversation because you’ve done them the “honour” of being nice to them. They don’t owe you a smile. They don’t owe you a phone number. They don’t owe you sex because you’ve bought them a meal. They shouldn’t have to tell you more than once that they’re not interested – nor should they have to explain why. If you are lucky enough to have someone show an interest in you, they are not obliged to follow through with sex – they have a right to say “no”, or “stop” at any time. For you to insist and continue with sex beyond that point is rape.

Remember: “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.” - Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Charles Webster is a former news journalist and is now a corporate communications consultant for an American multinational. He completed an undergraduate degree in communications and English and later Honours and Master’s degrees in philosophy. Follow him on Twitter: @charlesjwebster

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