There’s been a lot of great writing in recent weeks about the concept of affirmative consent. Sadly, there’s also been a lot of gross, distasteful writing defending the status quo, where women are expected to be available to men—sexually, emotionally, etc.—unless we say otherwise. I want to recommend this excellent piece by Amanda Taub at Vox explaining why she believes we really do need a shift from consent being an “opt-out” culture to an “opt-in” one. (As I’ve said before, putting women’s bodies on the same level we put houses and wallets, where you are assumed not welcome unless explicitly invited.) Part of the problem is that by telling women we are assumed to be consenting unless we say otherwise, the “say otherwise” is always up for debate by a man who believe our “no” is not good enough.
That burden isn’t just annoying for women. It’s dangerous. By exempting sexual aggressors from the responsibility of figuring out whether their partners are “eager and ready to sleep with them,” we’re asking their targets to either give in to sexual activity they don’t want, or to run the risk that a firm, assertive, continued rejection will end in violence.
This week, a Detroit man murdered a 27-year-old mother of three named Mary Spears after she rejected him in a bar. Right now, a woman is in critical condition in a New York City hospital because a man slashed her throat on the street after she declined to go on a date with him. In April, a Connecticut teenager was murdered by her 16-year-old classmate after she turned down his invitation to prom. Stories like these (and there are others) should remind us that women have a lot of reasons to fear the consequences of saying “no.” That’s all the more reason why silence shouldn’t be presumed to be consent.
The violence that erupts when a man decides that a woman hasn’t worked hard enough to opt out of her supposed obligation to please him seems shocking, but it’s entirely predictable in a society such as ours. Take, for instance, my post yesterday where I made fun of a man who wanted me to get off my bike, take off my headphones and engage me in a lengthy conversation about my body and his opinions on it. Many people in comments were upset, arguing that I did, in fact, have an obligation, merely by being a woman in the world, to drop what I was doing and give this man what he wanted because he wanted it. That my “no” was not good enough. That in order to opt out of the presumption of consent, I had to come up with more reasons that fuck-you-I’m-not-a-toy.
If we switched to an affirmative consent culture, that wouldn’t happen. The idea that I am obliged to give a man what he wants just because he wants it and that not only do I have to do the hard work of saying no but that I’m obliged to earn my right to say no is preposterous. Like Taub said, that constitutes a de facto social tax on women just for being women.
Which brings us to the ways in which these sorts of attitudes disadvantage all women. When our society treats consent as “everything other than sustained, active, uninterrupted resistance,” that misclassifies a whole range of behavior as sexually inviting. That, in turn, pressures women to avoid such behavior in order to protect themselves from assault.
As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, while still others are subject to expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. It amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. And it sucks.
Take the bike situation, which I go back to because it shows how ingrained this attitude is. Men are permitted to ride bikes without paying a toll periodically of having to stop what they’re doing and make a case about why they should get an exemption from their obligation to please any man who demands pleasure at any point in time. Men get to live in a world where the default others see is “no” and they have to ask for more. Women, on the other hand, are expected to live in a permanent state of “yes” and have to ask—in many cases, beg and plead and fight—for the right to say “no”. And, as Taub points out, even if your “no” is accepted, it’s often got a time limit on it before your presumed consent kicks right back in, starting the clock of you having to say no over and over and over again. Sometimes the respite from a persistent person is like a minute or less.
If you want something—sex, attention, a signature, the time—you should have to ask for it. You shouldn’t just expect that it’s yours and shift the burden of asking on someone to ask to be left alone. No one should have to ask not to have sex. Certainly no one should beg not to have sex. But it’s easy to see how the belief that women should have to endure a hassle to “get out” of sex takes hold. It starts when we think it’s acceptable for men to demand that women drop what they’re doing to entertain a man on the street. It starts when we think that a woman should “give him a chance” even though she doesn’t want to. In small ways, every day, we send the message to women that they are expected to give of themselves to any askers and if they want a break, they have to ask for it and see if the person thinks their “ask” for peace is good enough. Of course that leads to a society where men tell women they have to have sex and women are expected to beg and plead for an exception.
This needs to end. Women don’t owe you anything. And if you want something from someone, ask. Don’t just demand and make them ask to be let out of an obligation that shouldn’t be on their shoulders in the first place.