Some of this consent-explaining is starting to rub me the wrong way.
(Is consent really like tea?)
[cw: rape, rape culture. Note: If you are angered or confused by the insinuation that rape culture exists, this might not be the most productive reading for you. Here are some helpful resources that explain/defend what I mean when I say “rape culture”: this, this, and this.]
Over the past week or so, a series of tweets has gone viral that explains rape in terms of stealing money:
If you ask me for $5, and I’m too drunk to say yes or no, it’s not okay to then go take $5 out of my purse… Just because I didn’t say no. / If you put a gun to my head to get me to give you $5, you still stole $5. Even if I physically handed you $5.
People are sharing it all over my Facebook newsfeed. Popsugar called it “The Best Analogy to Describe Rape You’ll Ever Read.” (There are seven tweets in total; you can read them all at either link.)
And while I give props to Twitter user @thatxxv for standing up against rape culture, something about this explanation is very troubling to me and at first, I wasn’t sure why.
I’m starting to have mixed feelings about all these clever analogies that present rape as a kind of unwanted exchange of money or goods — like $5, or the borrowed car in the cartoon above, or even tea.
(Don’t get me wrong — back when that “Tea Consent” video went viral on YouTube, I was all for it, sharing it with all of my friends, and spreading the Gospel of Tea Consent. It’s a great message, but now I’m struggling with it for many of the same reasons why I’m struggling with the $5 thing.)
These analogies are fighting rape culture (yay!) but the mentality behind them seems to be, in part, informed by rape culture (this is where I have mixed feelings):
The Problems With Exchange-Based Analogies For Consent
1. The message it sends is that the act of rape is the same as the act of sex, minus the consent bit — when rape is actually an act of sexual violence. I don’t think it’s really the same act at all; the lack of consent changes the act entirely.
Here’s another way to think about it: in these analogies, the result after the act — e.g. you now have my $5, and I’m $5 short — is the same whether consent was given or not. That can hardly be said for the psychological results after rape vs. sex. Though robbery can certainly be traumatic, it (hopefully) won’t forever stain the way I view my own wallet and make me struggle to ever handle money again.
The analogy is not just simplifying the body’s experience (that is, making it so easy to understand that it can’t be denied, which is the main goal of these analogies) but also objectifying it and ultimately de-humanizing it. The violation of a body just can’t translate into the violation of a possession, no matter how dear. (This is why I think the “Tea Consent” video is a bit better, because the act of drinking tea is an experience of both body and mind.)
One of the many roots of rape culture (besides good ol’ misogyny) is the mentality that sex is an exchange.
2. In the implied flip side of the analogy, consensual sex is somehow also an “exchange”: if I consent to have sex with you, then I’m giving you $5 or lending you my car or letting you give me tea. I don’t want my sex to be an exchange. It’s not a giving or a taking, it’s an experience that I share with someone.
Rape, on the other hand, is none of the above. You could call it a “taking” — that is, it robs someone of their dignity.* But in order for the full exchanged-based analogy to hold up, consensual sex would mean that someone gives up their dignity willingly. And that just doesn’t sit right with me.
*And sometimes also “robs” them of their virginity. But I think most of us agree that the “taking/losing” language surrounding virginity is misguided and often harmful.
3. Even with these two flaws, the analogies would be totally worth it if they were really changing people’s minds about consent. Sometimes I wonder if the only people viewing and retweeting are the people who already get it. And that’s great for our sense of solidarity in Mainstream Internet Feminism™, but for me, the goal of all this internet activism is to create change in our communities. Are these pithy quotes and cartoons changing people’s minds? I honestly don’t know. But I do know this:
One of the many roots of rape culture (besides good ol’ misogyny) is the mentality that sex is an exchange. It’s the I-bought-you-dinner-and-was-really-nice-to-you-so-you-owe-me-something narrative. I don’t think that the “exchange” mentality has any place in our cause.
A brief note on #2: I wonder if my enthusiasm for sex positivity perhaps doesn’t have a place in discussions of rape? Yet so much of this is really about consent education, which I think should be sex-positive. I don’t have the answers here. Even the “consent is sexy” slogan seems to have some problems; consent can be sexy sometimes, but it is mandatory either way.
Expanding the Conversation
We can’t address every problem in one place. But while I have your attention, I’d like to voice a couple additional issues related to consent education:
Erasure & Inclusivity
Perhaps the most important criticism of all is the erasure that occurs in a lot of the language and imagery in these analogies. Many of them take place in some really boring universe where everyone is white/cis/heterosexual. Representation in media is important for obvious reasons, but also, the idea that all perpetrators are male and all targets are female is incredibly dangerous and simply wrong.
Even the hypothetical “I,” which I used in scenarios throughout this piece in an attempt to remove “he/she” markers from the narrative, is still inherently gendered female by virtue of my own identity. This dialogue itself thus contributes to a normative worldview. Awful, right?
(For the record, the other scenes from Alli Kirkham’s comic strip, featured at the top, are a lot more inclusive of different races, genders, and sexualities.)
And it’s true that when it comes to media with educational intent, sometimes we have to “meet people where they are.” If our goal is education, it doesn’t make sense to always assume a certain amount of knowledge from the start (and the privilege that comes along with it). This factor could even be considered another aspect of “inclusivity.” But I also wonder if the attitude that says “these analogies are just for the masses, not for me” is, itself, loaded with a certain amount of privilege. It’s tricky. I’m struggling with this.
Either way, I do think that it’s possible to use inclusive language without sounding pretentious. Especially if our English teachers finally accept that “they/their” can be singular. I mean, come on.
And last but not least:
Freely Given vs. Enthusiastic Consent
I’m really in support of the “consent is simple!” message, but in my lived experience, consent hasn’t been as simple as I want it to be. In those tweets that sparked my writing of this post, it was simple: if someone is too drunk to consent, case closed.
But what if I’m emotionally beholden to someone? What if I’m feeling too vulnerable to say no? When I freely give my consent, it isn’t rape, but being legal doesn’t make it good. This is about raising the bar beyond just a “yes.” There’s “freely given” consent, and then there’s enthusiastic consent. And in order to fight rape culture (and improve our sex lives!) I think we need to acknowledge the difference there too in our actions and activism.
Endnote: this is NOT The Definitive Argument to End All Analogies. There surely is a place for them. I just want us to think a little harder about what these analogies mean, and how we’re using them. I brashly titled this post “There Has to Be a Better Way…” without directly suggesting “a better way,” but I do believe that it must exist.
I wrote this feeling deeply troubled and confused, not high-and-mighty on a feminist pedestal. It is my sincere hope that people who read this will be able to engage in a productive dialogue about consent education, sex positivity, and fighting rape culture.
This is about starting conversations, not ending them.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Crossing Genres, an online publication hosted by Medium. The insightful responses it received from the Medium community have helped inform many of the revisions. However, it is still far from perfect, and I encourage all readers to keep the conversation going as we continue to look critically at our own activism and try to hold it to the highest possible standard.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.