Does no really mean no? – The misunderstanding of sexual consent in North American rape culture

Illustrations by Brittany Brooks

Illustrations by Brittany Brooks

By:Celia Carr- Assistant External News Editor

Sexuality in North America is often treated as a taboo subject in that what happens in sexual relationships is not meant to be discussed publicly. There tends to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude towards sex in our society, so it is no surprise that the same attitude is applied to rape and sexual assault. It’s an issue that people don’t want to confront. Sadly, less than half of sexual assault complaints result in a criminal charge and only one in four leads to a guilty verdict. These findings show how rape and sexual assault are not taken seriously as criminal offences, adding even more to the problem of North American “rape culture” and how it shapes the way these offences are viewed and handled in society.

“Rape culture” is defined as a culture in which sexual violence is normalized, wherein people are not taught not to rape but rather, not to be raped. Ultimately, rape culture is a perception that places the responsibility on the victim to avoid situations where they will be sexually assaulted versus preventing such assaults from happening in the first place.

Upon my decision to pursue this particular topic, I had a discussion with my mother over the view society tends to have on rape. As a mother of three girls, I know it’s something she’s always worried about especially since we’ve become more independent and are in more situations where we’re on our own. She said that if either me or my sisters were walking home at night from one of our evening outings alone, that she would think it poor judgement on our part for doing so. I can’t disagree with her either; I try my best to avoid situations where I’m setting myself up as a target, but that is failing to address the real issue. Victims shouldn’t be scolded for walking home alone because we live in a world where people are willing to hurt others (not to mention that rape and sexual assaults occur in many places other than the street at night). Rape is far more complex than we might like to acknowledge, and it can happen in the least suspect situations.

The typical rape narrative is as follows: a woman is randomly attacked and sexually assaulted by a total stranger who was hiding in an alleyway or in a bush. While this can and does happen, society tends to ignore how broad the culture surrounding rape in North America is. It suggests that women and girls are the victims and that men are the monsters to be feared. It does not acknowledge how often rape occurs by someone the victim knows, and it very rarely takes into consideration that sexual assault that happens to men and boys as well. It cannot be defined by that simple narrative, and in fact that is far from the only reality that surrounds the issue.

One of the biggest problems with rape culture is the lack of understanding there is towards what constitutes a consensual sexual experience. We tend to think of rape as being a very black and white issue: the assaulter knew what they were doing was rape, and the victim was aware that what happened to them was in fact rape. However, there is what is known as “gray rape”, which Cosmopolitan magazine defines as a sexual encounter that inhabits the area “somewhere between consent and denial” and where “both parties are unsure of who wanted what.” These situations are usually when one person was too afraid or ashamed to say no, and while there was no definitive “yes” or “no” given, there was also no given consent.

The distinction is further blurred when alcohol or another drug was involved and one or both parties have no recollection the next day of it happening, or when one person does not remember consenting to the act. These situations are all examples of how it seems to be difficult for people to define what rape is and what constitutes consent. As a collective, we have to steer away from the idea that the only rapists are evil men who are constantly preying on their next victim; we should come to terms with the fact that “nice” people are also capable of rape, and that it isn’t always such a black and white issue.

Unfortunately, hard statistics on rape and sexual assaults are difficult to come by. Many incidents go unreported as victims may be afraid or ashamed to come forward. According to a Statistics Canada article from 2011, females aged 15-24 are at the highest risk of sexual assault. The data collected states that “173,600 women aged 15 and older were victims of violent crime in 2011, a rate of 1,207 female victims for every 100,000 women in the population. Additionally it states that women were 11 times more likely than men to be a victim of a sexual assault. Again, due to their nature, these statistics are unable to show the amount of unreported assaults and incidents that year. Additionally, these findings do not account for the rape of men that occur in prisons. In an article posted on The Guardian, it’s estimated that in 2008 there were 216, 000 victims of rape in prison. This includes both male and female victims and is said to outweigh the number of rape incidents that occurred that year in the US outside of prison. Don’t forget: these numbers do not include “gray” areas of rape and assault that cannot be so easily defined and reported.

The problem surrounding consent and how the definitions of rape are blurred is that it is not a part of sexual education curriculum in schools when kids are first exposed to sexuality and what it means. A survey for Amnesty International found that 37 per cent of respondents thought a woman was responsible for being raped if she did not clearly say “no”. As well there are attitudes which suggest that there are things than can be considered “bad sexual etiquette” but may not necessarily be considered “rape”. With attitudes like this, it is no surprise that it is difficult for young people to distinguish between what is acceptable sexual consent, since they are not actually taught its meaning.

The way relationships between men and women are portrayed in the media also contributes to North American rape culture. Ads for colognes and clothing feature images of a barely clothed woman in a vulnerable position being dominated by a hyper-masculine figure. With images like this being used to the point of it being a subconscious norm, it’s no wonder that sex and violence are so easily equated. Robin Thicke’s infamous song that took over all top-40 radio stations for a majority of 2013, “Blurred Lines”sparked discussions about rape and consent, but the concern was not enough to have the song removed from the radio. People everywhere still enjoyed listening to the catchy tune regardless of the message it conveyed. This shows a very laissez-faire approach to consent in our culture, as people are willing to listen to something so controversial because they enjoy listening to it, and find it humorous. Although rape and sexual assault are supposedly criminalized in this culture, there seems to be no issue with having it joked about in pop-culture media.

Unfortunately, society’s lack of understanding by society of what rape and consent are, lead to instances of what is known as “slut-shaming” and “victim-blaming” suggesting that the assault was preventable. This puts the onus on the victim instead of the rapist as it suggests that it would not have happened had the victim taken more precautions. This is further evident when looking at the way rape cases are dealt with in the media in North America. In situations where a girl is raped while she is highly intoxicated, the conversation and questions shift to why she was at the party to begin with, her level of intoxication and the way her promiscuity is perceived by peers.

A highly publicized example of a similar incident was in Steubenville, Ohio, where a female high school student was publicly and repeatedly assaulted by a group of boys who played on the school’s football team. Following the assault, a slew of comments, pictures and derogatory insults were directed at the girl through social media outlets. Many of these comments indicated that her peers felt she was at fault for the incident, making jokes about how she was passed out from being so intoxicated and that she essentially deserved it. One of the student’s tweets read, “I judge girls strictly on how they act when they’re drunk,” and another read “I have no sympathy for whores.” The comments were deleted, in an attempt to protect the boys from losing their positions on the football team, as it was later discovered that members of the school’s staff were hiding what the boys did. Although two of the boys were convicted in juvenile court for the rape of a minor, the girl involved was still shamed for being involved, with online forums suggesting that she was “asking for it” and that she was known for being “flirtatious and promiscuous”.

Prominent instances of “boys will be boys” attitudes in North America mask the realities of rape and influence the way rape is handled, because even though rapists can be convicted if a rape is reported, the girl does not go without blame. It seems to be acceptable to say that women are the ones who need to protect themselves from sexual assault, and that there was probably some way they could have avoided the situation. “If she hadn’t been drinking so much, it wouldn’t have happened. If she had covered herself up more, it wouldn’t have happened.” These statements are made as if the rapist could not have possibly stopped himself because of the way the woman was conducting herself. On the other hand, while men are also sexually assaulted by women, you never hear that a woman is unable to control her libido because a man chose to dress or conduct himself in a sexualized manner. You don’t hear, “girls will be girls.” I know too many great, intelligent men who are very caring towards the women in their lives to lump their entire gender into a group that cannot control themselves sexually, and I assume that most people would agree.

Rape and sexual assault deserve more attention as social issues. Society needs to be educated on healthy sexual relationships and there needs to be a firm understanding of what consenting to sex is. Whether it is a long-term relationship or casual sexual encounters, consent needs to be understood, in order to avoid misunderstandings and situations where consent was not made clear. It’s simply safer to assume that if it is not clear that consent was made, then it was not 100 per cent consensual.

We live in a society where “no” can be seen as a sexualized version of “yes” and that being attractive is to playing “hard-to-get”. This is not a new concept, and the unwritten rule that women are not to seem overly eager can be found in traditional courting practices as early as the 1400s. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that early courting methods are still relevant when looking at sexual relationships today, but if the lines between “yes” and “no” have been blurred for so long, then it’s possible that understanding that “no” can also mean “yes”, has seeped into current sexual values. It needs to be understood by society that “yes” and “no” are not enough to suggest a person has or has not consented to sex.

The Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick (PLEIS-NB) says that to consent to sexual activity means “to agree freely” and that “the law requires that a person take reasonable steps to find out whether the other person is consenting.” The PLEIS-NB acknowledges consent as a whole whereas many other Canadian organzations only focus on the age of consent. They argue consent involves more than a simple “yes” or “no”. It requires all parties involved to have a conversation that confirms there is a level of consent and comfort from everyone. There shouldn’t be any question of whether something was consensual or not, because if there is, it is a form of rape. This also means that if you are unsure of whether someone has consented, it is your responsibility to confirm that consent. Instead of blaming the victim, there needs to be more accountability on people to confirm that they are participating in something where both parties are entirely aware of what the expectations are. Silence is not consent, and that seems to be where people fail to understand what is and isn’t acceptable.

While many cases of rape are very clearly violent acts of sexual assault without question of a doubt, I argue that as a society it is important to understand the complexity of the issue, and to stop stereotyping what a “typical” rape case involves. This confusion leads to cases where people are afraid to come forward, and it promotes the acceptance of unhealthy sexual relationships. Victims should not be blamed for what has happened to them, but rather we should be teaching what a healthy sexual relationship is, where both people have made it clear they’ve consented. That being said, rape and consent should be taught as part of the sexual health curriculum so there is more of an understanding as to what is acceptable and unacceptable. There is no such thing as “bad sexual etiquette”; in any situation where it has not been made clear that the parties involved are both aware and comfortable with what is happening, it is not a consensual experience. Our society should teach not to rape instead of avoiding being raped. Anyone should be able to walk out in the middle of the night wearing whatever they choose without fear of an attack and without being blamed for the careless and heinous act of another.

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