Talks

Consent: It’s Not Sexy

When we talk about rape as a culture, there’s a lot we don’t know how to say. Katie J.M. Baker, Victoria Campbell, Ragna Rök Jóns, Doreen St. Felix, Brenton Stokes, and Sarah Nicole Prickett discuss.

Consent: It’s Not Sexy

The original title for this panel was “What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape,” which was kiboshed for a couple of reasons. One of these was also a reason for doing the panel in the first place: we do not feel comfortable with using rape as an SEO term, even while knowing that overcoming this discomfort in naming rape is one of the more necessary steps in changing a culture that permits, among other pillagings of autonomy, the thing we call rape. Months ago, a number of controversial, reported pieces on rape in our communities (or communities to which we’re adjacent), from the “alt lit” ordeal to the Emma Sulkowicz saga at Columbia to the Rolling Stone cover story on “Jackie” at UVA, prompted me to think less about the act itself and more about how we speak it into existence. When is rape heard? Who speaks, and who gives permission?

In talking together and with friends, the Adult staff has long felt that there are things that we mean about rape, consent, and responsibility that we can’t say without seeming to take the wrong side. How do we criticize the notion of “rape culture” without denying that certain elements in masculine culture do permit, as Amy Schumer recently illustrated, “raping” as a competitive sport? If we talk about dick culture instead, why is it that while dicks are as readily metaphorized as guns are, the definition of a victim strictly adheres to the physical? Then again, rape is bad enough without being a metaphor, let alone what reads like a fantasy in the pages of Rolling Stone. We wish we weren’t using the word “fantasy.” We worry the reality has become almost profitable, even as the conditions don’t change. How do we express the fact that although we do not assume that anyone who says they were raped is lying, they may not be giving us gospel? How do we explain without derailing that there are worse things than rape, or that there are things that feel to us more like rape than rape as it’s defined by law? And, speaking of law, how do we speak of consequences for the crime without turning carceral or becoming the cops we claim to hate? What if we knew more about consent? Would we speak less of consequences then? Even here I’m unsure——who are “we?” Certainly, “we women” would not be a sufficient response, even if all of us were women.

One night, Victoria and I got into a long discussion about affirmative consent. We—and everyone on this panel—want passionately to get past the ways in which consent is discussed in public: as a legal qualifier, as a clinical assignation for one’s desire in a given moment, as a command and not a wish, as a demand handed to the person with less power in almost any given situation. Consent is too limited. Consent, too, is often not really about choice. If we animate it throughout our bodies, we renounce it every time we sign a contract not written in our language. We’re always consenting and not consenting to situations outside our control.

After eleven weeks of keeping this panel open for answers, new questions, doubts and deletions, revisions and revisitations, I read Katie’s story for BuzzFeed News about how law schools teach——or don’t teach——rape, in particular to female law students. According to one anonymous letter written by a second-year law student at a top school, “sexual assault [is] often harder to discuss in class than murder, or racial profiling.” It’s this paradox I can’t quite wrap my head around: how “awareness” around an issue, raised to protect and privilege victims, can lead to such silence and isolation. All openings are defined by their closures. The more we talk about rape as a culture, the less we are able to say.

—Ana Cecilia Alvarez

The panelists:

Katie J.M. Baker is a reporter who often writes about sexual assault and consent.

Victoria Campbell is a writer and artist specializing in the areas of identity negotiation, relationship management, and black magic political economy. She teaches Sex-Ed with Ana Cecilia.  

Ragna Rök Jóns is a transmedia artist, writer and theorist.

Doreen St. Felix is a writer based in Brooklyn.

Brenton Stokes is a QPOC (queer person of colour) student, musician, artist/producer, DJ, sound designer and survivor of male sexual assault. Most of his original music embodies earthly concepts from a perspective of an outsider/onlooker (“alien”, hence his alias Achaziyah The Alien).

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer and the editor-in-chief of Adult.

•••

Reporting rape seems today to be the individual’s main form of activism against sexual violence. But, what are some reasons to not report rape to police, to schools, to the media, even to friends?

VC: I don’t want any more laws on my body.

That said, the other night I was casually reporting my week to a lover and realized I’d been harassed at a friend’s apartment a few days before. The incident was annoying, and vaguely threatening: like someone had suddenly let their pitbull dog at me, like, “don’t worry he’s just a puppy” but I look down and it’s a fucking pitbull. (Note: I actually characterize in my mind the man who confronted me as a dog and not a man because a man has been trained to understand the word “No,” whereas untrained dogs——and the owners that infantilize them——tend not to. Also, there’s something about this incident that was “cute,” or that I characterized or let become “cute.”)

I feel uncomfortable now in a way that I wasn’t then; I wasn’t going to “report” it, though I’m reporting it now. But what am I reporting? Not the incident, the violation, or even the event, but the “report” itself, the noun-form of the verb “report.” The report as both the act of carrying something and the thing that is carried, both the act of speaking and the thing that is being spoken, both an experience and its telling. My report which is also my witness. Here, in my report of my report, I’m not particularly interested in the content of the event——i.e., what made it harassment, what made it sexual, what made it wrong——but in how the report changes the experience itself. (Another note: The person I’m talking about said that he had been “falsely accused of rape.” The rapist is always falsely accused if he declares himself to be innocent. A thief can say “I didn’t steal it,” a murderer can say, “I didn’t kill them,” while still acknowledging the fact that something has been stolen and the bodies are there. But the rapist must either admit to the crime or totally negate the existence of the crime entirely.)

I don’t want any more laws on my body.

That a report is always mediated, by verbal and nonverbal communication and also potentially by the state, if one chooses, isn’t a reason not to do it. If reporting rape is the individual’s main form of activism against rape, then a space and practice of giving forth withholds should be the collective form of activism. Not just for the sake of reporting sexual violence, but to develop a practice based on putting attention on what hasn’t been said so that what has been experienced can find a form. Experience finds form within practices of mediation. Once something finds a form it can be collectively acknowledged, affirmed, and acted upon. Communities can take action by learning to govern and mediate and teach, while the State (school, media, et al.) mainly takes action by policing. So deciding whether or not and how to report something also involves deciding how you’d like to be listened to.

BS: I had a phantom onus to be loyal to the person who raped me because before he raped me he was one of my best friends. I don’t have any personal relationship with the police. I feared the police’s lack of response due to the fact that not only am I a black male, but I’m also (considered, in this case) gay. The police don’t have an excellent track record with either black males or homosexuals, let alone both. I also felt more able to talk to the rapist face to face than to bring him before a judicial system. It wasn’t until my friend and fellow survivor told me of his incident with the same person and encouraged me to speak with my university’s administration that I even considered coming forward. I did it the next day, alongside him.  

RRJ: It boils down to relations of power and privilege. Many survivors of sexual violence find themselves re-traumatized when they try to reach out to the gatekeepers of justice, so why bother? To quote Laverne Cox, “There is no justice. Amen.” But, “there will be justice”——there must be changes made to a system and social order that continuously devalues the legitimacy of rape as violence, the voices of women and minorities, and the traumas endured by survivors. Moments of public spectacle will force survivors further into the closet of trauma; but we must nevertheless organize collectively and communally, in multiple though overlapping social formations, resisting rape cultures and their post-trauma oblivion.

SNP: “Why bother” is a pretty flippant thing to say about an endeavour that speaks to an individual’s catharsis, perhaps, but also to an individual’s care for others. I guess I “re-traumatized” myself when I wrote Your Friends and Rapists last year, and maybe I “re-traumatized” some who read it, but I also tried to write away from trauma, not just in the piece but in my correspondences afterward with readers. Roxane Gay “re-traumatized” herself when she wrote What We Hunger For” in 2012. Mary Gaitskill “re-traumatized” but also untraumatized herself when she wrote On Not Being a Victim in 1994. Kathleen Hale “re-traumatized” herself when she took the stand in a rape case, not because she wanted justice for herself but because she wanted it for a number of women that included her; she re-“retraumatized” herself again when she wrote Prey in 2014, and I don’t think anyone, after reading that essay, would want to know why it is she “bothered.”

If adults took sex education seriously from sixth grade on, we’d have less to report by the time we get to campuses in America.

There are all kinds of reasons not to speak. One is to avoid being (seen as) a victim, to not be the girl who cried about rape. Another reason is to avoid any dealings with authority figures who remind you of rapists, like policemen or doctors. Another reason is not wanting to act as an activist.

Of course, despite all the spotlighting of victims, there are other ways to act when——or before——it comes to rape. Education is activism in another genre, and reporting is only one form of education. It’s the form of education I want to see least. If adults took young women——young people, teens in general——seriously as sexual agents, and if adults taught sex education seriously from sixth grade on, we’d have less to report by the time we get to campuses in America.

The fear of facing blame is often cited as a reason one chooses to remain silent about rape, although blame often manifests as doubt. Should the promise of being believed be the only reason to speak? Is there, conversely, such a thing as being too believed?

VC: There is such an obsession with “fact!” It’s very limiting, this characterization of speaking as a means to an end, or as a means to literally produce ‘truth.’ 

What I’m sensing in this prompt is a conflation of “to speak” and “to accuse.” The promise of being believed is what’s at stake in an accusation. Certain forms of accusation are more media-friendly, more easily mythologized, more salacious, more influential.

Sure, there is “awareness” and “prevention.” The latter can be objectified in statistics and so I guess that means some kind of progress and the former is rarely a hand on the levers of power. I’m certain the labor involved in getting one’s speech recognized by state, media and social apparatuses is easier for some than for others——just as some have more to gain in blame than they do in speech and vice versa. Better to focus on what’s at stake in speaking than in accusation——on who you’re speaking to, on what speech does, different kinds of speech, different characterizations of speech, and different ways to empower speakers and listeners. Some people get a book deal, some people get told it’s their fault, some people aren’t listened to, and there’s something at stake in how each individual’s accusation is handled.

KB: I think reporters fail when they hide from facts because the facts are complicated. In my reporting, I strive to legitimize, or at least accurately describe, “gray area” situations instead of dismissing them. As Kat Stoeffel wrote in her wonderful piece, “It Doesn’t Have To Be Rape to Suck,” many of us want to talk about “situations that fall outside the conventional definition of rape but nonetheless reflect a gender power dynamic that leaves women [and others] sexually vulnerable.” All rape is presumably unwanted, but not all unwanted sex can be presumed to be rape, and we should be able to make these distinctions for ourselves without getting into what Kat calls the “Was It Rape” debate. How can we talk about this without delving into the messy, complicated details? The problem is that there’s little to no incentive for people to share these details publicly, or even among friends. I mean, we’re not even doing that here.

SNP: Accurate description is the gift of legitimizing experience, a gift that Rolling Stone did not afford Jackie. They made exceptions for her. They let her be special. I get why she wanted to be special, her case to be special: the facts can be complicated, but they can also be commonplace, and maybe she didn’t want to know that whatever happened to her could also have happened to someone else. Maybe she wanted to feel chosen. (Making their prey feel chosen is how many serial predators do their work.)

It’s hard to look at such dull, grey experiences as my two main experiences of un-asked-for intercourse have been and see why it actually hurts——the first time, anyway. The first time still feels bad. The second time was more like an attempted rape, and it felt like, are you serious? I was 26 or 27, and it felt like getting carded at the liquor store. Like, I was simultaneously insulted and flattered, as if being taken lying down were somehow tantamount to being mistaken for a younger, prettier, dumber/more innocent girl, and in the end I was more upset with two of our mutual friends for being like, “yeah, that’s just Jack” than I was at Jack. We could call that the “Was It Jack” debate. On the other side, there is always the friend who, rather than listening to what you tell her, feels the need to tell you “You Were Raped.”

BS: One reason I chose to speak out about my experience in such detail (that, might I add, was not adequately communicated in the Huffington Post article) is that I wanted to fight against being profiled as another innocent, defenseless, gay boy that got singularly attacked by a default heterosexual and cisgendered male aggressor. As part of the black community, I feel the implicit pressure to not be characterized as “weak” or “passive” simply (but not exclusively) because of how pornography, among other things, has stereotyped our penises as relentless anacondas. But I also feel pressure from non-black communities to not “come off too strong” because of the potential for others to be “uncomfortable” with my “threatening” presence. I am rejecting these pressures when I choose to speak.

DSF: To speak, to who? I take the implied audience to be those legal institutions that hold incarcerating power, or social spaces that hold exiling power. I must believe many people who have spoken out to power about their sexual assaults, especially those people whose speech isn’t often believed in any political context, know that they very well may not be believed, to the extent that belief would lead to consequences for the rapist. If they are looking for consequence.

If she were my friend and we were in an enclosed room twenty years ago, I would have urged Anita Hill to keep silent. I am not so convinced on speaking out. There’s this overbearing empowerment narrative, telling us that because patriarchy has silenced us for so long, speaking out is unilaterally subversive. You have to come out as a sexual assault survivor, come out of this moralized darkness, as if the outside light can’t become the glare of surveillance. As if you won’t lose your job and be set out on the street if your boss is the one that harasses you, as if you won’t materially endanger yourself and your children if you go to the police against your husband. We ought to challenge this white feminist fetish for speaking out publicly, and the accompanying condemnation of people who choose silence.

I know of women who don’t speak but instead give knowing glances as they pass, and I know of men who were found in the morning but their balls were not.

Not all bodies are pedestaled on a myth the way white women’s fragility is, a myth of fragility sustained politically, legally, and socially at the expense of black and brown women and people. Silence has preserved my body and ensured my safety more times than I can count, and during the times that I had to speak out, either for the safety of other people within the predator’s range or for my sanity, I chose to speak to women, in quiet, closed places.

I know stories of women from Port au Prince to Brooklyn who don’t speak but instead give knowing glances when they pass each other on the corner. And I know men who were found in the morning but their balls were not.

Bethany Saltman, a former sexual violence activist and “Womyn of Antioch” member, wrote recently about the disparities between the public reception to Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight——a recent performance backed by a personal narrative, largely met with encouragement——and the Antioch College Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, an affirmative action campaign which, in its time, became a laughing stock. Saltman writes:

“I think it has something to do with the way we, as a culture, have embraced the power of storytelling. We are so saturated with personal tales, so oriented toward individuals and their agonies and ecstasies. The Womyn of Antioch didn’t have a story to tell, per se. We had a message to deliver, a hegemonic discourse to smash… I actually wrote in my 1991 article that I was ‘shocked’ by the survivor’s ‘powerful and candid story, partly because of the very frightening and close emotional nature of a personal discussion about rape.’ What a difference 20 years makes.”

To whom have these 20 years made the biggest difference? Whose rape becomes a “story?” Whose does not?

VC: The narratives that get told are those that can cut the cleanest line between those who are good and those who are bad, between those who are victims and those who are survivors, between the abject desire of the male and the virtuous strength of the female. These narratives sacrifice one member of society in order not to implicate the entire system that backs up an empire’s claim to power. They really do spin best on CNN.

Also, Carry that Weight was an ascetic act. It tells a Christ story, it tells an underdog story, it tells a survivor story. It tells all of our favorite stories. There’s a hero against the villains. Every aspect of that story bore currency——weight, if you will.

RRJ: It depends by what we mean by a “story.” Do we mean a click-bait headline, or a memoir, or those moments in discourse that exist and persistently crystallize a collective conscience over the realities of violence? In any case, it’s usually not black women, brown women, queer women, trans women, even men who are the center of these headlines. It’s usually women whose experiences are palatable to the pen, or whose lives are relatable to the wider networks of people in power. Yet, conversely, marginalized survivors of sexual violence often find that they must rehearse and repeat a story, traversing the trials of never being believable enough, desperately trying to prove one is not bearing false witness. It can be disheartening, but we need to have our stories heard, regardless.

BS: I agree with Ragna and want to add that even personal, purple-hearted stories have been been converted to palatable, click-bait headlines for the sake of digestible media. Emma Sulkowicz’s trauma is in no way less legitimate than that of Eric [the pseudonym of a black man at Amherst that got sexually assaulted by his roommate] or of myself, but I’m aware that a case like hers, along with her demographic and race, make her story more ‘eligible’ to be a breakthrough case. The way that she handled it was a breakthrough. The case is not.  

Carry That Weight tells a Christ story, it tells an underdog story, it tells a survivor story. It tells all of our favorite stories.

DSF: Saltman’s evaluation of the differences between Carry That Weight and the “Womyn of Antioch” holds in a cosmetic sense. I’m more troubled by the tendency to stake those two moments on opposite poles of rape and consent activism, because such a myopic setting-up of the history gasses the double crisis the country will not name. The so-called national conversation on sexual assault centers its gravity so squarely in the experiences of white or “white-looking” women attending colleges cordoned off from the city, often living in dormitories or near the school. I get it, of course——culture-makers are equal parts thrilled and horrified by the seeming paradox within the term “campus rape,” that such a debased violence can happen in rich lily-white spaces. Rapists terrorize those dorms, those frats, but white women are not the only people who are raped there; rapists terrorize, but the campus is not the only place. In fact, lived experience and statistics show that American campuses are not even close to the most dangerous places for women.

I say we’re in a double crisis, because black women in any given institutional space——colleges, police custody, prisons, the street, their homes——are the people most likely to be raped in America. Black trans women, once more, are under siege. That’s pure Americana: a forcible extraction of body power from black women bankrolled the birth of this nation. To me, the crisis is at first this institutionalized violence, and then secondly, the erasure of black women’s experiences——and here I’m calling out Title IX-prostrating white feminism——from the conversation. Erasure isn’t exactly what I mean, I think I mean apathy. Reporters totally know about “lower class rape,” the rape that happens in prison or in the hood or in war zones but normalize it as a casualty of an already criminal existence. An experience that fits the space they’ve been allotted. Black women and Latino women aren’t afforded the virtue white women have. I mean, you can read Dorothy Roberts, Kimberle Crenshaw, Robin Kelley, so many black scholars on how capitalist anti-blackness prevents marginalized women from participating in the theatre of victimhood that is white and upper-class, one of a few lenses through which I receive Sulkowicz’s thesis.

All this to say: when I was fourteen years old, being sexually harassed once a week by the same police officer completing his stop-and-frisk round, I did not have the option to drag the prison industrial complex with me on the 2 train. If it sounds like I’m dissing Carry that Weight, I’m actually pointing out the outsized treatment huge media like The New York Times are investing the project with. The boundary between public and private was transgressed on my body and bodies like mine centuries before we were born. That transgression is intimately tied to tremendously lucrative institutions like these war complexes, so irrevocably tied.

KB: I’m so in awe of the young activists who have turned campus assault into a national issue, some of whom are barely out of their teens, yet more effective than any other organizers I know (and more critical of the movement’s whitewashing than you might think). At the same time, too much of today’s reporting on campus sexual assault is well-meaning but breathless trash catering to Americans who’ve never been able to resist young white coeds in trouble. I get chills down my spine watching the pageviews go up, and up, and up on Ivy League rape stories. The more brutal the story is, and the prettier the victim, the more successful.

I get chills down my spine watching the pageviews go up on Ivy League rape stories. The more brutal it is, and the prettier the victim, the more successful.

SNP: “Young white coeds in trouble” evokes so well the pulpy, fictive aspects of popular rape stories. When I say “fictive” I don’t mean that the stories aren’t true, but that, because they make heroines out of victims, and because the heroines do have this… serial look, they often feel as flimsy as paperbacks. I’ll read an “Ivy League rape story” and think “oh my god, this is plagiarized.” (NB: After I wrote this——not because I wrote this, obviously——The Globe & Mail published Tabatha Southey’s very recommended column on the Rolling Stone fiasco, and she takes the pulp fiction line; I take after her in some ways.) 

That reaction is wrong, and sad. Even if the central events of these stories are common and even memetic, the experiences of the events do differ. We don’t get to see a lot of difference. We’re not even sure we should show it. Many self-reporters are afraid that showing anything other than what’s “common” in the experience will subtract from the meaning of event, from the master narrative of specifically sexual assault as a crime against the powerless, and sure, even if we’re not powerless, we’re also not wrong to be afraid. Specificities in feminine experience tend to be pointed out as holes in our story. To many (male) authorities, that’s what femininity is: our story, and we better stick to it. Victimhood gives us the same deal. So, to return to “plagiarism,” I think it occurs when even the best-meaning authorities, including editors, don’t know how to ask for clarification of an experience without casting doubt on its lived-ness.

When it came to my own story, I’m with Katie. I’m not from the Ivy League, but I pass and I’m pretty, and I felt a very, very cold comfort in the number of people who read that essay because of the way it began. Many women who are demographically like me would call it “my rape” story, but the possessive has always struck me as a little too received, too precious——my abuse, my abuser, my rape, my rapist. I can’t. I always want to be like, “honey, he’s not your rapist.” If he raped you, the odds are good he’s raped someone else. Beyond that, I don’t feel that “rapists are rapists,” in the vein of “rape is rape” or “cheaters are cheaters.” Rapists are also “our boys.” Rapists are also, as Stella Gibson says in The Fall, our husbands, brothers, boyfriends, friends, and sons. As disturbing and counterintuitive as it feels to say, we have to give rapists their full humanity, or we’ll never cede their actions the full ethical weight of a permission——a responsibility——misused.

KB: I think more reporters need to work harder to find stories about rape survivors who aren’t educated white women, but I also know from my own experience that it’s both logistically tricky and ethically complicated to seek out rape survivors who aren’t ready to come forward. Most survivors who court press are those educated white women, because they have the social capital and support that makes it, if not easy, not as impossible to deal with the backlash that comes with speaking up. Also, they write press releases and send them out, unprompted, to reporters, with their cell phone numbers and Gmail addresses highlighted. They take photos of their art projects. They want to get in touch.

I would love to report on, for example, undocumented students who are assaulted, but I (obviously) can’t run around a college campus asking students if they are undocumented and whether they’ve been raped.

Doreen, I wonder, as someone who is only in a position to report, not to hire other reporters, what role should media play? Is it even ideal for, like, CNN to start tracking down the fourteen-year-old being sexually harassed once a week by the same police officer completing his stop and frisk round? Is it even ideal for me to do that?

The campus rape beat is also a race beat. It’s about everyday violence recast as aberration in white spaces.

DSF: CNN should definitely not follow black girls around on camera because I’ve seen their coverage and they do a poor job of lighting our skin. Ha, ha. But seriously, I can only see that scenario creating more danger for people. I wonder if one aspect of the problem has to do with segregating news into beats? These two beats——1) race and 2) campus rape——run parallel to each other on the internet and rarely converge, therefore ignoring the overlapping experiences of, in particular, women of color. Of course the campus rape beat is also a race beat. It’s about everyday violence recast as aberration in white spaces. I know I’m not answering your question at all, but I’m trying to say that stories of black and brown women and their sexual assaults could and should more readily appear in journalism that is classified under what we now understand as race writing.

SNP: Yes. More stories should also be unclassifiable. I wanted the thing I wrote to be unclassifiable, yet I couldn’t have it both ways; I couldn’t escape the fact that was my story was classed by my ability to write it——because, like I said, I’m the kind of victim who gets believed.

This is partly why I have been assigned and/or have promised and have felt unwilling/unable to not write other stories like it, stories we call “women’s stories.” As Lidia Yuknavitch says to Vanessa Veselka in Violence: “Why is women’s writing only rape stories?” Or big unified theories about female pain in books that end with “I want our hearts to be open,” as if that’s not… how you get an infection. And now someone’s going to say that I’m blaming the patient.

RRJ: I’m in agreement with Doreen on the need to burst the elitist bubble of a current college rape crisis. It’s not a crisis, it’s a wake-up call. I wonder though, how we expand the dialogue to include survivors of sexual violence who are not in the forefront of its theorizing, or who are disenfranchised from discourse due to digital divides. While I think in particular of trans women or queer assigned-male-at-birth people, like myself, I have seen a nebulous problem in trying to formulate any sort of essence behind the rape victim: she is not always a woman, or has a vagina. We often give cursory mentions to the peripheral, less central, issues of sexual violence and those who endure such traumas, like young men or queer folks, but we need to be attentive to semantic nuances so we don’t steamroll people who already may be hesitant to enter the conversation.

SNP: Ragna, I agree that the rape victim shouldn’t be essentialized, and at the same time, that the victim who is raped because she is perceived as essentially female should not be shooed aside by progressive discourses. I also often find myself wishing that certain rapists were the ones who had to report their rapes, who had to endure the questions, the kits and the exams, who had to squirm in the spotlight or the hot seat. This is not a very useful wish. I’m just a little bit worried that this panel is——that I am——that all of us are leveraging a little too much pressure on those who survive and not enough on those who assault.

The powerlessness doesn’t rest in the flesh.

Last year, I was working on The New Inquiry Dicks issue with Hannah Black and Jesse Darling, who are both so brilliant and such advanced thinkers, and we were writing the ed. note together. I had spent a lot of time on the notion of “dick culture,” and so when Hannah and Jesse wrote in a draft of the editor’s note that “those radical feminist accounts that see rape culture as emanating directly from the biological power rests not in the flesh, but in the social order,” I emailed them something that almost applies to your question:

I disagree that feminists, radical or otherwise, see rape culture as directly emanating from the biological penis. Very few find it so simple. Most commentators talk about the social order. At the same time, most people who are raped report experiencing the physical component of the rape as, yes, emanating from a biological penis*, in particular one wielded as a dick (hence “dick culture” as a less-inadequate term), and until the majority of penis-havers do not grow up to become men, I’m going to have sympathy for the poor unenlightened women who haven’t heard that the penis is so passe, and with it, their fears or anxieties. Tell a person bleeding from rape that the power doesn’t rest in the flesh. Tell a person who years later experiences wracking pain during SORRY IT’S SO UNCONTEMPORARY BUT VAGINAL INTERCOURSE that when her vaginal muscles clamp tight in an expression of trauma that the power doesn’t rest in the flesh. I’d prefer a) that we not condescend to so many; b) drag rape into this. It’s everywhere else, god knows.

This year, and in a less embarrassing reply to a totally reasonable question, I’d like to restate Hannah and Jesse’s line to suggest that the powerlessness doesn’t rest in the flesh. If the only criterion is an orifice, we are actually all vulnerable to being entered by force or coercion, and yet it is overwhelmingly those of us who are perceived as vaginal and feminine, whether or we’re not we’re biologically female, who are made and/or seen to be victims. This isn’t at all scientific, but I sense a correlation between the subject whose nudity is guarded or hidden like a secret and the subject most likely to be a victim——which is why I also feel that every time we disproportionately freak out about the leak of private information that also concerns “private parts,” from Jennifer Lawrence’s selfies to Laverne Cox’s nudes to Amy Pascal’s vaginal shopping list, another rapist in America gets his wings. Though you’re absolutely right that “victim” shouldn’t be synonymous with “her,” when I say “rapist” and “his” I don’t think I’m generalizing much.

RRJ: I hate writing about rape, and I only did this openly because Ana reached out, but I was diagnosed with severe PTSD after being raped in my sleep (and other places). I completely agree with your stance, but perhaps I should have foregrounded that trans women and otherwise mentally atypical folks are sort of fucked, because we’re often not protected by the same systems that protect cis women, but also we’re told that our claims to trauma are less important, or that the violence we face is less real. I’ve heavily supported particular feminist strains of thinking about rape in terms of sexism and heterosexism, but I’m more involved with focusing on trans and marginalized dialogues over the conversation about rape. I think Brenton intended to say the same with his critique of the way that sexual assault is colored and not queered. 

In her 1994 essay for Harper’s, “On Not Being a Victim,” Mary Gaitskill writes that she often spoke of her own rape in exaggerated metaphors out of a “desperate desire” to give her experience some “consequence” to outsiders. At times, she says, she “even flat-out lied about what had happened… because the pumped-up version was more congruent with my feelings of violation than the confusing facts.”

When we talk about consequence, we should also talk about consequences. Go.

BS: The best way to give the experience of being raped its proper consequence is by drawing connections between rape and other forms of trauma. There’s no one form of trauma that’s “more important” than the other, but there are traumas that are comparable because they’re created by similar forces, i.e. patriarchy. We can see genocide as the rape of a culture or deforestation as a rape of the land, and so we can also feel like rape is something massive, or at least a lot bigger than our bodies. I think these exaggerations are still the truth.

VC: Growing up, the internet gave me the kind of sexual agency that no fourteen-year-old girl has IRL. I could write my body and my sexuality. I could lie about my age and gender. I could meet strangers and fuck them, and I could make love. Sex became a craft, and the body was a bit out of reach——it couldn’t be “achieved.”

When I started having sex with men physically, and not just virtually, the rules changed. I didn’t have power anymore. I had two options: to consent, or to delay consent (but I could never delay the act itself). I was condemned to execute sex in the time and space the institutions of teen dating demanded. And in the way that boys wanted it——what way was that? He didn’t have the language and I didn’t have the voice. On the internet, sex was everywhere but the actual act of doing it. Here, sex was everywhere but language was absent of it. Those previous forms of my freedom——the freedom to voice desire from a different voice, to speak the body in a way that was not my body——were not accessible and I could not live them. They did not count and were not real. When boys asked me if I was a virgin I didn’t know how to answer and I usually told them I was raped.

He didn’t have the language and I didn’t have the voice.

SNP: Victoria, why “condemned?” Or rather, condemned by what? You’re cutting a clean line yourself between virtual and physical, between the pretense and the absence of power. I relate very personally to sneaking out of the house and into chat rooms, to trying on different ages, agencies, sexualities. Although, I was never good at sex until I’d done it in the flesh, and also, I was already eighteen years old. Maybe I felt stronger——louder——in my body than I would have if I’d been fourteen, fifteen. Still, I’m startled by your answer to the boys, which seems like a kind of defensive tackle, a way of saying: The worst has already been done, and: I’m assuming the worst of you, that you won’t understand or believe, that you won’t have anything to say, so we won’t have to talk about it. It’s a morally stark, almost Clarissa-type move: Why should I seek to conceal my disgrace? Except, everything earlier suggests you had grace instead.

VC: I think I used the word “condemned” because it implies a sentencing. It felt like a very literal “sentence”——my body was a fixed signifier at the mercy of a certain grammar of sexuality, a sexuality that was available to me at that time and that I related to. “Rape” fit into that grammar as a means to access a sexual narrative that was neither “virginal” nor “too experienced,” as something unwritten but under which I could still take cover. Maybe I was terrified that my hymen actually existed and that someone wouldn’t find it?

I’m curious now if other very young women have done this, if only to get someone to stop pestering them about their sexual history. It’s a quick fix, the motive is shallow. A similar strategy is telling someone you have to go to the bathroom in order to avoid a date-rape situation.

For the reporters in the room: how do you account for potential distortion when reporting on an instance, or a phenomenon, of sexual assault? How do you determine what is “credible?” Whose experiences “count?”

KB: I try to focus more on stories about institutional injustice and less on the sexual assault itself. For example: I don’t need to know the play-by-play of what went down that night (unless my source wants to tell me), but I do want to know every detail of why her attacker was on the hearing panel that determined her case, or why the police told her “women lie about being raped.” (Both recent examples.) When I do have to fact-check sensitive details, I just tell my source that I want to help her make her story as strong as possible. They usually get it, and if they don’t, they’re probably not ready for media coverage, anyway. I’ve found that if I don’t push someone into telling her story——which I never do, I actually let people drop out of stories all the time if they’re not ready——they won’t have any problem with fact-checking, because they feel comfortable with me and understand why I need to corroborate certain things.

We can see genocide as the rape of a culture or deforestation as a rape of the land. I think these exaggerations are still the truth.

VC: I’m going to loosely rehash a problem voiced by Lia Cigarini, in her essay Symbolic Rape (Il Manifesto, 1979). She asks us, ‘Who’s more wrong? The woman who cries rape, or the woman who thought she had rights in the first place?’

The woman who distorts the rape story——or invents one altogether——isn’t necessarily telling a different story than what the rest of us have experienced. She’s either ‘crying wolf’ for a reason, or her unreason is itself a reason. But her story, when outed as a fiction or distortion, mocks both the law and those women who believe that the law was set up to protect them in the first place. Whose experience “counts”? Whose counts more? Who’s more wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in reorienting the question——who was the law actually written for in the first place? Or——how do we even speak about the symbolic rape of the law itself?

Survivors as activists (or confessors) tend to say things like “my body” and “my choice” but also “my rape” and “my rapist.” Let's talk about the possessive——and the repossessive. Why “my?”

VC: We’re taught that it’s a possession, but it’s not. This isn’t just a survivor vocabulary, it’s an essentially female vocabulary. Or, it is the vocabulary by which I have been feminized. “It’s your body. Don’t let anyone touch it.” “You need to take responsibility for your own body.” “Your body is yours.” “Accept your body.” “You have your own body.” Women are property without rights, because if my body were truly my property, I’d have the right to sell it.

SNP: Ha! Though, I’ve always hated “sell my body” too. I prefer to think of selling or bartering a body’s knowledge, assets, abilities, skills. Besides, I personally——I do mean personally; I mean that this is where the personal comes loose from the political——don’t like to think of my body as being mine, at least not entirely, just as I often think of my choices as not entirely mine.

RRJ: Maybe it’s because we’re trained by neoliberal systems to identify our bodies as ourselves. Or maybe it’s because when we frame a form of bodily exposure as sexual violence, that frame of reference presupposes the inviolability of the body. For me, speaking on the behalf of this body, and its choices, there is a need to demarcate the body politic from my own private body. I refuse to resign myself, once again, to those who inscribe my body with unwanted dicks or cisnormative appraisals of my trans womanhood. Maybe it’s because we seek to reclaim our bodies, ourselves, when trauma possesses us.

There is a need to demarcate the body politic from my own private body.

DSF: Generally, I’m wary of the emphasis survivor-activists put on speech. Empire coerces thought on the level of grammar and syntax, but I don’t know that policing people away from their organic way of speaking is liberatory, if it’s not just another militarized tic dressed as “radical speech” or whatever. How many times have I rattled off the phrase “my body” in quote on quote safe spaces, and not even my tongue believed the ceremony? This body, my body, is mine fiercely but I’m not tormented with the fact that in the past it was made others’ property. I’m not even principally thinking about sexual assault, here. Actually, it’s relieving to think of my body under torture as a piece of property, because then I have the option to cast away the dispossession I endured as a feature of the person or state who was violent to me. That’s their shit. Not mine.

Still, I am here for the confrontational nature of the possessive in certain political contexts because I think saying “my rape” performs documentary work, makes the speaker the literal, solid, bodily evidence that the legal system claims is so hard to discern. I know the importance of archives: think of the millions of women and men at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, underneath buildings in Battery Park City who had no meaningful access to records or to their tongues. Survivor-activists who choose to say “my rape” instead of “the person who raped me” incarnate trauma’s formlessness on the one body that can’t be a fugitive to the crime. That’s good record-keeping, simply. Me, if I’m choosing to speak publicly about violence, I locate power in indicting the agents, in hardening the ephemeral ways they’ve been violent in sentences constructed like “They violated me.” I’m not pressed for the state’s judgment on violence. So often, the state’s actually the perpetrator. I’ve always had a taste for social vengeance, shaming, and exiling——what can I say? I’m from the Caribbean!

BS: I personally don’t like to say “my” when concerning the person who raped me. I’ve said it in the past and have felt uncomfortable claiming him as “mine” in that regard, so I’ve actively rejected that terminology. However, I do use “my” when addressing my body and how I’ve been affected by the event, because I’m laying claim to my equilibrium that was disturbed when the rape happened. I also acknowledge that I’ll never be the same person I was before the rape, and that’s fine, but a greater post-traumatic equilibrium had to be established and, quite honestly, I’m not sure I’ve reached it yet.

James Asbrand, a psychologist with the Salt Lake City Veteran’s Affairs PTSD clinical team, has said of male-to-male sexual violence in the military: “One of the myths is that the perpetrators identify as gay, which is by and large not the case. It’s not about the sex. It’s about power and control.” Rape is often codified as a heterosexual abuse of power, even when it occurs in queer, or at least homosexual, encounters. Should we change the “straight reading” of rape? How?

VC: What does a queer rape look like?  

RRJ: What does a queer rape feel like?

DSF: That platitude is so tired to me. So tired. Rape isn’t about sex it’s about power. Bless Asbrand, though. It’s not a meaningful distinction, at least for those of us who have felt that even the most deeply consensual acts we’ve committed were forced into place by some invisible social hand. But to the point about changing the reading of rape: yes. In fact, I think that we should begin to understand rape and sexual assault as a systemic violence native to all empires, including this North American one. Shifting to that framework has helped me to understand instances of sexual violence that don’t occur in a white, middle-class and heterosexual space. I’d like to point out that in America, the particular reading of rape——rape in which there’s a victim recognized as such——isn’t just heterosexual, it’s racialized. I’ve said this before, but legal history and common law history here points to a huge swath of time during which black people could not be raped but could be rapists because they were not human. Also, narratives are heavily individualized. If there’s any power imbalance pointed to as context, it’s often a proximate one, like men being generally physically stronger than women.

Violence doesn’t come from some dark and mystic place inside “bad people.” It’s plain and endemic, like a currency.

All of this seems to dislocate rape from its essential place in the settling, forming and continued function of this country, and therefore able to be experienced by any body living. So I understand Asbrand to mean, and many of us who say rape isn’t about power, it’s about sex, I think we’re really trying to resist the allegory around it, we’re realizing that violence doesn’t generally come from some dark and mystic and unique place inside “bad people,” but that it’s plain and endemic, like a currency.

BS: I think rape should be de-codified from the heterosexual context of power and abuse, because not every aggressor is a self-proclaimed straight man. The person that raped me was self-identified as homosexual and cisgendered. He is also Latino and comes from a culture that does not consider men to be gay unless they are sodomized in any way and/or are effeminate. I think this institutes a twisted hierarchy among gay men that is a pathological analogue to “bros versus sissies,” or “jocks versus nerds.” We must change the straight reading of rape by, for example, emphasizing the commonality of domestic violence in so-called alternative relationships.

RRJ: I’m tired of a rape-as-power argument that disregards the orgasm, or the ejaculation of desire, which is what drives acts of sexual violence. It may be power, or control, and probably is, but rape is rape because it is bodily, sexual, carnal, affective in touch. I’m also not buying a “they were not gay” presumption. The reality of prison rape is real, especially for trans women incorrectly incarcerated, but prisons are also sites of queer relations. Sexuality between men does not take one form; identities sometimes do and don’t coincide with practices. Sexual violence is a particular manifestation of power, of power’s desire to loosen boundaries, to control or touch peoples or bodies.

Let’s ask the question posed in the title of an essay from Total Sorority News: Is it Possible That There Is Something In Between Consensual Sex And Rape…And That It Happens To Almost Every Girl Out There?

VC: "Yes." 

Have you had an experience that could be called rape, but that you have chosen to call something else? What and why?

VC: Wage labor.

SNP: A slap in the face. A miscommunication. A misdemeanour, sometimes, not a crime.

We have degrees of murder and of assault; we should also have degrees of rape.

I’m disinclined to use “rape” as a metaphor or simile, but totally inclined to use metaphors or similes in place of “raped” instead of committing to a) an exaggeration or b) the maximum severity, because right now “rape” allows for no minimum. It’s important for me to know that it could have been worse——in my case. In some cases, it couldn’t have been worse. We have degrees of murder and of assault; we should also have degrees of rape.

What does consent look like to you? What would it mean to seek responsibility from each other instead of plain affirmative consent?

KB: I think consent has become more of a legal term than anything else. It’s a clinical disclaimer. Even the most progressive “affirmative consent” policies imply that if you accurately obtain consent, you’re in the clear. But to me, seeking responsibility means attempting to take care of one another. That might mean admitting culpability in order for the other person (or both people) to heal, even if you didn’t do anything that could be adjudicated on a campus or prosecuted in a courtroom. Of course, most toxic/forced/coercive situations can’t be resolved that way. Also, this is a litigious country and I don’t think we’re going to see men admitting guilt anytime soon, which is why I don’t think restorative justice approaches I’ve read about will work on college campuses….the goal right now is to evade liability, not to learn, grow, etc. Anyway: “consent” should be expected but not clung to as an ideal solution.

Consent is a clinical disclaimer.

VC: Responsibility would mean to pay attention to response——to physical response. To slow down and listen. And to learn, physiologically, how to read a body’s response.

BS: I think that physical, somatic transmutations of sexual energy are important. For instance, I’m aware of how my gait becomes more fluid and expressive when I’m walking around someone to whom I’m physically attracted, how I deliberately take time to shift lilts from Spanish to English when I’m speaking both languages in succession and that I’m sure to open my face up (muscularly) before I look at someone with ‘interest’ so that I have full range of expression. I let my sexuality brim over to affect even the way I pick up a fork when I’m eating.

I also love nonvocal communication and expressing myself without speaking, but I have recently become more comfortable with speaking about what I like, need and want (sexually, specifically). I’m at peace with how my voice resonates in my body, and so I use that as a tool. I also know that I don’t have to be overly curt with someone in whom I’m not interested, principally because my affirmative and negative actions are pronounced enough to make the messages clear from a baseline perspective. When I express myself clearly enough so that my audience receives what I’m transmitting, there’s no need for me to be irritable unless someone chooses not to receive these messages.

DSF: The legal meaning of consent is sterile, the social meaning volatile, but within my relationships, when the consent was there, it hung in the middle of us like atmosphere. Consent feels wordless to me——a space more than an extractive transaction between two or more faiths——and without a beginning I can mark. We begin consenting to each other way, way before we are skin to skin, and our need to build this consenting atmosphere extends to situations that aren’t obviously sexual. Many non-sexual friendships aren’t consensual; how many children are coerced into their family’s particular ideals for behavior? That’s why the politics of consent are so damning, because what we don’t access when we talk about sexual assault is the transition to violence that occurs in what are most often——at the outset——consensual, or at least not emotionally or physically violent, relationships. We don’t access the fact that structural inequality runs so deep some populations cannot even consent to the quality of the air they breathe.

We begin consenting to each other way, way before we are skin to skin. At the same time, inequality runs so deep that some people cannot even consent to the quality of the air they breathe.

VC: Consent takes different forms, but I know how it feels: consent, from the Latin word consentire, means to feel together.

SNP: Yes, Victoria. Exactly. The problem with making consent a matter of law is that we then expect consent to look like something, to be something on paper. I like the idea of consent as an agreement. I loathe the idea of that same agreement as something drawn up by one party, herein referred to as “the man,” and signed on the bottom line by the other, referred to as “the woman.” In this extremely unfun game, affirmative consent becomes yet another question of the individual versus the corporation, “the woman” vs. “The Man.” The question also becomes one of whether “affirmative” means “passive,” or at least implies a kind of standardized female passivity.

KB: I don’t know about that. I don’t think that the policy requiring “affirmative consent” on California campuses, for example, assumes female passivity is the norm; it assumes that women have a harder time getting accommodations under Title IX. It assumes that it’s easier for a male college student to claim his accuser was asking for it because she texted him the next day than it is for that woman to convince administrators he raped her regardless. Is the law ideal? No, but it’s not expanding the carceral state, as some feminists who don’t quite understand how it works have claimed (for one thing, it’s not a criminal statute: I send this piece by law student, Know Your IX co-founder and all-around genius Alexandra Brodsky to anyone who doesn’t get it). The current college adjudication system is faulty, and I think this law is a solid stopgap that makes it a little less awful for accusers.

VC: That’s true. “Affirmative consent” doesn’t necessarily take female passivity as the norm as much as it values proof and evidence over the lived experience of those involved.

SNP: Good points, Katie. I just think that the culture that created “affirmative consent” laws on campuses is also responsible for female——I mean feminine——passivity as an ideal, if no longer a norm. If you’re a girl who isn’t passive, you’re slutty or crazy or “too much.” That ideal isn’t dead, but rather is buried, still, in “affirmative consent.”

At the same time, maybe it’s masculine passivity we should be talking about; it’s definitely masculine passivity that is going unchecked all around us. Look at the reports of our friends and acquaintances from the alt lit or the poetry worlds. A lot of rapey guys are very passive. They’re sidlers. They sidle up and wait for you to push them away. They don’t read as sexual or aggressive, so you’re not sure what’s happening until it’s happening, and they’re really good at acting like they don’t know what’s happening until——or while!——they are doing it. These passive, rapey, often-intellectual guys think their lack of commitment to masculine roles somehow abdicates them of the responsibility that comes with inhabiting male desire in a world that places, as Victoria suggests, the solid proof of that desire above the less-legible evidence of mine. If you’re a man, if you’re living as a man, I don’t care how unmanly you think you are. Being passive doesn’t amount to much resistance.

Another thing: although I like money a little too much and men not enough to bear the equation of wage labor to rape, I find it unsurprising when serial passive rapists turn out to be total motherfuckers at work. When all those stories of sexual assault finally came out about Jian Ghomeshi, I remembered that when one of his accusers told me (in person) about working with him, the sexual assault and innuendo constituted maybe ten per cent of her story; the other ninety per cent was about how he shirked his duties and worked a third as much as she did and took all the credit. Or, to use a pettier, first-hand example, when Tao Lin was accused of statutory rape a number of months ago, I remembered that when he and I had a long mutual interview for publication once, he seemed to think it not at all unusual that——although we ostensibly met as equals; I wasn’t his interviewer——I would transcribe the entire conversation myself for no compensation or thanks. I did it because I didn’t think (as he did) that interns should do it (it was so fucking boring, there was basically nothing to learn) but I was bemused and unimpressed that he accepted, and I’m equally unimpressed that I volunteered.

I make a point of remembering these contexts because consent is work. It doesn’t have to be laborious, but it’s work, and work should be shared. 

And because, to answer Lidia Yuknavitch, so many women’s stories are only rape stories when rape is one of the very few discourses available (if we’re good-enough victims) in which to channel the many ways we’re fucked. Because when we’re taken advantage of physically, intellectually, financially, we also instinctively know that those stories——those ninety-per-cent-of-our-life stories——are not going to make the same news cycle that perpetuates the “crisis” in (almost purely) sexual politics. “If it bleeds, it leads,” and we all know what bleeds every month.

VC: If consent is work——the work of communication, the work of seduction, the work of attention——then what kind of work is being affirmed? Work is a relationship whether or not it is shared, just as sex is work regardless of whether or not it's waged. Is “affirmative consent” contract labor?

“Affirmative consent” contractualizes sex, bringing a physical encounter into existence as either sex or rape. Consent isn’t just an agreement, it’s an operation. “Affirmative consent” actually doesn’t take for granted consent as shared and withheld in different ways. It can’t if it’s going to effectively govern an exchange. Title IX is as much a product of a culture of rape as it is a product of a culture of affirmation, which is essentially a culture of protocols. 

I’m more inclined to take a stab at marriage as the hidden layer of patriarchy underneath Title IX, rather than the gender roles of those it’s forced upon. Marriage is, historically, a contractualization of sex. Sex is coded by breach and contract, just as marriage is by vow. It’s “yes” tonight followed by “I do.” 

What is the question to which there are only two answers? Is it, perhaps, ‘Have I earned it?’

When does a physical encounter come into existence as sex? When does activity come into existence as work? And what about those times when my desire comes into existence as something other than my own, even as someone else’s? There’s what I want and what I’m told to want, what I think I should want, what I’ve told another person I want, what he wants, what I think he wants, what I want to want, what I don’t want, what I’ve wanted before, what I want now and won’t want tomorrow, what I could just as easily want, what I might as well want. 

It’s a “yes” or “no” answer but it begs the question. What is the question to which there are only two answers? Is it, “Do you want to sleep with me?” Is it, “Will you sleep with me?” Is it the ambiguous insistence that I’m “Okay? Are you sure? Are you sure you’re okay?” Is the question perhaps, “Have I earned it?”

 

This panel was moderated by Ana Cecilia Alvarez.

Image: a still from Orphan Black, “By Means Which Have Never Been Tried.”