1. “The basis of sexual relationships are respect, equality and a respect for each other’s needs and boundaries.”
I am sure that most of the readers of this entry will agree with this statement. So far so good. But how can it be explained that every 107 seconds, a person in the USA is sexually assaulted, with an average of 293,066 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year?
2. “The rapist is a masked stranger” is a socially constructed stereotype.
According to statistics of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an anti-sexual assault organization based in Washington, the majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. The vast majority of rapes aren’t committed by masked strangers hiding in bushes:
- 73% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger
- 38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance
- 28% are an intimate partner
- 7% are a relative
- More than 50% of all rape/sexual assault incidents were reported by victims to have occurred within 1 mile of their home or at their home
There are numerous approaches to explain those numbers. A rather new factor to be taken into account in the analysis of sexual violence is consent and its indispensability when it comes to sex.
The definitions of consent are diverse.
- Etymological: the modern noun consent derives from the Latin verb “cōnsentīre”, which is a combination of the prefix “com-“ (“with”) and the verb form “sentiō” (“to feel”)
- As a more general understanding: “a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity”
- Legal: “a freely given agreement to the conduct at issue by a competent person”
The U.S. legal definition of consent, as anchored in § 920 – Art. 120 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, continues as follows:
“An expression of lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent. Lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the use of force, threat of force, or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent. A current or previous dating or social or sexual relationship by itself or the manner of dress of the person involved with the accused in the conduct at issue shall not constitute consent.”
4. There is a discrepancy between the legal definition and social reality of consent
Although it is essential to state that a lack of verbally expressed consent to sexual interaction equals an absence of consent, social study has shown that in reality most of sexual interaction relies on non-verbal communication to initiate and reciprocate consent (Hall et al., 1988) as part of a social script. This script regulates sexual interaction and is formed by a number of cultural, interpersonal, and psychological factors operating on the societal micro- and macro-level as well as individual psychological processes. Sexual violence in this article is to be examined with regard to socially constructed gender differences.
5. Unspoken gender constructs cause problems
Consent cannot be analyzed without taking hegemonial power differences which are a result of the socially constructed gender binary into account. Studies in this context hint to differences between how men and women initiate and reciprocate sexual consent (cf. Hickman and Muehlenhard, 1999): The script of heterosexual sexuality dominant in Western culture requires the man to be the initiator of sexual interaction. He holds the active part, while the woman is still often viewed as the non-verbal, passive gate-keeper. Generally speaking this means that gender relations influence sexual consent as the ways in which men and women are socialized into gender roles influence their perceptions of sexual relationships as well as their expected gendered roles within those relationships.
The danger of harmful non-consensual interaction lies in the cultural understanding of men as the sexual initiators in heterosexual relationships: Studies show that a misperception of sexual intent occurs as a result of hierarchical gender differences – giving men the power of consent and forcing women into a passive, reserved position (cf. Berkowitz, 2002).
6. You need to speak out! Sensitize yourself!
If sexual scripts are mostly non-verbal, then encouraging direct communication of desires and boundaries – especially among women – would be an essential factor amongst others to help stop sexual abuse. A biased perception of consent influenced by societal gender inequality makes the sensitization of men an equally important part of consensual sexual conduct.
Men need to become more aware of possible inhibitions of women to express themselves. Among other factors, a fear of embarrassment might play a crucial role in the lack of communication, especially among younger and/or sexually inexperienced women. Also, disabilities or imposed societal norms such as compulsory heterosexuality might affect communication about sexual practices and/or consent.
Furthermore, it should be taken for granted that consent cannot be given under the heavy influence of alcohol or other drugs. Definite ways to tell if your partner does not consent to sexual activity, even if a “no” is not specifically articulated, are for example freezing up, saying you’re tired, or pulling away. There are numerous other subtle forms which might indicate a lack of consent, thus again pointing to the importance of direct communication. Remember: A person doesn’t have to yell “no,” scream, kick, or bite for it to be clear that they don’t want to engage in sexual activity. If you push someone into consent, it isn’t consent.
Disclaimer: The focus on heterosexuality in this article is the result of a lack of studies on consent in homosexual relationships. This text does not want to indicate that a lack of consent does not occur in same-sex relationships. Also, the intention of this text is not to imply that communication is the magic solution to stop sexual abuse. It is only one factor amongst many others that needs to improve when it comes to sexual violence. Furthermore, there are obviously not only women who are pressured into sexual activity by men. A large number of cases of sexually violated men goes unreported each year. Finally, there are of course many women who are able to express themselves when it comes to sexual interactions as well as many men who are sensitized when it comes to the wishes of their partner.
For more information on consent and what it is, what it isn’t, and how it functions in different relationships, watch this video.