I have been reading a lot of articles about consent recently. I have been thinking a lot about what it means to say “yes” and what it means to say “no.” A binary approach to rape sentencing can certainly be helpful: it provides absolutely no get-out clause for rapists. They either raped or they didn’t.
However, sentencing aside, in the events leading up to a rape the idea that someone can simply state a definite ‘yes’ or a definite ‘no’ seems oversimplified. There are so many reasons why a ‘yes’ might mean ‘no’ and vice versa. I want to explore this idea – the difficulties of saying ‘yes’ – by sharing an experience of my own. I am going to outline the experience, and then consider why it suggests a complexity in a ‘yes.’
I was living abroad with a friend who I had been very in love with for a couple of years. I am going to call him Jarman. Jarman and I went to a club one night, and after we’d both had maybe four or five drinks, he ended up kissing a man. I was very upset about this because to me then, in the “Rom Com” that my 17 year old mind created for me, this meant Jarman was gay and that I had, like, no chance with him.
In my quite drunk state, maybe 6 out of 10, I left for home, weeping. I was walking through a square when a man called Mario started talking to me, asking me, half in Italian and half in broken English, what was wrong. He was not someone I would ever talk to normally and I certainly didn’t find him attractive. He was a sleazy Italian-type full of meaningless diminutives and faux-concern for the weeping ‘bella’ he had found. As I got to my front door, he asked me to go for a drink with him. And this is where the media’s bombarding of us with “perfect” women fucked me: somewhere in my tear and alcohol addled brain I felt flattered that I had been spoken to. Me who didn’t wax. Me who was told that her 64kg meant she was “fat”. Me whose skin was near-translucent. Short haired me. He had asked ME to go for a drink.
And I said ‘yes’. When he asked me to go for a drink, I said ‘YES’. I didn’t say ‘no,’ like we’re told to in every consent campaign. I said ‘Yes.’ I left my front door and began to walk with him, knowing full well that he was dangerous and disgusting. Arm in arm. Then he stopped and pressed himself against me and I felt his erection and I still didn’t say no. I kissed him. A starlit kiss like one that would happen in a film – except Mario would be “handsome” and the “love of my life” in the film encounter. Not a sleazy rat bag who wanted an easy shag.
After I’d kissed him, he showed me his “flat.” The stairwell of someone else’s flat I’m pretty sure when I look back on it. Suddenly I was lying on the stairwell, steps poking uncomfortable into my back, and he was giving me oral sex. I didn’t shove him off and run home, I pretended to moan. Even when he bit my vagina I didn’t push him off (I found out later that he had bit so hard that I had bled.) I just continued to make the right noises, waiting for it to end, hoping I didn’t have to have sex with him, and, importantly, I DIDN’T PUSH HIM OFF.
So I had said ‘yes’. I had made a choice to have oral sex with this man because I allowed it to get to that stage and to continue. It appeared to be mutually consensual. But then I wonder why I was unable to happily receive oral sex for the next four years, always experiencing flashbacks specifically of that one occasion in the stairwell. I look back on this event and I feel violated, even though I said ‘yes.’
So now the vast distance in how Mario and I must perceive this event emerges. I feel that Mario saw my vulnerability that night and took advantage of it. I feel that I said ‘yes’ because of the vast pressure I felt as a spurned lover to assert my independence that night: if Jarman was going to be sexual that night, so could Independent I! In the heady days of my 17 year old self, Sex was the most important thing to me and my friends, we were told we were meant to be obsessed with it. As a then-straight teenage girl, I experienced a lot of pressure to have sex, to be sexual, to enjoy being sexual and to seek out sexual attention from males as a form of validation. Mario offered me a way to inhabit that role; in saying ‘yes’ to him, I was independent from Jarman and ‘sexual’ like I felt I should be. But unhappy and violated in retrospect.
However, to Mario, I was enjoying it, I actually wanted it. And when it continued and he asked to have sex with me and I said “no, not without a condom” he ‘respected’ me: we didn’t have sex, and he actually walked me back to mine (albeit via every condom machine in the city and with increasing resentment and rudeness.) He had talked to me because he was a sleazebag, chatting up women in the street was his hobby, but I doubt he had banked on my saying ‘yes’ in word and deed. In his mind, he was lucky, his persistence had paid off and finally one of the girls he had harassed had found him attractive enough to kiss him. Because how would he know my ‘yes’ was not actually my ‘yes’ but my circumstance’s ‘yes?’
In my mind, he violated me, and in his mind, he got lucky. How do you reconcile these two opposite perceptions of the same experience? Do you blame it on patriarchal male privilege allowing him not to see the unequal balance of power between him and me and how he was exploiting it? Or is it the fault of a hypersexualised society that exerts enormous pressure on teenagers to live up to their reputation as voracious sexual beings? Or perhaps I wasn’t violated at all and I need to move on, I said ‘yes’ after all didn’t I?
No, that last hypothesis highlights the fact that something happened that night to me that scared me, violated me and scarred me for four years. I may have said ‘yes’ to Mario but I didn’t mean it: I was seventeen, drunk and sad, and these factors should have been enough of a signifier to Mario that I was not ‘fair game,’ that any ‘yes’ I might proclaim could not have been rationally considered. Whatever my state of mind, I seemed consenting to Mario – why would he doubt that I had meant anything but ‘yes’ when I myself barely knew that I meant anything but ‘yes.’ In his eyes, he was no rapist. In my eyes… I still don’t know. Can my ‘yes’ have meant ‘no?’