The Courage to Discuss Consent Violations

The Courage to Discuss Consent Violations August 15, 2016

Discussing when your consent has been violated and how you handled it is incredibly courageous – especially as a woman living within rape culture. (content note: the video, but not the text of my post, contains some details of unwanted sexual contact)

Screenshot from Dr. Jen's talk on Youtube.
Screenshot from Dr. Jen’s talk on Youtube.

I’m a fan of Dr. Jen Gunsallus‘s work, having met her at a sexuality conference in the past. In this video, she inspires even more admiration from me, for not only openly discussing a time when her consent was violated, but also going into detail about how she handled the event.

Why is the amount of detail so courageous? Because Dr. Jen disclosed things in her personal narrative that could make her vulnerable to the kinds of accusations that happen in rape culture (that she was asking for it, that she wasn’t careful enough, that because she’s a woman who’s sexually active outside a committed relationship she deserves what’s coming to her, all that nasty stuff). Obviously, being a sex-positive person or being sexually active in any way doesn’t mean you deserve it. But the rest of culture is still catching up to this not-so-revolutionary assertion.

Further, I love that Dr. Jen takes us through the aftermath of her consent being violated. She tells us what she said to the person, and the accountability she demanded from him. I won’t lie, it’s hard to watch. I tensed up when she narrated the event, and I squirmed a bit at the awkwardness that followed, when she tried to (and mostly succeeded in) getting the offender to take responsibility for his actions.

See also: Why Speak Out About Mild Sexual Harassment

I believe that Dr. Jen is totally right to tie the offender’s attitude to masculine socialization, which we should be interrogating as feminists and sex-positive scholars and sex educators/activists just as much as we deconstruct femininity in an effort to rehabilitate women’s experiences in a misogynist and patriarchal world. Rigidly stratified gender socialization can be a subtle and pervasive factor in permitting sexual violence and harassment to occur and slide by unnoticed, as I point out in Where’s the Advice to Teenage Boys?

I should also note that I originally saw this video posted at the Good Men Project, which I have some ambivalence about, but the fact that they’ve got Dr. Jen writing for them, and they’re posting content like hers, gives me some reason to get behind their message again.

So, give this a watch. It’s worth it. Hopefully it offers something to reflect on, regardless of whether you identify more with Dr. Jen’s role in the story, or the role of the person who thought it was better to ask permission than forgiveness. Chances are good that when it comes to really minor consent violations, everyone’s been on both sides at some point… but hopefully that’s not the case as the seriousness of the incident increases, though I have to acknowledge that statistically speaking, it’s likely that a number of us have experienced serious consent violations, which means that a number of people have perpetuated them.

To end on a positive note, one way to value consent is to be ready to apologize when someone says you’ve violated theirs. Apologizing can be uncomfortable for folks, but it’s something we can practice and improve over time, too (such as by using this summary of the five languages of apology). And as I like to say, if something’s actionable, it’s something that can be improved over time, which I think is an optimistic way to think about such things.

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