Monday, June 25

The Suitable Girl: Consenting From a Place of Power

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I have read many, many, many arguments online regarding the story that was released this weekend about a woman who goes by “Grace” and her date with a well-known comedian. Some say it’s a matter of assault others talk about the non-vocal nuances of sexal relationships, where anything short of a forceful “no” could be part of the play. When I read the story, it seemed clear to me that Grace was manipulated and pressured into engaging in sexual acts she did not want to and that her experiences are so incredibly normal to so many. Myself included.

What was most interesting to me, was the way in which we said the same thing but discussed it so differently. CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield unprofessionally dressed down the victim Grace, calling her experiences “a bad date.” But we’ve all been on bad dates. We’ve all been around smarmy guys who play with our boundaries like a game of jump rope. The frequency of these experiences doesn’t make them acceptable. While so many rushed to the defense of a wealthy, influential man who will emerge from this trial still wealthy and influential, only some focused on how terrifying the ubiquity of this experience is.

A few years ago, porn star Stoya told the public that her boyfriend James Deen, also a porn star, had raped and assaulted her during their relationship. Many fans were shocked. James Deen had painted himself as a paragon of feminism within a toxic industry. There was one point that stuck out to me as sites shared piece after piece about the events–pornographer and writer Kitty Stryker told Mic that coercion is common in the porn industry but that doesn’t mean it’s consent. You can consent but if it’s under duress, like having to pay your bills or being confronted with a situation too quickly to truly consider it, it’s not really consent. “You’ll consent, but are you consenting from a place of power?” she asked.

Consenting from a place of power.

Being empowered by your consent.

Consenting fully and without anything hanging over your head.

If there is a power imbalance between you and your partner, if they can do things to you or your career if you say no, if you are stuck in the freeze part of a freeze-fight-or-flight situation, you are not consenting from a place of power. If your only options are “yes” and “yes” then it is not even consent.

In the past few years, as my friends and I have left school, dated and slept around, I have brought up this concept as often as I can. I have personally been caught in uncomfortable sexual circumstances that either skirt the edge of consent or ignore the edge completely. I have had to say “no” multiple times to a partner before he stopped. I have had to lay next to people I wish would just leave, or otherwise hold my tongue to get them out the door faster. I have had to be uncharacteristically confrontational with some who do not understand that a second date is not something they are entitled to. And I am already an argumentative, loud person, so to be uncomfortable by my own declarations of autonomy is more than frustrating.

There is nothing better than to hear your friends are having great sex and going on fantastic dates with people who value and respect them. That their desires are being fulfilled and that they, in turn, are taking care of others. I have begun to start thinking about sex as a care-giving act. It is not something done to you or done to others, it’s something you give and receive. It has changed my whole thinking around sex and it has transformed sex into something more akin to a deeply emotional exchange that can, in some cases, alter your sense of self. For good or for bad.

I’m not saying that one-night-standers are unable to put these concepts in play, I still think that fulfilling desire however fleeting must be something done with care and kindness. Everyone involved should have the room to consent freely and enthusiastically. I have no judgements about how people choose to have themselves taken care of just as long as they are caring for their partners in turn. When I was part of that coming-in-late-gone-by-morning clan, I didn’t always act kindly towards the people I slept with. It’s something I regret now having been on both sides of that pendulum.

The story Grace told was one that showed she neither had room to consent from a place of power nor that her wishes were properly considered. Her comfort did not matter. Her boundaries were criss-crossed and torn down. That so many people see themselves in her, is telling. That so many more want to dismiss her story because it would unleash a floodgate of “bad date” experiences, is maddening.

We are not good at talking about sex. We have an uncomfortable, horrifying journey ahead of us as we figure out the terms and parameters of our shared experiences.

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