Not unlike most weeks, this last week there’s been a lot of discussion about sexual assault, consent, and male entitlement to women’s bodies in the wake of the Trump Tapes. Of course, few people are surprised that Donald Trump would boast about touching and kissing women without their willing participation (and if it’s a rich, powerful, famous man initiating outside of a mutually agreed upon relationship, or in a semi-public context, could any reciprocity really be called “willing?”) What’s sad is our lack of surprise. Trump’s repeated degradation and outright contempt for women is not new. What frightens me is normalizing these low expectations. I am sad that I’m not shocked about how deep this (rich, privileged, white) man’s sense of entitlement and disregard for women’s personhood goes. I want to believe that Trump is an extreme outlier, a caricature of outlandish misogyny, but I know that’s not true.
I was five-years-old the first time someone – another child, a boy – touched my body invasively. I won’t say where it happened or the context, in order to protect those involved because, of course, as a girl and a woman I’ve been socialized to feel bad about other people making bad decisions and I struggle to hold people rightfully accountable. The point is, at least one adult knew about it and minimized and dismissed it, because “children are curious.”
They are, but they also need to be told to keep their goddamn hands to themselves.
That was the first of many implicit and accidental lessons I was taught about my general lack of bodily autonomy. It was the first of many lessons on the fact that I couldn’t truly expect boys to leave it – my body – alone.
It’s taken a long time – my life thus far – to slowly understand what I call the continuum of consent. For several years as I became more engaged in feminist and anti-violence advocacy it dawned on me that I was “lucky” I’d never been raped. I remember thinking, wow, how lucky am I to have made it to 25 or 27 or now, 29, without having been raped. Then I realized how sad it was to live in a culture in which sexual violence is so pervasive, and feels so inevitable, that I felt I was fortunate to have enjoyed a relative absence of sexual violence. As if I had gained access to something extra, something special, as opposed to the bare minimum of what I should expect and deserve as a human person.
As I started to really dig into my experiences socialized female within this culture, I started to realize there was a lot more to it – that women’s experiences around consent and non-consent were more complex than two camps – those who have been raped and those who have not been raped.
The continuum of consent. Whether or not a woman has experienced rape, she’s absolutely had experiences that range from completely consensual to non-consensual. Once I started to imagine consent around sexual contact as a continuum, I realized how many of my sexual experiences hadn’t been completely consensual after all.
I think of all the times a man has touched me without my permission, and I have ignored, deflected, or wriggled out of the situation rather than confront. Sometimes, it’s been because confrontation hasn’t been physically safe. Sometimes, it’d been because the power dynamics of the situation made it unsafe or threatening. Other times, it’s been because I simply didn’t want to embarrass the man. How did I learn to value a man’s potential embarrassment over my bodily autonomy? Where did that come from?
I’ve beat myself up over missed opportunities to call out sexist behaviour and unwanted attention. Sometimes I am able – I’ve felt able to resist, to call out the situation when it’s been more than warranted. There are other times I felt the only course of action was to simply endure. I’ve felt sad and enraged afterward, but the deck is stacked against women trying to confront. It’s OK, even socially sanctioned, for our bodily autonomy to be invaded and disrespected, but not OK to resist it vocally. Don’t we all just have to learn to take a joke, after all?
It takes a long time to unlearn what is so readily and purposefully taught socially. It has taken a long time for me to learn, to really understand, that you can consent to one thing and not another. That consent can have conditions. That consent can be withdrawn. How did we learn that sexual violence is our fault? How did we learn to be ashamed of what other people have done to us? And how did we learn not to talk about it?