I’ve seen and heard about people lamenting the ongoing discussion about women’s human rights specific to our bodies. While it can be exhausting to engage in seemingly endless conversations on a popular topic, or even observe them, it is far worse to be repeatedly violated, taught to accept it, and face attempts to dissuade you from believing your own experience. We have to talk about sexual violence, particularly against women and girls, for many reasons. One of the most obvious is that it continues to happen, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us.
Conversations about sexual violence against women and girls are frustrating. It is emotionally draining for those of us who have experienced it and continue to experience it. There is a burden on us to talk about some of the worst things we have ever gone through, We are expected to participate in story-sharing campaigns, little thought being given to the psychological effects of reliving the trauma, or worrying about who may find out and treat us differently. It makes people uncomfortable — even those who consider themselves “good guys.” The black and white of sexual violence and rape culture scares people to the point that they are desperate to believe and convince others that a gray area exists. There can be no gray area when we are talking about people using their power to exert control over another person’s body. Whatever form it takes, it is a violation without explicit consent.
What is consent?
It’s difficult to address these issues without defining consent. In the simplest of terms, it is permission, a yes, and confirmation of willingness to participate from a person who is over the age of consent, conscious, and sober. Consent cannot be assumed. There can be no guesswork here. Certainty is a must, and that can only exist when an option has been offered, and the other person has been given the opportunity to accept or decline on their own terms. Silence does not count; consent has to be explicit.
Once you have consent, know that it is for the activity and time agreed upon, and remember that consent can end. It is not granted forever, and people can change their minds. You need continuous consent. It is possible to consent to something, start an activity, then decide not to continue. You may not like it if someone does this, but consent is mandatory so you need to accept it.
What isn’t consent?
Consent for one thing does not mean consent for another. You may think one activity “naturally” leads to another, but you need to check in with the person to see if they want to move on to something else. Consenting to kissing is not the same as consenting to kissing followed by digital penetration. Be honest about what you want to do, and respect the person’s right to decide whether or not they want to participate.
It is important that consent is recognized as a necessary step that protects all participants. It is not difficult, and it is not a hurdle. It is not a contest or a conquest. Coercion voids consent. No is no, and no amount of bullying, begging, or wearing down will turn that a no into an enthusiastic, continuous yes. Doing any of these things takes away the person’s choice, and creates a situation where the only answer is yes, and that is not consent. It is a violation on its own.
What is sexual violence?
Sexual violence is a term to describe sexual acts against someone who has not given consent. It’s a spectrum with harassment toward one end and rape at the other. Many people find it difficult to see sexual harassment and rape in the same category, largely because harassment is considered harmless. Street harassment, for example, has been so normalized that some refuse to acknowledge its affects on those experiencing it. An unwanted interaction can begin verbally, and has the potential to escalate to following or physical assault, regardless of the initial response.
Like rape, harassment and every other form of sexual violence is about power — not sex. Conversations about sexual violence are most often derailed by perpetuators of rape culture. These are people who believe the victim is somehow always at fault. They use respectability politics in attempts to put women and girls in our place, and hypermasculinity to excuse men and boys for unacceptable, predatory, criminal behavior. At Hollaback! — a movement formed to end street harassment — we challenge people to think about what could happen in the dark if we excuse harassment as appropriate behavior. Events like Junkanoo and Carnival give us an idea.
Law Enforcement Says
In December 2017, the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) foolishly made a victim-blaming post, warning women to “dress appropriately” to avoid sexual violence at Junkanoo. After significant backlash, the post was deleted. Unfortunately, some saw fit to defend the RBPF, suggesting that sexual violence is a response to certain styles of dress. This, of course, is incorrect, victim-blaming, and suggests the inferiority of the men and boys through perpetuation of the idea that they have no self-control.
Earlier this month, Trinidad & Tobago police took a different approach. Carnival quickly approaching, they advised the public that wining on someone without consent could be considered assault. Rather than addressing women and attempting to restrict their movement or choice of dress, they spoke directly to potential perpetrators. While this was lauded by women’s rights organizations and activists, some took exception the message. In particular, soca artist Machel Montano told a crowd to ignore the police advisory and “find somebody to jam.” In response, Police Public Information Officer ASP Michael Jackman said, “I want to make this clear that is important to respect any female’s right to say no to any physical touching in or outside the Carnival season, and that is the position of the TTPS.”
The police in Trinidad & Tobago clearly have a better understanding of the right to body autonomy, the mandatory nature of consent, and the appropriate group of people to address about sexual violence.
A (Trinidad & Tobago) “wining etiquette” flowchart has been circulating over the past few days. It is meant to make men think about their relationships with the women they want to “jam” on. Yuh know she? How yuh know she? Based on answers to these basic questions, it advises on how to approach her, whether, usually beginning with a face-to-face interaction. It ends with either “Gih she wuk!” or “Cease & desist.”
One part of the flowchart brings the marital rape debate to mind. From the “How yuh know she?” question, if the person chooses “We currently romantically involved,” the result is “Gih she wuk!” This suggests a romantic relationship gives a man access to a woman’s body, as though consent is automatic and perpetual (or lasts as long as the relationship). How is this different from Bahamian legislation where the definition of rape excludes the married rapist and victim? We still have work to do. All of us need to understand that people are not objects, relationships do not give us ownership, and consent is always mandatory. Whether it’s a wine/wuk/dance or a sexual activity, it is necessary to ask. Otherwise, your actions could be on the spectrum of sexual violence. You’re a nice guy? Great. Respect the other person. Ask for consent.
Published in The Tribune on January 24, 2018.