Trigger Warning: Rape
Last year, a prospective student asked the professor of my women’s studies class if she could sit in and watch for the day. My professor said no due to the nature of the topic, saying “if it were another topic, I would let you sit in.” That day, we discussed rape — rape as a manifestation of male domination over women and a result of the culture of objectification and commodification of female bodies. The critical analysis of rape within the complex power structures of racism, heterosexism and patriarchy was difficult yet brave.
The next day, Amherst sponsored a festival on the quad in front of Val. The event promised fun games and activities, free food and an opportunity to win a beach towel if one visited six or more booths. An onlooker from afar would never be able to guess what the festival was about until spotting the banner labeling the event, “ConsentFest.”
I actually received an email advertising a booth that would be “talking about how sexy consent can be!” as if consent is a recommendation and “something everyone should try!” Throughout the festival, students were asked to hold signs on which they wrote what they consider consent to be:
“Consent is sexy!”
“Consent is super awesome!”
“Everybody should get consent!”
This “consent is sexy” approach leaves consent as a goal to be reached rather than a question to be asked, to which the answer is to be respected. When consent is sexy, the goal is not to ask a question and to respect the answer but instead to gain one answer: “yes.” Consent does not need to be anything other than what it is: mandatory in order to proceed to a sexual experience with someone. Sex without consent isn’t “not sexy,” it’s rape.
The festival also featured descriptions of “what consent looks like” — an enthusiastic, clear and sober “Yes.” While this response is accurate, the focus on teaching people how to “recognize” consent or the lack of consent reduces rape to an issue of miscommunication rather than an issue of power. It is also quite patronizing. The difficulty in distinguishing between “yes” and “no” or body language that implies either is minimal. The issue is not simply that perpetrators lack the ability to recognize “yes” and “no”; it is often that perpetrators do not even ask, ask too late or recognize “no” but continue anyway. Perpetrators will hold their partner down, twist their arm, choke them, cover their mouths and ignore their partner’s demands to stop because they know that this act is not consensual. They will coerce, and, if unsuccessful, they will force. Rape culture and porn culture teach them that women’s bodies are objects, and invading them is sexually desirable. Rape is not an accident, it is violence.
Throwing a festival with fun games and prizes is not the answer. While the Peer Advocates address the broad definition and gravity of rape on campus in more comprehensive workshops like those during orientation, ConsentFest silences the ugliness of rape. All it does is show that this campus does not take rape seriously. As a survivor, that scares me. Am I not sexy because I did not give consent? Was what happened to me my fault because I was not clear enough when saying “no?” The result of activism not taking the issue seriously is its audience not taking it seriously either.
These events were created because of Amherst’s reputation of mishandling rape cases. Yet, these events continue to mishandle one of the most violent issues that at least one in four women will experience during their time in college. They ignore the patriarchal root of rape and the seriousness of the issue in order to make their events fun, and this fun-faux-feminism makes it sound like not raping people is a recommendation and not a demand. Awareness is good, but we must raise awareness in a way that does not ignore pain. I am tired of the discourse about rape that focuses on making the issue light and fun rather than the serious issue that is the reality. Let’s encourage a discourse similar to that of Amherst Uprising, one that does not even try to make the issue palatable. The people who need the issue to be made palatable are the problem.
This year, ConsentFest returns, and I won’t be going. Our culture is one in which women’s bodies are objects to be taken rather than vessels that carry human life. I want people to recognize that consent is not sexy and fun but mandatory because I am willing to bet that if the man who raped me were to come to ConsentFest, he would win a free tank top.
This post was updated on Feb. 7, 2018 to remove potentially identifying information.