Amherst students have done a great job promoting sexual respect and, what I like to call, consent-y sex. If consensual sex is an umbrella, consent-y sex lies underneath it. What does consent-y sex look like? We see the answer to this question all over campus, on posters, in presentations or even in class. It looks like asking for consent to begin a sexual act, asking for consent verbally throughout the act, and respecting the answers to those questions whether they are “yes” or “no.” I think it’s great that people are starting to have and enjoy consent-y sex. I may even go as far as to say that consent-y sex is the best type of sex. However, I also believe in the abilities of people to understand body language and other nuanced communication forms aside from the verbal “enthusiastic YES!” that we are taught to look out for. Before consent discourse came to be, consensual sex existed. What I think efforts on campus aimed at promoting “sexual respect” have achieved is that more people who were having consensual sex before are now having consent-y sex.
What I don’t believe, however, is that these efforts have done anything to stop rape. I’ve had this feeling for a long time, but I could not pinpoint why. I asked myself, “Why are men continuing to rape women (and each other) when we preach sexual respect?” This was a very puzzling question to me until I thought about the concept of consent-y sex. I realized that sexual respect discourse targets people who already have good intentions and makes them even better. This, while great, does not do anything to stop those with bad intentions.
What sexual respect discourse fails to recognize is that rape is not a mistake. It is not “forgetting” to ask for consent, or “misreading” someone’s body language. It is not having sex even without hearing one’s partner scream out “YES!” As I said before, consensual sex exists that is not consent-y sex. Rape, however, is a different story. Rape is the violence that occurs when a man sees that a woman is saying no, screaming no, pushing, squirming or crying out in pain and continuing to “have sex with her” (I struggle to use even this terminology). Rape is the violence that occurs when a man “has sex” with an incapacitated woman. It is the violence that occurs when a man uses his gendered power to coerce a woman into “having sex,” whether by threatening the woman or offering her an incentive that she is often powerless to reject.
Rapists don’t care about “sexual respect” because consensual sex and consent-y sex are not sexy to them. They are often sexually desensitized by pornography, BDSM and other factors that they cannot imagine pleasurable sex without violence. Rape is about expressing gendered power and privilege through violence, and rapists find this acceptable because they don’t see women as people. Combatting men who rape should involve discussions of gender, sexism and violence, discussions that Amherst students simply fail to care about. We should discuss the types of behaviors that Amherst students themselves promote and how these behaviors contribute to rape culture.
Although I had hope for certain student groups on campus in the past, I no longer care about improving events such as ConsentFest. Although they have done a great job promoting sexual respect and consent-y sex, it has been made clear to me that student groups that preach these topics do not care about stopping rape. According to them, and I quote, “there are certain predators that no preventative education will reach.” If they truly believe this, then I encourage them to stay out of rape discourse and instead continue to focus on promoting safe and consent-y sex between people who already have good intentions.
However, to me, the idea that we should give up on these “predators” (certain men in our community) is absurd. I encourage women who actually care about stopping male violence to join Women’s Group, a new group that acts as a space for women to discuss and plan actions that will contribute to our goal of liberation from male violence on campus. This group is meant to be intersectional and include all types of women’s experiences. We will discuss issues such as violence against women knowing that women of color, LGBTQ+ women, disabled women and other marginalized women have a variety of experiences with women’s issues. We have already made great strides toward making our voices heard, such as hosting our Women’s Group Val Sit, an event that created an opportunity for women to occupy a male space and share their thoughts and experiences on campus. We will only continue to have these types of discussions and events as Women’s Group continues to grow. Although this campus remains unsafe, there is now a space for those who want to address this violence. This space is for those who agree that the promotion and acceptance of rape and violence against women are unacceptable.