Unlearning Rape Culture

Rape culture is ubiquitous―it manifests in the print, music, and film media we consume, the language we use to talk about sex and relationships, and the laws that govern our public and private spaces. Rape culture promotes sexual objectification and coercion, lack of agency over one’s body, and dismissal of feminine-presenting or gender nonconforming individuals as not “fully human.” Consider the violent metaphors used for sex or those that present it as a sport, conquest, or game → “hit that”, “banging”, “screwing” “slaying” “railing” “nailing” “scoring.” These metaphors represent sex as one-directional instead of a mutual process requiring consent and respect. 

Understanding how to give and get consent in our interactions is essential to creating long-term, sustainable culture change.  Given the difference in how primary and secondary education addresses sexual health and relationships, familiarity with consent and boundaries varies.  Portrayal of sexual pleasure in Western media often positions coercion as consent, dismissing the importance of open, honest communication about one's willingness to participate and whether or not they have equal power to voice their likes and dislikes.  Coercive behavior can include subtle or overt threats, intimidation, blackmail, dishonesty, persistence, and emotional withholding―often romanticized and framed as "the pursuit."  Eventually someone in the scene may acquiesce, sustaining the idea of a mutual agreement, and rejecting the process of consent.

A person’s ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is influenced by the interplay of power, identity, and privilege between those involved. In using coercion, a person in a position of power―perceived or actual―leverages that power to achieve their desired outcome.  Someone with power and privilege is responsible for not putting someone else in a position where they are expected to say yes. Rape culture normalizes the belief that a “yes” achieved through coercion is sufficient consent, allowing for a collective disregard of someone’s personhood or value in the process. Every day, we are bombarded with messages that teach us to believe coercion is consent, and that sexual experiences outside of these situations are boring and unnatural. This is how rape culture is created and perpetuated through deeply-embedded societal norms,  normalizing the belief that violence is not only sexy, but unavoidable.

So what is consent? How do you give it, and how do you get it?