Last week, a friend I met at dance school way-back-when shared a blog post she’d written which got me thinking. Eleanor recounts how, during a hot-and-steamy one-night stand, her lover slaps her around the face. She is surprised but happens to enjoy it, and therefore returns the favour. He too is surprised, but in a much more indignant sort of way.
In pondering why her lover felt it was OK to slap her (without consent or prior discussion), but much less OK for her to slap him back, she concludes that he “saw our roles in the bed to be fundamentally different: I was there for him to get off on. He didn’t think that I might be getting off on him… or that my sexual desire might match his own.”
Eleanor sees the inherent inequality of this assumption as being one of the factors behind sexual assault, “that women don’t want to have sex and that sex is therefore something that can be used to humiliate, shame and embarrass them.”
As someone who grew up in a conservative Christian environment with an overprotective Chinese mum, I so recognise this assumption. Growing up, the message was that men were out to get us, and to have sex was therefore to succumb (it didn’t help that as an early bloomer, the 12 year old me was already being groped and cornered in public by all sorts of unsavory types…).
Even as I rebelled against my Christian upbringing and had (gasp!) sexual relations with my first boyfriend, there was still this niggling sense that I was doing it for him. It probably wasn’t until Sex and the City that I was truly introduced to the notion that women can and should enjoy sex too, and have our own sexual preferences, fantasies and fetishes.
After we broke up, part of my getting over him was proving to myself that I was a liberated sexual being, and therefore boss of my own body. And so I began to tread that thin line between honouring and pushing my own boundaries. This was over a decade ago, and consent was not the hot topic that it is now. Consent, or at least the way I understood it, was often subtly implied in the way you looked at, or touched, or spoke to someone. And then, it was typically a ‘one-thing-leading-to-another’ type situation, more a case of saying ‘no’ when things threatened to get uncomfortable, rather than saying ‘yes’ before it was even an option…
This brings me to another anecdote that Eleanor mentions in her blog post. She’s having a conversation with two drunk men in a bar. “Barely minutes into the conversation they were asking me fairly direct questions: was I was a lesbian, what percentage did I considered myself to be lesbian, did I want to get a drink with them, did I want to go back to their flat, what was my body like under that coat…? etc.” Eleanor gets a kick out of “playing them at their own game”, and while she ultimately finds them quite annoying, when she gets up to leave, she gives one of the guys a hug. He gropes her arse. She slaps him and runs off.
So, basically, he gropes her without consent (I guess it wouldn’t be considered a ‘grope’ if there was consent!), or takes her talking to him / giving him a hug, as the equivalent of consent.
To be honest, I was actually feeling a little conflicted when I got this point of the post. While fervently cheering Eleanor on the whole time, I did wonder if it was maybe reasonable for the man to interpret the hug (after quite a provocative conversation) as an invitation for more… and I wondered if actually saying ‘may I grab your arse?’ was rather unsexy and therefore a bit of a turn-off, and shouldn’t there be room for some subtle, non-verbal consent in the art of physical seduction… and was it reverse sexism that society doesn’t seem to expect the same courtesies of women… and then I wondered it there was still a part of me that was terribly unliberated if I was having these thoughts…
I’ve been with my husband for 5 years now, so it’s been a while since I was on the dating scene. There’s been a lot of social reflection on the notion of consent since then, and I guess my conclusion is that, if I’m having these thoughts (as a total girl-power kinda girl), there’s probably still alot of reflecting and unlearning that needs to be done… I recognise that even I have blurred the line between a sexually liberated woman and one that requires explicit consent at each stage of the dance. As Eleanor writes: “He took my presence alone as a green light, not for once thinking that I might have chosen to engage with him and still not want to be touched… Filth is not filthy. Lack of consent is.”