After hearing of the letter to Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, convicted of sexually assaulting a woman, I was conflicted. Posts on Facebook and Twitter swamped my feed with tidbits of details… drunken girl, college party, dumpster, acclaimed athlete…
Then I began reading the commentary on what was being shared. I was struck by the word consent over and over again. I was shocked by the sentence that had been issued. I couldn’t help but feel that we as a society had failed to protect the victim of this crime. As someone who shares intimacy advice and speaks about safe and consensual sex, I was at a loss as to how to speak up for this woman. We know that consent is necessary, we advocate for education that encourages our youth to guard themselves from potential harm. But when our legal system doesn’t impose appropriate punishments for convicted criminals, what message are we truly sending? I desperately needed to piece together my own reaction about what had happened, what was happening. I saw that the letter had been read aloud publicly on CNN. I sought out the letter that Buzz Feed originally posted on Friday. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read it, but was compelled to seek it out and read it in it’s entirety.
As a former stripper, I am reminded of the stigma that surrounds women. Whether we are conservative or provocative, we are “asking for it.” If we are too opposed to the attention of men, we are at risk of being considered a “bitch,” and therefore, are “asking for it.” If we are dressed too provocatively, drink too much, are too free with our bodies or our laughs and smiles, we are “asking for it.” What isn’t being upheld by our judicial system is the blatantly obvious definition of “asking for it.” Literally, using our words to ask for, or consent, to sex.
As a nude performer, I suggested sex on a daily basis. I used my body to entice and tease men. I used my smiles, laughs, actions, and body language to make men want me, want to have sex with me. I never had sex with those men. Those men never assumed I would have sex with them. So why do we continue to question a person’s actions, clothing, or sexual interest when there is a case of rape or sexual assault. If that mentality actually was applicable, then any stripper, sex worker, scantily clad club goer, sun bather, nudist, and dancer deserves to be assaulted. Why do we continually ask the victim if maybe they perhaps might have subliminally “asked” to be assaulted? Why aren’t we asking the criminals what they heard as consent… period.
We are teaching consensual sex education. We know drinking alcohol has an effect on our decision making abilities. We know people make mistakes, and we know that there are consequences for our actions. What we don’t seem to agree on, is what consent means. Did you consent to “sex?” What is sex? Is it sex if it’s just a blow job? Is it sex if it’s digital penetration? Is it sex if there’s vaginal penetration with a penis?
These seem like silly questions. (Of course it’s sex if there’s vaginal penetration with a penis!) Yet we don’t have these conversations in real life encounters. When we hook up in bars and at parties we don’t discuss the details of what type of sex to which we are consenting. That wouldn’t be sexy…. or would it?
Occasionally when a strip club patron ordered a lap dance, they’d asked what they’d get with it. While I didn’t “like” hearing men ask those questions, I wasn’t personally offended. I appreciated their honesty. I knew right away that I wasn’t a good fit for them. I would rather not waste my time dodging their groping hands and darting tongues for a $20 bill. They wanted a dancer that would let them touch their boobs, finger them, lick their gentials… and yes, those things do happen at strip clubs. But the undeniable appeal of that conversation is consent. They verbally asked for permission, and it was either granted or not. Men do understand this concept. It’s proven over and over again in strip clubs all over the world.
While we may not be able to change the malicious intent or evil in the world, we can change how we talk about, and ask for sex. We as women can be very specific about what we want, and don’t want from an intimate encounter. We can tell someone what we want from them whether we are sober, or even intoxicated. It takes practice. It requires us to risk sounding prude, demanding, or like a “bitch.” Men can use language to be clear about what they want from a hook-up. They too can use their words to be specific about how they want to be with a woman. It also takes practice and they too risk coming across as creepy, or too nice, or like a jerk. But the more we all begin to use our words to be more clear about what sex is, and what specifically we are consenting to, the less we will be confused by what constitutes consent. It will be very clear when someone says they want to make out with you, they aren’t saying yes to sex. That if they are on board for a mutual masturbation session that they aren’t asking for vaginal penetration. It won’t be confusing when you meet that girl at a party who is attracted to you, but is drunk and unconscious, that she is not consenting. There will be no question as to whether or not someone is committing a crime. They will have “consented” or not. We can’t assume when someone doesn’t say “No,” that they are saying “Yes.” Only “Yes” means “Yes.”
We are not just protecting ourselves from being a victim or being potentially wrongfully accused of assault. We are protecting each other. We must get better at being clear.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. Talk about sex. All kinds of sex. Teach your children to talk about sex. Teach them about consent. Teach them that words equal consent. Telling them to be specific is just as important as telling them to wear a condom. Tell the person you meet at the bar what is on the menu should you go home with them. Make sure the person you take home from the bar is giving verbal consent to what you’re offering. It’s such an easy conversation over a twenty dollar bill in a strip club, why can’t it be just a simple over a cocktail. Make it a regular part of your repertoire, teach it to others. Together we can protect each other from the dangerous ambiguity of “consent.”