Several years ago at one of my former schools, a man in a position of authority over me reached under my skirt and touched me inappropriately between my legs over my tights as he walked by me in the hallway. By the time it was over, only a millisecond had passed. I will never forget the flood of emotions that washed over me in that moment.
He did this in plain sight of other teachers, students, and video cameras. And he was unashamed, unafraid of consequences. Because he knew that he was in control over whether I kept my job or not, and he knew that I was a single parent of two small children receiving no child support from their father at the time. He knew that I was desperate to keep my job, and that even if it meant being silent in the face of this assault, I would do whatever it took to keep a steady income.
I didn’t run away from him screaming. I never reported the crime to any of my other supervisors or to the police. The first time I ever told someone was years later. But what this man did was assault, plain and simple. I can’t write about it without weeping.
As the #metoo movement continues to grow, the issue of consent pops up in nearly every instance of sexual abuse or sexual assault. See if you haven’t read or heard comments like this in the past five years relating to a case of sexual assault…
“She could have said no.”
“What was she wearing?”
“Maybe she wanted it.”
“She shouldn’t have been alone at night.”
“Did she say no?”
“If she really was assaulted, she would have told someone.”
The abuse at one of my former schools is not the first time I experienced sexual assault. I am also the survivor of a seven-year abusive relationship. Physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse riddled my life for years, and no one knew the truth for most of that time. After years of therapy and freedom from that connection, I am slowly finding my voice in it all. And one of the issues that I think needs to be addressed is the issue of consent.
What is consent? What does true consent look like? How does one give or get consent? And perhaps most important, what is not consent?
Here are some things you need to know about this buzz-word in the sexual assault conversation.
Consent requires a safe place. Driving a woman down an abandoned road in the middle of nowhere without her permission does not create a safe place for a woman to consent to sex. Asking for sex seconds after a violent fight does not create a safe place for consent. Asking for sex when the other party is asleep or drunk or otherwise incapacitated does not create a safe place for consent. Asking for sex when you are in a place of authority over the other party does not create a safe place for consent. Which moves me to my next point.
Consent requires an equal playing field. Every day, hundreds of thousands of women are intimidated by men in their workplaces, in their churches, in the streets where they live, and even in their own homes. In order for a woman to consent to a sexual act, there must be a balance of power in the relationship, an equal giving and receiving of respect and care. The consequences women face when they report sexual assault by a superior are numerous. The invasive questioning and victim-blaming that tends to follow such reporting deters women from telling their truth to people who can protect them. In order for a person to consent to sexual activity, both persons in the relationship should share a mutual and equal trust and respect for one another.
Consent requires an emphatic yes. Simply complying with a request for sex or going along with a sexual act or not resisting a sexual act does not mean that someone has given consent. There are many reasons why women do not resist sex. In my experience, men react strongly – violently, even – to being told no when it comes to a sexual invitation. Women know this.
So just because a woman does not run away from her violator screaming doesn’t mean that she is consenting to a sexual act. Just because a woman does what her perpetrator wants doesn’t mean that she is consenting to a sexual act. Just because a woman doesn’t say ‘no’ doesn’t mean she is saying ‘yes.’
Consent requires communication. It should never be assumed. Just because two people are in a relationship – even a marriage – does not mean that they automatically agree to have sex. Consent should be given at all points in a relationship. This means that it must be talked about, that difficult conversations will probably have to take place sometimes. But that is part of navigating a healthy sexual relationship with someone. Being in a relationship with someone does not mean that you automatically get to have sex with them whenever and however you want to.
To the men, I implore you. Talk to the women in your life, your close family and friends. Be willing to listen to their #metoo stories because I’m sure they have them. Be an advocate for women. Stand up for someone when you see them being victimized or hear them being objectified or notice someone taking advantage of them. Man up and call the men in your life to the carpet when they are being disrespectful of women. Laughing at inappropriate jokes that demean women is something that an honorable man doesn’t participate in. Be willing to take a stand for your sisters.
To my sister reading this right now who is a survivor of abuse, your voice matters. Your truth matters. Facing the darkest parts of our lives is one of the bravest things we can do as women. Being willing to call the behavior of our perpetrators and assailants exactly what it is – abuse – is the first step to our healing. I pray that you seek therapy for your pain and that you find a safe place to heal.
To all of my sisters everywhere, we must rise to this occasion. We must keep owning our truth and encourage others to do the same. We must be willing to be uncomfortable because that is where growth and change happen. We must rise together in our sisterhood to fight against the moral depravity and misogynistic patterns in our society.
I truly believe in my soul that a new day, as Oprah said, is on the horizon. I am praying for that day, and I am thankful to be a participant in this glorious, holy movement. I hope you are, too.