Last week, I related the story of how Clara exposed me to the reality of my depravity: that long ago, I actually raped her. A product of my cultural upbringing and a couple false accusations, I initially disregarded her claim, but upon reflection, I saw the truth of the matter.
It was pretty black and white; I raped her.
Before anyone reading this thinks I’m going to shift the blame for my own actions onto culture like Harvey Weinstein infamously did, I accept full fault for what I did.
Clara and I had sex. She did not consent. That makes it rape.
No, I Insist: Have Some Tea
The story didn’t stop with that one incident, though. It continued, albeit in a more nuanced way that I only recognized after her revelation.
You see, for years after, I used coercion to engage in sexual activity with her. In truth, I raped her many, many times.
The semantics can get a little blurry here, but an analogy can help a good deal. A couple years ago, a great video starting making the rounds on the Internet:
This and other similar videos had driven the point home: coerced consent is not consent.
Imagine this exchange:
Teenage Phil: “Do you want some tea?”
Teenage Clara: “No thanks.”
Teenage Phil: “No, I insist. Have some tea.”
Teenage Clara: “I don’t want tea.”
Teenage Phil: “Just a sip.”
Teenage Clara: “I’m fine, thanks.”
Teenage Phil: “It’ll be good; drink it.”
Teenage Clara: “I said no.”
Teenage Phil, pressing the tea cup to her mouth: “Here.”
Teenage Clara, turning her head away: teary silence
Teenage Phil: “Come on…”
Teenage Clara: “I guess.”
Teenage Phil, smiling: “See? It’s not so bad.”
It’s horrible to write that. Proofreading it is even worse. I need a shower.
Coercion is not consent. I can’t be.
Mechanically, you could say she accepted the tea in the end. But her will was repeatedly disregarded, in absolute rejection of reality. Pretending that was willing consent is a perversion of tea.
Let’s consider another comparison.
I went to prison for a crime I pled guilty to. I do not feel I was guilty in my actions, but faced with a tremendously longer prison sentence by a determined foe who had all the power to execute it, I accepted the plea.
I was helpless, at the mercy of a power far greater than me. I “confessed” to a crime I did not commit, but that is not the same as a confession.
Mechanically, you could say I confessed in the end. But my denials were repeatedly disregarded, in absolute rejection of reality. Pretending that was a willing confession is a perversion of justice.
Yes: Letter vs. Spirit
Consent isn’t about saying yes. It’s about meaning yes.
Acquiescence isn’t consent.
Hesitation isn’t consent.
Reluctance isn’t consent.
This is a letter vs spirit situation.
Consent is about desire, and the “yes” is merely intended to be a depiction of the desire. Focusing on the “yes” like I did as a teenager was a willful ignorance of reality and a cruel denial of Clara’s personhood.
There are times when this distinction is easy to recognize.
We readily recognize that youth can prevent consent, despite a “yes”; a 13-year-old girl is not capable of giving consent to a 45-year-old man, we say. Her situation (the age difference) makes her a victim of rape.
Likewise, we legally recognize that authority can prevent consent, despite a “yes”; an inmate is not capable of giving consent to a corrections officer, the law says. Culturally, we even recognize that an employer/employee or teacher/student relationship gets close enough to this line to become inherently questionable.
If we are to be stewards operating out of love, the mere word “yes” isn’t enough.
This applies to marriage as well. How many spouses “submit” to sexual advances out of obligation? Let’s be clear:
Husbands, it is possible to rape your wife.
Wives, it is possible to rape your husband.
And these situations are no less fraught with the injurious violation.
Both husbands and wives are called to submit to one another. And of course, Paul’s instructions are clear:
Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
1 Corinthians 7:5 (NIV)
Yet if we love our spouse, we should recognize that they are equal partners in our marriage. If our marriage bed couples dominance and acquiescence, where one spouse gets off and the other wishes they could run off, I would argue that this is sex between a slave and a master, not a husband and wife. Based on Hebrews 13:4, I would call that a defiled marriage bed. (To be clear, I use the term “dominance” here in a literal sense, not as an aspect of consensual “sex play”.)
In reverence to passages like 1 Corinthians 7:5 (above), we Christians often seem to turn a callously blind eye to this type of arrangement. “It’s marital duty,” we tell ourselves. “God commands it.”
When someone steps into marriage, so many of us seem to consider consent forfeited in perpetuity. Unlike youth or authority as seen above, we often do not recognize that religion can prevent consent.
Now, there are limits. We can recognize a scene easily enough where an abusive, violent husband rapes his wife. But when we take into consideration that someone can say “yes” or merely stop fighting and still be raped, can we consistently translate our awareness of consent into marriage?
Duty is not consent. Or, at least, it’s not the consent we should pursue from our spouses.
Getting It Right
Consent is not a complicated thing when taken on a spiritual, love-oriented level. Yet somehow, I missed the boat on this for too many years. Thankfully, my awareness continues to evolve into a more mature understanding.
In my own life, I cannot fully reconcile how Clara could forgive me for such unforgivable violations. I cannot make amends for my actions through a restoration of her lost virginity or restitution for her persistent fear of intimacy.
I can, however, be mindful as I teach my children.
At the risk of overcompensation, I teach my kids the absolute value of “no”.
If my son tries to hug my daughter and she says no, I’m quick to enforce her choice. Likewise, if I’m tickling my son and he says no, I take him seriously (even though he usually follows it with alternating requests to “tickle me” and “stop tickling me”).
I teach my children that everyone has the right to choose whether they want to be touched, and that should never be violated in any way. Hugs and tickles are the elementary school version of serious things down the road, and I’m hoping I can help my children understand what I never did as a teenager:
“No” cannot become “yes” unless it does so without interference.
The “yes” isn’t the gatekeeper. The “yes” is just a verbal representation of the true heart we must pursue.