Saturday, November 8, 2014

Jian Ghomeshi and the Issue of Consent

I have written before on how sexual violence is a normalized part of many women's lives. I have written before on the pervasive nature of violence against women and it's daily expressions: the little indignities that pierce like sharp pins - from friends to strangers, co-workers to the media, advertisements and seemingly sweet passerby's, who 'just want to chat.'

In light of everything Jian Ghomeshi-related, it's difficult not to pipe up and pile on. But I think feminists worldwide are rolling their eyes, tired at the so-called revelations. Things we've known for far too long. Of course we live in a culture where skewed power relations and visions of dominant male identities allow men to use abuse in their intimate relationships. Intimate partner violence is the main scourge of abuse against women worldwide - and yes, we've been raising our voices for a while now. Of course sexual harassment in the workplace is a real and daily experience, and no, it's not a so-called 'benefit' of being a woman. That Parliament Hill is undergoing it's own scandal comes as little surprise.

Of course women who have experienced sexual violence don't come forward to report the acts of violence committed against them, because of a number of reasons, all of which are valid: access to justice is not a guarantee, and the experience can be disappointing and more emotionally scarring than the incident itself. Of course there is shame, there is shock, and there are women who would rather stay anonymous then ever have their names tied to a crime that places far too heavy a burden on the victim's shoulders. It's not easy being known as the woman who was raped. Or the woman who stayed in an abusive relationship for years. Or the woman who kept dating someone who hit her.

And there it is. The undercurrent through some of this recent news, remains, as always, the same tired victim-blaming. She was power-hungry, she was attracted to the fame, she went back out with him, she never said no, she made him think it was okay...

So, no, this Jian Ghomeshi-inspired frenzy is not a new movement. It's difficult not to accept everyone into the conversation, because we've been wanting it to be had for so long. But every time there is another gruesome act committed against women, we hope that perhaps this will be the moment. I guess we stopped hoping a long time ago, because now, I think we're a little tired. Of course, we will stand. Of course, we will make our voices heard. And of course, I want more than anything for young boys and men to be a part of the cause, because I believe only by helping each other and working together can we get anywhere closer to equality...

Consent is an interesting concept. In business deals, a handshake can be the bare minimum to tie two parties to a commitment to act, or not, in a certain way in future dealings. Fortunately, not so when it comes to our persons, our bodies, and our sexual selves. In R. v. J.A. [2011] the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that consent must be enabled on an ongoing basis throughout any sexual activity. I.e. sexual intercourse with a person while they are unconscious no matter what they may have agreed to, is not consensual. Because consent is ongoing. Consent is informed. And for those two measures to be fulfilled, the person must be, at the very least, able to give consent. As the Supreme Court stated, there must be an active mind.

The Supreme Court has also stated, in R. v. Jobiden [1991] that someone cannot consent to violence done against them. This runs counter to the BDSM community, where violence can be part of a wide array of sexual and emotional that are used in such interactions. A very detailed and insightful article, however, points (as did the Supreme Court) to the ways in which consent is also tiered: just because someone said 'yes' to a sexual activity a few minutes ago, does not mean that a few minutes later, they feel the same way. This can be demonstrated through body language, 'safe-words,' (no works too), and also puts the onus on all parties to be aware of these forms of communication.

"She didn't say no" is not, at the very basic level, the kind of sex I want to have, nor should anyone be submitted to. However, consent in all its necessary forms: informed, ongoing, tiered also needs another one: affirmative. A sexual act is composed of intimate actions, potentially enjoyable, potentially harmful, being done to the mind and to the body. The responsibility lies in both partners to ensure that these acts are being well-received. Luckily, the Supreme Court has upheld this as well: In R. v. Ewanchuk [1999] the Court stated there is no implied consent in the Criminal Code of Canada. "She didn't say no" is not a defence.

Unfortunately we live in a patriarchal society where power is male. The imbalance in power relations does not suddenly appear when men and women are adults, in the workplace, sitting as CEO and hitting glass ceilings, respectively. It is bred from an early age where young girls learn very quickly that their bodies and looks must be manipulated and contorted to suit the male gaze. The translation of this realization, and all the shameful social inequalities of being a woman, into the bedroom are incomprehensibly heavy. Girls and women worry more about their hair, their bodies, their faces and if they are pleasing the man than they do thinking about their own sexual pleasure or if the partnership feels good for them both.

Just as there are a million reasons why women don't report the sexual violence against them, there are a million reasons why women don't actively say no during a sexual act. There is fear of violence - to themselves, to children. There is knowledge that saying no before has amounted to nothing. There is inability to express sentiments to a partner who has created such a stifling environment that dissent is impossible. There are power imbalances at play. There is fear of their partner leaving them, not loving them, cheating on them. There is the simple reason of not wanting to have to say no, of wanting your partner to see, as plain as day, that you do not want to be treated as such. And that they shouldn't believe they can do whatever they want in the bedroom. There are repercussions.

Communication is difficult in all arenas. We struggle with it daily. In sex, we wish communication weren't necessary, we hope that things will click and be perfect. But we can't remove the shames and burdens from our public lives and hope these will dissipate in our private bedrooms. We have wants, needs and desires, just as we have dislikes and categorical off-limits, and never happenings. We have a right to it all, if we're alone, on a desert island. But when another person is involved, consent - informed, ongoing, tired and affirmative consent dives deep into the picture. And so it must, as we all are learning to swim.


Anonymous said...

Soufiane Hallab said...

very good and interesting lecture while drinking my moroccan tea lol. Soufiane.