I don’t need to tell you about how much feminist activists have done to reveal the proportions of rape culture. How they have fought to make unconsensual sex within marriage a crime, created rape crisis centers and hotlines, and made SAFE kits, also known as rape kits, obligatory in the U.S…. All of these measures were taken in order to help women who become the victims of some men who rape. Unfortunately, that’s well-understood. But can women rape, too?
The short answer is yes. However, those cases are often hard to detect, because they are legally not defined as such. In England and New Zealand, for example, rape constitutes the forced penetration by a man’s penis, which would make it virtually impossible for a woman to rape in legal terms. In most nations, however, a woman having unconsensual sex with a man can be punished for committing sexual assault rather than rape.
Call it whatever you want, I’m sure we can all agree that forcing someone violently to have sex against their will is not right and should be punished, regardless of the victim’s or the perpetrator’s sex. But of course, life isn’t always black and white; there are these damn grey areas, for example when people seem incapable of clearly stating what they want and do not want. As feminists have pointed out over and over again, a sleeping or highly inebriated person cannot give consent. But what about that hot girl you meet at a party, who may have had a few drinks too many but is dying to go home with you? What about the shy one who is too nervous and embarrassed to speak up?
These are particular situations many of us will know all too well. In order not to end up in a dodgy situation, feminists have come up with the concept “Yes means Yes”, also known as enthusiastic consent. It takes the saying “No means No” one step further, where the only sure road to consensual sex is asking for it and being explicit about what you want, ideally by saying that you want it.
This concept is not one that everyone can easily agree on, it seems. Some argue that it may kill the mood or the mystery of a sexual situation. Others claim (mostly rape apologists) that it will ruin their chances at sex altogether, because women are socialized/”cunning enough” to say no, even though they mean yes. After all, most of the time the discussion revolves around the question of women’s consent. Apparently, she has to be the one to call the shots, she is the only one that needs to be asked, because men are implied to always want sex by default. This presumption is, of course, just as dangerous as the assumption that women are much less sexual than men. Both open doors to sexual violations, because the specific needs and desires of an individual are completely disregarded.
I am mentioning this, because for every temptation in the shape of a drunk party girl, there may be a drunk party boy; for every young woman too shy to voice her likes and dislikes, there may be a young man too inexperienced and insecure to say no to sexual advances he doesn’t welcome. Some of us women may have been in situations where we violated someone’s boundaries without even realizing it, because both men and women perpetuate the stereotype that men will never mean no, and they certainly will never say it.
As women who believe in enthusiastic consent, we need to make sure we don’t hold up double standards. Education about consent needs to be directed at everybody, regardless of gender. Just like women, men need to learn to speak up, but most importantly, women, too, need to learn to insist on consent and how to get it.
An erection does not equal consent. Agreeing to sex does not mean agreeing to unprotected sex, to sex with other people, or to rough sex. A man can be too drunk to fuck, but a man can also be too drunk to want to fuck. Of course, these guidelines require a certain level of maturity and responsibility from both partners. If this level is not a given, you should ask yourselves whether you should be having sex at all.
After all, who would want to have sex with someone who doesn’t enjoy it? Only rapists would.
Because of the particularity of man-woman relationships, I have focused on heterosexual relations, but fortunately enthusiastic consent is a concept that works for all sorts of constellations!