Just Say No…No…No…

"Willful Ignorance," an article by Courtney Martin in The American Prospect, is driving me to distraction this morning. Its basic premise is that there's a deleterious relationship between abstinence-only sex education and date rape on college campuses, which is certainly thought-provoking, particularly when the posited alternative is truly comprehensive sex education, to include information about power, dignity, and respect along with birds-and-the-bees basics:

The lack of public, comprehensive, and complex sex education in this country contributes to this toxic sexual culture on most college campuses. The abstinence-only sex education that most young men and women receive does not teach them how to articulate their own sexual needs and respect those articulated by their partners. Teens who are merely told "Just don’t do it" are lacking more than an anatomy lesson or information on contraceptive choices. They [are] also missing out on essential communication skills and life-saving knowledge about sex and power. Which is bad news for teenagers in our paradoxically hyper-sexual and hyper-conservative contemporary America who are in desperate need of wise mentorship.

…We live in a society that raises many boys to be repressed men, raises many girls to be self-hating women, glorifies violence, shames victims, and hides histories of incest and molestation. Many of these dynamics feel too big to tackle, too personal to control. But sex education is concrete, fundamental, and totally public. It is something that we can change. Knowledge and dialogue can’t always prevent rape, to be sure, but they can be powerful tools toward that end.
I'm totally on board with that shit. Good stuff.

Then things get a little sticky: "Both women like Jen and young men who drunkenly don’t listen when their dates say 'no' can end up scarred from the experience. All parties involved can be hurt by a failure to properly delineate and stick to boundaries." Yikes. Shades of this mess.

Using phrases like "young men who drunkenly don’t listen when their dates say no" instead of "rapists" at worst suggests that date rapists aren't really rapists at all, and, at best, functions to make a coddling of men the flipside to the scolding of women—drunken men can't be rapists and drunken women can't be rape victims. I've no doubt that murdering someone while smashed can be a scarring experience, too, but we don't call killers rueful in their stone sobriety "people who drunkenly disregarded the will of another to live."

It just doesn't do anyone any good to pretend that men who are drunk when they refuse to hear a no, or who haven't been specifically taught in a classroom to listen to the word no, are just as innocent as their victims. And I imagine men who would never dream of such behavior, irrespective of never having been explicitly instructed against it, would be the first to take issue with that particular bit of false equivalence—particularly men who live with rape survivors.

All of this tiptoeing around calling a rapist a rapist seems to be the result of Martin's decision to frame the article within a particularly distressing and coercive sexual experience of a friend, who "isn’t sure whether to call [it] rape."

Her mind flashed back to a night over a year earlier: moonlight coming through her dorm window fell across the shoulders of a guy she barely knew, on top of her. Drunk and exhausted, Jen told him that she wasn’t up for it. He persisted. She remembers saying no a few more times, then eventually giving up, staring at the dark ceiling, waiting for it to be over.
Well, guess what? That’s rape. Rape is legally defined as a victim having sexual intercourse against her/his will and without her/his consent. Repeatedly saying no is a clear indication of a lack of consent. As Auguste said so perfectly in Consent: Possibly the Easiest Concept in the History of the World: "Consent is defined according to the quality and quantity of assent, not the quality and quantity of dissent."

Almost every argument about rape can be boiled down to this one sentence, because almost every argument about rape centers on what the victim did or didn’t do. "She didn't kick him, she didn't bite him, she didn't dress modestly, she didn't scream for help, she didn't break his nose…" Rape apologists throw up requirements, levels and types of dissent that the woman would have had to live up to in order to really have been raped. It's interesting, however, that they're always able to come up with something.

No, rape is about something that the rapist does. Or rather, what he doesn't do, in that he doesn't rely on the woman's assent.
And/or doesn't acknowledge her dissent. Construing a limp resignation after a series of protestations as "consent" is not appropriate. If someone were holding a loaded gun to my head and I begged for life until I was too exhausted to carry on, would that be interpreted to mean I suddenly wanted to be shot? Of course not. The threat of intercourse against one's will is no different. End of story.

It's disappointing that in an article seeking to address rape prevention would fall so short of being honest about what rape really is in the first place. Unfortunately, however, it's not terribly surprising.

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