First, let me start off with an unfortunately-necessary disclaimer: There are extremely obvious political over- and under-tones to the Assange debacle. Most countries simply don’t care this much about alleged violations of consent when their messy little secrets aren’t involved. On top of that, an accusation is not a conviction. I’m not answering, or even asking, the question of whether or not the accusations against him are true; I’m actually more interested in the questions they’ve raised about how our culture handles consent and consent violation.
You’ll probably note that in my disclaimer, I talked about consent violation, not about rape. There was an interesting survey done a while back that showed that rapists, or gray rapists, or sexually pushy characters, or whatever you’d like to call them will admit to what they do as long as it’s not called rape. They understand that they violated consent, as long as it’s not called rape. Because rape is wrong, and what they did wasn’t wrong… right?
I think (in my court of opinion) that if Julian Assange is actually guilty of the accusations against him, this is what he’s likely guilty of, him and pretty much most of Western culture: a disconnect between understanding that ignoring an ”I don’t want this” is violating consent, and understanding that technically, yes, violating, ignoring, or assuming consent where it’s not given is more often than not either rape or riding the line real close.
I don’t think that what’s being done to him is right, far from it. I’m actually one of his supporters. However, I think we need to look good and hard at these “not really rape” accusations that so many of us are okaying.
I’ve violated consent before. Did I call it rape? Of course not. Was it? Possibly not. After all, the victim stayed with me for years afterward. That’s not how a rape victim acts, right?
But did I keep going after being asked to stop? Yes. Did my partner have a safeword? Yes. Did they use it? No. But. Did I suspect something was wrong? Yes. And while like many sadists I like to flirt with that line, after that night I’m a lot better about making very clear that there is a line, and that I will respect it, especially when I’m playing games with someone who also likes to play games with consent. It’s tricky for even experienced BDSM practicioners; no wonder we as a culture are completely lost trying to sort this out.
Here’s some of what Assange is accused of:
According to press reports, Assange held one of the women down in a sexual manner. Yes, and many women like that. Assange started having sex while one woman was sleeping. Yes, that too some women like. Because people like all sorts of things- clothes being ripped off, dirty threats whispered in their ears, even somewhat violent sexual encounters.
(“Sex is dirty; geopolitics are even dirtier,” The Chronicle)
And this is where, and why, things get complicated.
As a culture we’re terrible with consent. We have shame around consent. We eroticize breaking it, or having it broken, and in the bedroom, the vast majority of us are such terrible negotiators that unfortunately often, we spend a lot of time guessing whether or not we even have consent. But even within this morass, there are guidelines.
“No means no” is simplistic, and partnersex is complicated. How do we tell a partner “No,” to one activity, during that activity, while still expressing interest in being sexual with them? Nuanced nos are tricky, but they usually work: “Please stop doing that,” “Not right now,” “Not without a condom,” etc.
Partners who like to treat consent as irrelevant love to ignore nuanced nos, by the way. How do I know this? Because I’ve been there. I’ve said “not right now” to a blowjob only to have my head pushed down. I’ve said “not without a condom” only to reach down and discover him playing “just the tip” bare. I’ve been woken up over and over having to fight off a partner because I was still too sleepy and incoherent to articulate a no.
That’s a very scary way to wake up, by the way. Sleep paralysis occurrs when the sleeper is woken out of REM. In that state, you can’t move or speak, but you’re aware. It takes time to come out of this state.
Did I stay with that partner? Yes. I didn’t believe these incidents were malicious in nature. I had made progress, believe it or not, in getting that partner to understand that yes, overriding a no is date rape, and after that, that there are some areas you do not play consent games/consent ignoring games with. Condoms, for one.
These moments of consent overriding were few and far between – but they happened, and this is something we need to be aware of, that consent violations occur within relationships all the time, and that since they’re not rape to our culture, we don’t know how to react or deal with them. When consent is violated but it’s not “rape,” we don’t often act like “typical victims;” we act confused.
It’s when you think about what happened in retrospect that you realize, “Wait, that’s why I feel so off about this… I did express that I didn’t consent, and they did keep going after having heard me, and I don’t know if it was rape, but it wasn’t right.”
(It’s completely possible that Julian Assange’s lady friends experienced something similar. It’s also completely possible that what’s occurred in his case is considerably more tangled, given the ties involved. )
I’m a fairly clear communicator, and experienced in negotiating consent before, during, and after sexual play, and I’ve still had mine overridden or ignored. If you feel your sex partner isn’t communicating clearly, or isn’t able to communicate, that’s not a green light, that’s not license to do what you want to do. Too often we act like anything short of a scream and a punch in the face “doesn’t count” as a real, unambiguous no.
Besides - speaking as a sadistic top, and as a masochistic switch: in the heat of the moment, a simple “Do you want this?” can be very erotic.
We need to expect, and demand, more enthusiastic yes-es, as well as recognize as a culture that there are gray areas of consent, and consent violations that happen in gray areas of sexuality. They’re still wrong, but there are degrees of wrong.
Maybe it’s not “rape” rape. Maybe it’s a consent violation. Maybe it was a case of taking advantage of unclear consent, or a lack of ability to deny or withdraw consent. Most of us have done this at least once. Many of us also know what it feels like to have this done to us. These types of boundary breaching can all be treated differently – and to reduce them, I think they should be.
People like all sorts of things, and for a lot of kinky people*, having to get or give consent for their freaky activities spoils their fun. That said – if you’re not sure, consent the person you’re with. Ask before you share a bed with a partner, “How do you feel about sleepy sex?” (As an insomniac, sleep is hard to come by; I have a long-standing decline policy on this.) Ask them three times before unprotected sex, “Are you sure? Do you want this?”
Watch them closely. Watch for that change from forbidden pleasure to fear – watch for freezing up, watch for a lack of responsiveness, because there is a danger zone, and we are indeed responsible for making sure that we are within the bounds of consent. And for fuck’s sake, watch for those nuanced nos.
* Particularly kinky mostly-vanilla types. Pretty much I’ve found that kinky sex-positive people will negotiate up-front, kinky people will negotiate during, and kinky mostly-vanilla people feel strange negotiating. This is why nowadays, as a responsible top, I consent the ever living crap out of people – or if I’m flirting kinky and not consenting them, I make sure they know that while I’m happy pushing their unexpressed boundaries, that if they want me to stop, all they have to do is express that, and I’ll stop. After all, I learned the hard way.