I am a rape survivor. Starting when I was quite young, I was the victim of sexual assault in a variety of forms and by several perpetrators over the years. None of the perpetrators went to jail. Once, the last incident, I went to the ER and the police; but still nothing happened (not enough evidence to prosecute).
I am writing this from that personal perspective. Rape is wrong and inexcusable. Sexual harassment is wrong and inexcusable. For decades, I have tried to raise awareness about this very serious problem in our society.
Rapists seem to have two different, though sometimes intertwined motives. For some (most?), it is an act of violence. It is an attempt to establish, maintain, or express power. It stems from not seeing the victim (usually a woman) as fully human, but rather a tool. For others, they are so socially awkward and are so afraid being turned down; that they take what they want once consent can’t be given. They wait until the victim is unable to consent. She’s passed out or asleep or just too drunk to fight.
What is common of all rapists, indeed, what is definitional; is they either do not seek consent or they continue even if consent is denied.
When the #MeToo tag took off after the Weinstein accusations, many people shared powerful stories of survival and of being assaulted or harassed at work. But some told stories of people they knew (not employers or people in a position of power over), simply propositioning them. For example, one male acquaintance of mine told a story of another man he admired coming to his place and instead of seeking conversation, asking for sex. The proposition was declined and no assault took place (at least according to the story my acquaintance told). He was appalled that the man he admired would think of him as a potential sex partner. Since then, there have been news stories of people facing unwanted propositions as if that was the same as facing unwanted sex acts.
An unwanted proposition is not rape. If someone says “hey, you wanna do xyz”? And you can say no without risking your physical or financial well-being; then it is seeking consent. If one’s job is in jeopardy if one declines, then that isn’t really consent. (For a non-sexual example, most people cannot politely decline the invitation to the office party, even if it is described as an optional get-together.) If one says “no, I don’t wanna do xyz”, and it is done anyway; that is rape or assault. But most unwanted propositions end with a “no thank you” and the person making the proposition goes away.
The risk of a proposition is that the person being asked might feel uncomfortable and no longer want to be in the same space as the person making the proposal. This is why workplace relations can be tricky at best. Sure, there might not be repercussions. But the person who you thought of as a colleague/friend/acquaintance clearly sees you as a potential sex partner. You don’t see them in the same way. And that is awkward. It can be awkward enough that the previous relationship is damaged.
But I do not want to live in a world where people — especially young men — are even more frightened of seeking consent than they already are. Making examples of famous people who once propositioned others can have this dangerous unintended consequence. In the cases where power is unfairly wielded or where there is non-consensual sexual contact we should most certainly believe the victim, not blame the victim, and call out the behavior. But I am afraid that in some recent cases, the accusers are saying “he asked me x, I said no, we didn’t do x, but it creeped me out.” Being creeped out isn’t rape. It isn’t assault. And it isn’t even harassment. It is not being into the proposition.
As an example, I was once propositioned by someone who wanted to sniff my shoes. That person asked. I declined. No repercussions. But I was thinking, “Eww, shoe fetish, yuck.” I have seen that person again and became aware of my shoes. But I wasn’t the victim of harassment or assault by that person. I was propositioned with a proposition I wasn’t into.
Again, to be clear, I am not talking about situations where consent cannot be freely given due to age, incapacitating intoxication, or power imbalance.
In order for there to be any consensual sex acts of any type; someone has to make the ask. That ask really ought to be clear. It needs to be “Do you want to have sex with me?” and not “Do you want to come in for a nightcap?” Because with the latter, it is perfectly reasonable for the interlocutor to take one at their word and that a nightcap is a drink and not a night of cavorting. People are going to have sex. Let us encourage people to ask, to be able to decline, and for that consent to be real without fear that a decade or more later one will be called out for asking something that the recipient thought gross or creepy if that recipient was able to decline without repercussions.
I want people to feel more comfortable seeking consent, not less so. I don’t want to create a culture where those who seek consent face the same level of approbation as those who don’t bother with that important step.
We need to put an end to rape culture. And that means empowering people to ask instead of taking as well as empowering people to say no.
PS: This is not an invitation for propositions. I am happy with my romantic situation and am not looking for anything else.