On Consent

Content warning for discussion of sexual assault.

Y’all may have noticed I haven’t said much about the whole Wikileaks thing since this summer. While I strongly support the organization’s stated goal of “opening governments” and the ideals of transparency and justice to which whistleblowers in general are fundamental, I have doubts about the character of the current figurehead, and I’m generally pretty filled with rage about how the media and many folks around the interwebs have been dealing with the sexual assault allegations against him.  I wrote this post up before hearing that he’d finally turned himself in to British police, but that doesn’t change any of the opinions below.

Obviously, he’s innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the legal system – I don’t disagree in any way with that fundamental tenet of justice. But there are some aspects to the discussions surrounding the case which I’m finding really problematic. There’s a pretty good discussion of many of these issues over on Feministe, but the specifics that matter to me are:

  1. If you don’t do your damnedest to stop having sex with someone who has initially consented to sex with you but then withdraws consent, you have committed rape. Depending on the jurisdiction, it may be sexual assault rather than rape; I don’t really care about the semantics of it. It’s wrong and not OK in any way and you’re a douchebag if you think otherwise. Consent is an active, continuous process. If you don’t want active, enthusiastic consent from your sexual partners, please go fuck an inanimate object instead of wasting the time of a human being who has feelings, agency, and the right to have their boundaries respected.
  2. If someone consents to having sex with you on the premise that you are wearing a condom, and you don’t put on a condom (or you notice it’s broken and don’t stop), you may not be guilty of a specific crime (depending on the jurisdiction), but you’re a fucking asshole and you’re probably a sexual predator. Testing and violating boundaries is how sexual predators operate; this is a known thing. Also, see previous comments about inanimate objects.
  3. (added as news has come out of the bail hearing) Yeah, sex with someone who is passed out or asleep: also rape. (With obvious exception where it’s been specifically negotiated while conscious.)

While I realize that there are more serious issues around sexual violence in the world – rape as a tool of war, sex trafficking, and violent stranger sexual assault, for example – acquaintance sexual assault is still very serious.

I’m tired of apologism for some people’s inability to respect others’ boundaries. I’m tired of legal systems and police forces giving a free pass to sexual predators by doing a shit job of investigating their crimes. I’m tired of my friends being assaulted.

And I’d really like to some day live in a world without sexual violence. So let’s work towards that, ok?

Note about comments: as usual, I reserve the right to frivolously delete comments that annoy me, but for this post I’ve set comments to fully moderated, so expect a bit of a delay in posting.  Let’s try to keep the discussion on the topic of sexual consent and how sexual assault is dealt with in the media, rather than about the folks involved in this specific case.  And yes, I’ve read all the conspiracies theories about the Swedish complainants, kthx.

If you’re linking to this post, please use this Coral Cache link as my blog tends to fall over at the slightest provocation.

24 thoughts on “On Consent

  1. I agree completely. I would also expand on the figurehead. If you’re the leader or figurehead of an organization that is in conflict with the State, you’re know you’re vulnerable to blackmail and false charges. Why even have consensual casual sex with people who are your followers? This not only undermines authority and disrespects new volunteers, but it opens the door to all kinds of vulnerabilities.

    Even if no crime occurred, leaders who have casual sex with new people in their organization are probably very bad leaders. Have some discipline, misters.

  2. I’ve read that the charges against Assange aren’t public because of Swedish laws intended to protect both accusers and the accused in such cases. There have been some vague news reports about the charges; Assange’s lawyer has made public statements about them that seem to contradict those reports. I think it’s safe to say a lot of people are misinformed about the whole thing.

    But they are also saying utterly crazy things about sex and consent. Thanks for the dose of sanity.

  3. I agree with the points you make on the general case of consent etc, but we have to be careful regarding applying them to Assange here. You already say you have doubts about the figurehead – to me that implies you’re leaning towards “guilty”. Until the true facts of the case come out I don’t think any of us can lean in any particular direction on his guilt or innocence.

    I think what we can all agree on though, is that given the charges as we know them, the extraordinary measures that have been taken in this case are disproportionate. They would not have been applied to anyone else being charged of similar crimes (in my opinion). That leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and stinks of political intervention.

    1. I wish that all cases of sexual assault got this kind of attention, and I’m not really begrudging the attention this is getting.

      Similar to the point Bangpound so eloquently put, I have doubts about how sensible it is to keep someone on as a figurehead who has unquestionably used his position within the organization for sexual gain – I don’t think this is in dispute regardless of the charges.

      And I’m not the courts. I’m allowed to think and discuss whatever I want about his guilt or innocence:)

      1. I agree with you that sex is an ongoing dance of consent, but part of what you seem to be arguing is that being a leader means that you can’t have sex.

        You wrote “I have doubts about how sensible it is to keep someone on as a figurehead who has unquestionably used his position within the organization for sexual gain.”

        How did he use his position within the organization for sexual gain? Two women did, apparently, want to have sex with him. And at least at that point I think everyone agrees that everyone had consented. Are you suggesting that they only wanted to have sex with him because of his position?

        I also am deeply troubled by the phrase ‘sexual gain.’ What does that mean? Can there be ‘sexual gain’ if there is active consent? ‘Sexual gain’ sounds a lot like the language of sexual conquest – in which consent isn’t shared, but rather, a woman’s barriers are breached.

        Julian and the women actively wanted to have sex. Was that wrong? Is the leader of an organization responsible to determine why a particular person wants to have sex with them, and then reject the ones who are unduly influenced by the leader’s position?

      2. That’s definitely not what I’m arguing, and I’ve delayed responding because I want to be clear in elaborating on this point. I’ve had a couple of conversations elsewhere today about this – people can absolutely make active, consensual choices to sleep with someone based in whole or in part on them being famous. There’s a long history of “groupies” of all genders in many situations from rock stars to politicians to authors.

        Being a good and effective leader does mean, however, knowing what the impact of one’s actions are, including the impact of one’s lack of respect for the agency of others on the health of one’s organization. Assange’s inability to respect these women’s “no” when it occurred partway through their sexual encounters reflects a lack of judgment and a willingness to risk the good name of his organization which does not reflect good leadership. The good things he has done don’t give him any kind of pass on sexually predatory behavior in my books, any more than they did for, say, Polanski.

        Having sex with someone because they are famous, while potentially problematic, is not inherently wrong. Not stopping when someone says to, on the other hand, inherently is. (Outside, of course, of situations such as BDSM where consent is used as part of the play itself, but wrapped in the context of even more explicitly and specifically negotiated terms and agreements around behavior. Meta-consent.)

  4. While I strongly agree with you on the issues of consent, I can’t say that I believe that the extraordinary and clearly politically motivated measures being taken to prosecute this case are serving the best interests of sexual assault law enforcement. The real message that’s being sent here is that sexual assault laws, especially those that strongly favor the victim, are applied inconsistently and are only ever invoked when there is an ulterior motive. Given the massive problems that victims of sexual assault have being taken seriously in general, the larger impacts of this media circus are unlikely to be good. That said, the charges should be taken seriously and answered in court; I hope that both he and the victims can get a fair trial. I’m not convinced that losing Julian will do Wikileaks any irreparable harm, certainly not compared to the rest of the absurd international crackdown, and given the mess he’s gotten himself into, it may even do them good.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Ella. While there are clearly political motivations at stake, it’s not unheard of to issue Interpol warrants for wanted sex offenders.

      The real message that’s being sent here is that sexual assault laws, especially those that strongly favor the victim, are applied inconsistently and are only ever invoked when there is an ulterior motive.

      That’s definitely one of the messages being sent, but that’s also one of the narratives that rape cultures promote even when one isn’t talking about international celebrities. A friend replied privately that people fall over themselves to discredit accusers in cases of sexual violence when there’s a celeb involved – see the Polanski case for some of the worst of this – but the fact is that people do that too in cases involving private citizens. I think many of these issues transcend celebrity and politics and are just about rape culture.

  5. I’m also not a court of law, so I can say without bias or prejudice that Assange is 100% asshole, but I am deeply uncomfortable with referring to consented sex as rape on grounds that it (to me) downgrades the severity of the word.

    I’m furthermore really uptight about the timing of this prosecution; love him or hate him, I truly believe that if things go poorly for Assange, the ruling will set a moral precedent for non-asshole enemies of the state in the future.

    Please don’t misunderstand me: condom hijinx earns full beat-down demerits from me. However, it cannot be confused with rape (and probably doesn’t automatically make him a “predator” any more than it makes him a Terminator).

    1. Pete, I think you may want to consider that the experience of having the withdrawl of consent ignored can be just as emotionally traumatizing as other forms of sexual assault. I don’t think it downgrades the severity of the word at all, really.

      And as I’ve said elsewhere, I know that Assange is getting prosecuted more zealously than your average case of this kind for bullshit political reasons. I wish that everyone accused of such crimes would get prosecuted this zealously. Extradite all the rapists, I say. Bring them all to justice.

      Finally, the substance of the charges is a lot more than “condom hijinx”. But I definitely think that condom hijinx alone can put someone on the predator spectrum. Pushing, testing, and violating boundaries are how sexual predators work.

  6. I find it really hard to have a sympathetic view on WL right now. One thing is that I am not sure how their strategy and recent practice is helping whistleblowers in general, or good journalism. But thats a whole different story.

    The other part is definitely that all those “supporters” are shaming the victims, and outing their names and their life circumstances. How can I, like Liz Henry is writing, stand side by side with those people? Who only see what they want to see, even where there is nothing to see (yet?). And who claim to know everything better, even from a great distance and despite of language barrier.

    The work geek feminists are putting into making spaces safer is undermined by that. I find it much more important right now to stand by the side of my friends and on my own side to make sure we get back to the civilisatory minimum of not making jokes about rape.

    A whole different story is making room for a discussion about how rape and assault is a likelihood in every subculture, and how we can make people safe enough to talk about it, or not talk about it and still get the support they need.

  7. Former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey on the BBC about why Julian Assange is now accused of rape & sexual assault: “When one is accused of a very serious crime it’s common to hold him in respect of a lesser crime … while you assemble evidence of a second crime.”

      1. Ugh, no kidding.

        I actually misread JanC’s comment when I originally approved it. I would have sent it to /dev/null if I’d been more awake. Thanks for pointing that out, melanie.

      2. Actually, I sent the comment as an illustration of what a person in that position seems to think about the importance of rape & sexual assault vs. leaking a bunch of gossip…

        Seems like a lot of work is still ahead…

  8. How long after hearing “Stop / No More!” do you have until you have to stop / pull out?
    How many strokes can you do after hearing “Stop / No More?”
    I don’t mean to cheapen this but once started (without a video running) it can be very difficult to determine who if anyone is to blame. It needs to be understood that once Consensual Sex is started without physical injury rape and assault are non-issues.
    PS. My twin sister was raped by three men who attacked her as she came home from work. She spent 7 days in the hospital. Case in point she was raped!

    Dusty Cook

    1. I was going to delete this rape apologist bullshit, but I decided to post it so that anyone googling Dusty Cook here can know that fucking him/her means that s/he’s going to feel entitled to ignore your wishes around consent forever.

      There’s a reason I said “do your damnedest,” because obviously there is some slack time for one partner to realize that the other has said stop and meant it. Also, physics.

      But to play a slippery-slope argument from that into “once Consensual Sex is started without physical injury rape and assault are non-issues” is unadulterated bullshit. Consent to one act is not consent to all and forever acts. Consent to one act is not consent to that act once one has said “stop” or “it hurts” or “this is boring, get the fuck off of me so I can go watch CSI.”

      I’m sorry about what your sister went through. But please reexamine your attitudes around consent, because violent stranger rape is the absolute rarest type of sexual assault. And attitudes like the one you’ve expressed here are the kind of bullshit that allow the repeat sexual predators who are accountable for the vast majority of rapes (acquaintance assaults) to operate freely.

  9. This has been one of the most refreshing articles on the recent Assange case. I’m constantly finding myself bombarded with apologist rhetoric from the media on this case and i can’t find any real information. No one wants to talk about the women, or even the charge. I think a lot of people are ignoring the rape aspect, or simply don’t care because they are too concerned with Assange and Wikileaks…I don’t understand it.

    I don’t agree with how Julian is being treated, and i have no idea if what he did was true, but i also don’t know that it isn’t true! Until then, i wish the media would stop pinning these women as awful human beings. No one seems to wonder what the women are going through and how the recent coverage has affected them personally.

    Anyway, great post!

    BK

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