In high school, the only times anyone tried to discuss sex with me were the classic “birds and the bees” talks from my parents and maybe a couple of sex education classes here and there. When my parents tried to talk to me about sex, I was mainly focused on getting out of that conversation as quickly as possible and when our teachers tried to discuss sex, my friends and I would just giggle out of discomfort. Partly because of the uneasiness that arises when discussing sex, a stigma exists around talking about sexual assault. This stigma can stop people from educating themselves on how to prevent sexual violence, which ultimately constrains our ability to limit it in the future.
The book Learning Good Consent provides people with an engaging way to learn about consent. It begins the conversation on how people can work to prevent sexual violence by discussing intimate sexual details through personal stories, rather than through an uncomfortable conversation with a parent, teacher, or another adult. This compilation of stories from different authors demonstrates that understanding the meaning of consent is not about reciting the universal definition, but it is about knowing what consent means to you. We talk about the concept of “consent” so frequently that we may have even over-complicated the term for ourselves. Learning Good Consent shares various questions that arise when discussing consent and tries to clarify these confusions. It also discusses gender norms and explains why we need to reject them. Finally, the book focuses on the importance of de-stigmatizing the discussion about sexual assault and ultimately making this conversation more inclusive.
Because the book is titled Learning Good Consent, it is interesting how editor Cindy Crabb begins the first chapter with a list of 83 questions that arise when we discuss “consent.” The reader may have expected Crabb to define consent in the first chapter, but she never explicitly defines this term. She instead draws in her audience by listing out all of the questions that people may generally have about consent in the first chapter called “Consent Questions.” Her first question is: “1) How do you define consent?” Asking this question at the beginning of the book demonstrates that although we have all heard what consent is multiple times, we may not fully understand it. Lee Hunter in the “Desiring Consent” chapter later explains that “There is no set definition of consent. Developing your own definition of consent is an important part of the process of defining your desires and learning how to communicate them to others.” The fact that Crabb thought of 83 questions relating to consent demonstrates how the term is very specific to the individual. Some questions that popped out to me included:
11) Do you think talking ruins the mood?
14) Do you check in as things progress or do you assume the original consent means everything is OK?
73) Do you ever feel obligated to have sex?
These questions made me, as the reader, personally reflect on how I practice consent, and how I can be an active bystander in preventing sexual violence. I especially began thinking about these questions in the context of my friends and acquaintances at parties. I thought about how we may accidentally place pressure on our friends before a party even begins when we talk about our crushes and who we hope to see at the party. Although these are not necessarily always negative experiences, the combination of these elements may pressure a person into a sexual experience they do not want to have. Therefore, these questions reminded me that when having these discussions before a party begins, we need to also clarify that none of us should ever feel pressured to do something that we don’t want to do.
During the party itself, I must remain aware of my surroundings and constantly check in with my friends, and the other people in the space to ensure that we all feel safe. I realized that in order to help prevent sexual violence, I must watch out for everyone around me because some people may not have friends looking out for them. Although these actions are easier said than done, internalizing these questions reminds me to consider how to help someone I do not know well who I notice is in an uncomfortable situation: I either can have the courage to check in with them myself or ask one of their friends, who may not have noticed their friend’s discomfort, to ask their friend if they feel safe and comfortable.
Some of the questions also addressed our society’s gender norms and how they inform people’s understanding of sexual violence. One of these questions was “62) Do you think only men abuse?” Girls often do not view themselves as people who can assault someone else because many sexual violence prevention trainings focus on female narratives of sexual assault. For example, when I first read certain questions, I wondered if they really applied to me as a girl. Some examples included:
38) Do you make people feel “unfun” or “unliberated” if they don’t want to try certain sexual things?
42) Have you used jealousy as a means of control?
Because we emphasize protecting women from sexual violence, we do not consider how these questions that Crabb posed at the beginning of her book apply to everyone.
Women have the same capacity as men to use jealousy to pressure their partners into trying new sexual activities. Both men and women can feel that in order to fit in or prove that they are “fun,” they need to participate in sexual activities that they may not be ready for. It was therefore extremely important that Crabb included the “Good Guy” chapter, which was told from the perspective of a man who had been sexually assaulted by a female friend. Reading that this guy felt forced by the woman to have sex was the first time that I had heard the story of a male victim and it was an eye-opening experience. Although I have always known it was important for me to understand consent in order have healthy relationships, reading this story made me realize the large responsibility I truly have to ensure that my partner and I both feel safe and are practicing consent.
While destigmatizing these discussions about sexual assault is an important step to preventing future violence, our conversations need to consider all types of people who may experience sexual violence. This means that people cannot only use heteronormative terms when discussing a potential assault. In the chapter “Positive Consent for Dudes Who Get it On with Dudes,” Nick Riotfag calls attention to the fact that “Even gender-neutral presentations are usually based on hetero experiences, and almost never refer to specifically same-sex situations.” Upon reading this quote, I suddenly realized that most of the sexual violence prevention workshops I had attended utilized heteronormative terms. I had never even considered the heteronormativity of the conversations because our society has refused to reject gender norms.
Because gender norms assume that men cannot be sexually assaulted and rape can only occur in a heterosexual relationship, people do not realize that obtaining consent is important in all types of relationships. Riotfag refers to this lack of education on consent and healthy relationships in homosexual couples as “internalized homophobia--the idea that queer sex and relationships aren’t as important or as ‘real’ as hetero ones.” It is therefore important that Crabb included Riotfag’s story in order to bring attention to this weakness and consider how we fix it to ensure that everyone learns good consent.
Although our goal in teaching “good consent” is to ultimately end sexual violence, discussing sexual assault will most importantly create support systems for its victims. In the “Frozen Inside” chapter, Crabb shares a comic of a deer who is being hunted by a cougar and freezes up to avoid pain; when the cougar finally leaves. the deer finds its family where it can shake to release its trauma. People who experience traumatic situations, on the other hand, “don’t get support and release. We are almost never in a place of safety. The trauma builds in us. We freeze our voices, our bodies.” The deer in the comic has a surprisingly more supportive community when a traumatic experience occurs in their lives than many victims of sexual violence.
Because society does not talk about sexual violence and not everyone has experienced sexual assault, many people do not understand the pain that a victim experiences and thus do not know how to help the victim. When a survivor has the courage to talk to someone after the event, Crabb notes, “Maybe we need a hundred new words for when our friends or acquaintances or partners assault or rape us...Or maybe our friends and acquaintances and partners need to have the courage to hear ‘You raped me’ or ‘That was assault.’ (I still barely ever use these words because I know the backlash consequences).”
De-stigmatizing the discussion around sexual assault is important to not only teach people the importance of consent and how to be an active bystander, but to learn how to support loved ones who experience these traumas. Later in the book, Crabb included a chapter called “Listening” to provide people with information on how they can best support their loved ones. Crabb’s decision to compile various personal stories demonstrated various experiences with sexual violence and thus highlighted why we need to reflect on our actions and determine how we will help create a safe community that prevents sexual violence.
Elise Sugarman has just graduated from Occidental College as a Politics major and Urban and Environmental Policy minor. She has just completed an internship at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles with The Talk Project. She is passionate about fighting to protect women’s rights and plans to pursue a career in social justice advocacy.