10 November 2006

No - does it really mean no?

An Australian Imam compares unveiled women to exposed meat left out for the cat, and in our hurry to condemn him and his wicked misogynistic religion, we forget the third of Britons surveyed last year by Amnesty International who would agree with him - 37% believing that, in certain circumstances, a woman who is raped is partially, or even entirely, to blame. Clearly Islam is not at fault (especially since the Australian Muslim community immediately stopped him from preaching) and this perverse idea is also prevalent in the supposedly civilised West as anywhere else - that the still-bleeding rape victim was asking for it in that short skirt and that when a woman says "no" she really means "yes". Certainly in all societies, sexual consent is a complex and dangerous issue, and in order to prevent rapes, encourage victims to seek justice and silence the rape-apologists, we need to explore these ambiguities in detail.
When reduced to Feminist slogan, “No Means No” is a reasonable demand: that we should err on the side of caution and assume that when a woman says “no” she means it. In practice, however, language is far more complicated and so, working on the idea that, rather than being fixed, a word’s meaning is the sum of all the places where that word was used, and that even the most simple words are charged with numerous meanings and associations. I shall therefore explore the various meanings of the word “no” and the linguistic act of refusing sexual consent.

To illustrate the difficulty of “no” in a more innocent context, imagine the question “Do you want me to tickle you?” A refusal can mean an outright refusal, or it can also be playing along in the knowledge that the game of tickling is more fun when resisted. Though this seems a grossly inappropriate analogy, with examination it is far closer than may be comfortable.

First we must look at what Dworkin called “the eroticisation of dominance”. What is often simplistically portrayed as a conscious act by sinister patriarchs bent on hegemony is really the involuntary effect of centuries of sexual inequality. Gender and heterosexual eroticism are inextricably linked, the one setting the borders of and defining the other. What those biologically attracted to males find attractive is not the Y-chromosome but the signifiers of maleness, i.e. the fluid concept of masculinity, and similarly females and femininity. If, for thousands of years, males have been dominant in society and females forced into submissive roles, dominance and submissiveness have become central to our definition of gender, and therefore sexy. A sexy man is muscular, uniformed and persistent and sweeps women off their feet; a sexy woman is thin, coy and delicate and makes herself beautiful for men.

When it comes to the game/ritual of courtship, manifestation of gender is the main strategy and part of the fun. The man jokes and the woman laughs, he takes the dominant role and she the submissive, he is expected to actively make a move and she to passively entice and encourage him. Countless rules and theories exist as to how to entrap a man by massaging his ego then carefully picking the moment to sleep with him – in short, a man has the role of pursuing sexual intercourse and a woman of denying it, this is sexy, especially if the man wins. If a woman sleeps with a man too early because she wants to, she is considered unladylike or slutty, whereas a man gains respect and proves his manliness by getting a woman naked as quickly as he can. Similarly, if a man exercises “every woman’s right” and refuses an offer of sex, it can be considered odd, unmanly and even vain. Though we do not explicitly condemn infractions of the rules of the game, we see them as spoiling the fun and being weird or unappealing.

“Playing hard-to-get” not only works for this reason, but is often expected. Unfortunately, it is indistinguishable from being hard to get except in hindsight after the getting. Because the thrill of the chase and the sexiness of the persistent man and the coy, resistant woman is considered a natural part of the run-up to sex, it imbues every aspect of it. A woman can say “no” for a variety of reasons, not all of them because she does not want sex. “No” never means “yes” but it can mean “maybe”, “I want to, but I shouldn’t” or “eventually, with a little more persuasion”. If we expect women to resist before consenting, we expect consent to follow resistance.

Most reasonable men, of course, assume that no means no, but in some cases mixed signals can confuse a reasonable man, when a woman he thought was willing says “no”, hence the phenomenon of “accidental rape”. The rapist here is not at fault for some perversion, but for failing to ensure total consent. It is these cases that lead to victims being blamed, whereas the actual culprits are unavoidably ambiguous language, our expectation that yes must follow no, and, most of all, the man himself who, when in doubt, fucks her anyway.

However, the majority of cases do not involve a reasonable man, and it is easy to see why rapists are turned on by what they do. If we are conditioned to believe that part of female sexiness is a coy reluctance to give in straight away, and part of male sexiness is to be strong and persistent, then there will always be those who see a woman as most beautiful in forced submission, and never feel as sexy as when forcing themselves on her.

What solutions are there? The eroticisation of dominance we can never be rid of without being rid of gendered dominance, and as long as these exist there will be those that take it too far. However, we can encourage justice for rape victims. When cases are dismissed (unjustly painting the victim as a liar and discouraging others) it is often due to the ambiguity of her consent, and the perfectly reasonable legal loophole of having to prove guilt. Rather than blindly asserting that in these cases “no means no”, we should accept that, although it should, it does not always, and tackle that problem.

We must clear up this ambiguity by making explicit, verbal consent necessary (i.e. a “yes, go ahead” not a semi-conscious “mhmm”), and by condemning the rapist, not for wanting to rape the woman but for not bothering to ensure her consent. It is just as wrong to have sex with someone without being sure they want to as it is in full knowledge that they don't. Perhaps the awkward “are you sure you want to go through with this?” will take the romance out of drunken one-night-stands, but that is a small price to pay.