Post so titled because I’m acutely aware I’m stepping into a big old minefield, and not at all certain I’m not going to blow something or myself up before completion.
Peter posts today about rape, rights, and responsibility, and I encourage you to go over there and read it in full either before you read this or before you react to it, since I don’t want to take any chance whatsoever on misrepresenting what he said and the position from which he said it. (See, there’s that caution again- I like Peter a lot and what he wrote didn’t even remotely offend me, but again, minefield.) The upshot of his post is a reaction against a strongly stated position- a woman’s right to control over her own body remains in place at all times, up to and including after she agrees to go to her home or his with a guy, after she’s had a drink or twenty, after she’s agreed to sex with one guy but not necessarily the rest of his rugby team too, and so forth. Peter points out- and his point is valid- is that in the real world there are a lot of people who will not respect your rights and you should at all times remember this fact before taking any action whatsoever.
I’m going to attempt to dispense with a large wall of text carefully trying to sort out the issue because I think the heart of the matter is that both points of view are absolutely true. Peter’s right in that there are a lot of wicked people out there just looking to take advantage and if you are not careful you are likely to become their prey; the point of view he’s responding to that a woman does have the right to autonomy over her own body under all circumstances is correct. I think the latter needs to be said because there’s a disturbing amount of sentiment out there that consent is, rather than being what I’d recognize as consent, a sort of game with conditions to be met that result in consent whether the person whose consent is assumed and whose further opinion is rendered invalid knows it or not; a more extreme example of this attitude would be the one I’ve encountered that there is no such thing as marital rape because marriage itself is open sexual consent.
More common examples seem to be that if you agree to have more than one drink with someone, that’s open consent, if you agree to go home with them, that’s open consent, if you wear something that could be construed to be a sexual invitation (to whom? anyone turned on, apparently) that’s open consent, and so forth. All of them carry an undercurrent of the attitude that women are the sexual property of men and any individual one just needs to meet the proper conditions to claim it, and while Peter is correct in noting that a disturbing number of men do indeed have this exact attitude and one must always be prepared to encounter them, it’s also correct to point out that this is a fucking disturbing attitude and one whose existence as a default is something we would be better off not accepting so blithely as we so often tend to.
We tend to maintain a pretty healthy balance of attitude when it comes to other common crimes that consist of a violation of someone else’s bodily autonomy; when considering assault, we all agree that it’s not a good idea to associate with certain people and not a good idea to deliberately provoke them and that we should be aware of ways in which we might do so inadvertently, but when assault happens we generally take it as given that the burden of blame is on the person who decided to take their fists or weapon and start inflicting grievous bodily harm on the other. Legally speaking, we also have no problem entering a he-said-she-said (or he-said-he-said, or whatever) situation and taking one side or another; it’s not treated as a delicate and fraught thing, if one dude claims the other beat the shit out of him and the other dude says he was defending himself from the first dude’s face, we don’t have a terribly difficult time taking Dude A’s side of things legally even if we think he might be kind of a scumbag himself. The degree to which he may have somehow earned a beating from the universe in general just isn’t relevant to the prosecution or defense unless the defense really thinks it can make a case that he goes around attacking people with his face.
Likewise, we accept that stumbling down the back alleys drunk at three in the morning with lots of cash on you is a dumb thing to do, but we don’t doubt that it was a mugging, take reasonable doubt that the mugger might have thought Drunky McStumbler was offering the money as a gift, or excuse Mugger McBlackjack as anything less than a criminal with as low a legal and moral status as any other criminal. We think Drunky was dangerously naive or careless, but we don’t regard Mugger’s actions as just what anyone under the same circumstances would do and therefore deserving of lesser blame or perhaps a pass entirely.
The thing is, unlike Mugger McBlackjack and his cohort, who have the sort of backwards courtesy to identify themselves clearly as predators in the act of committing a crime, rape- especially date rape or rape at a party, which is usually the situation where the argument comes into things- does not have such conveniently drawn lines. Everybody knows as a matter of basic “duh” level social training that there is no such thing as implied or assumed consent to help yourself to the contents of someone’s wallet or beat the shit out of them or walk off with their property, but romantic interactions and sex are, even when completely innocent, often tied up in a sort of social game of unsaids, implications, invitations, and deliberately lowered inhibitions.
We look at a situation in which someone was raped after drinking with (or getting drunk with) a man or men she didn’t absolutely trust, but at the same time having a drink or more at a party or on a date is an established social convention to the point where you are generally supposed to provide some sort of reason for refusing a drink that isn’t “I reject you and your company now”; you provide a religious reason, or say your father was an alcoholic, or that you’re driving, but it’s enough of a departure from the norm that some sort of reason you wouldn’t accept a drink in a social situation is expected*. Likewise, for a relaxed social setting in which the mood is “let’s all have fun together”, part of expected social behavior for a woman is that she herself be relaxed, smiley, and a little flirty; to keep smiles to the cool and polite minimum is viewed as rejection in the personal (and most people do take rejection personally) and ice-queen, standoffish behavior in the general. The problem for her is that she has no idea if the individual guy she is talking to and smiling at and being slightly flirty with is thinking:
a) “Cool, this is fun, we’ll have a nice conversation and maybe I’ll talk to this other chick next and maybe we’ll all play Parcheesi, maybe I’ll find someone to go home with and maybe we’ll just all have fun.”
b) “She smiled at me, she probably won’t reject me in the next thirty seconds.”
c) “She smiled at me and that blouse is sexy as hell. Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
d) “She’s smiling at me and wearing a totally slutty outfit. She’s clearly dying for it. Let’s see how many drinks it takes to get her to admit it.”
e) “Welp, found my bitch for the night.”
Or to put it more broadly, any given woman in a mixed-sex social setting that isn’t strictly business is required to have two simultaneous views of every man in the room that she isn’t deeply familiar with:
a) A potential predator who may take any excuse to separate me from the group and brutally assault me.
b) A friendly human like myself who might be a good friend or even potential partner, whether for the night or more.
It is, to put it mildly, difficult to hold both views of a group of people you don’t know very well at the same time. Leaning toward option A means you miss out on a lot of social opportunities, even so low-level as basically just having some fun in a group, and leaning toward B means you’re metaphorically hanging a “COME AND GET IT” sign around your neck to whichever equally-non-threatening-looking dude in the group holds the “women as sexual property” view. It’s also the one most people lean to, because we don’t normally require people to pass extensive tests in order to consider them basically unthreatening and to view sudden assault and violation as unlikely. We get offended when people assume us likely to commit what we view as serious crimes (murder, assault- rape) just because we’re a member of a certain group or social class and that class isn’t “the Crime Is Fun And Awesome club”.
Making it all much murkier is the fact that it really IS almost impossible to tell from the outside what constitutes rape and what constitutes a sexual encounter one partner regrets and what constitutes a case of one or both participants being too fucked up to remember which one it was later- which makes it all the more tempting, from the outside, to decide which one it was based on a combination of experience and prejudice. There really is no other crime like rape, both in terms of the importance of consent, the ramifications of any kind of judgment impairment liked with the social commonness of lowering inhibitions a bit, or the sheer situation it represents of being able to go so instantly from “everybody is being fun and having fun in an acceptable social setting of fun” to “someone is being horribly violated, and everyone else thinks that’s fun or can’t tell that it’s not.”
So yes, I am all for stressing that your own safety is your responsibility to look out for, first and foremost. I am also for stressing and extending the attitude that everyone has the right to bodily autonomy and there is no exception to that rule. What I’m not for is pretending that avoiding rape is exactly as obvious and easy as avoiding being drunk in dark alleys with a wad of cash in your wallet.
*Which is not saying “it’s a social obligation to get drunk at a party”, but rather “the line between being socially normal and being stupid is pretty fuzzy and often only visible in hindsight”, especially given how much tolerance can vary for even the same individual. Depending on altitude, time of day, my blood sugar level, and hydration level, I either have a hollow leg or am a two-drink cheap date, for example.