LETTER TO THE EDITOR: LA TIMES
In her October 4th op-ed, “What we talk about when we talk about rape,” Carol Tarvis states that “we need to draw distinctions between behavior that is criminal, behavior that is stupid, and behavior that results from the dance of ambiguity” because “labeling all forms of sexual misconduct, including unwanted touched and sloppy kisses, as rape is alarmist and unhelpful.”
I am a rape survivor. I have also experienced unwanted kissing and fondling, the kind of sexual misconduct discounted by the author as “clumsy” and “stupid.” I wish that these things were not done to me. No, these incidents are not rape, and I am not advocating that they be called rape, but they are products of rape culture.
Carol Tarvis expresses concern about the widely cited statistic that 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted, and cites that 3-4% of college women are raped. Sexual assault encompasses a wide range of acts, including non-penetrative assaults. When working to reduce sexual violence, to only be concerned with rape (non-consensual penetrative acts) and not all sexual assault is exclusive towards survivors who were not raped but whose bodies were violated, including LGBTQ survivors whose assaults were non-penetrative.
Carol Tarvis’ fear that young girls are going to conflate unwanted kissing with rape is illegitimate. We must teach young people the definitions of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment without dismissing the latter two. Young people must be taught that consent is mandatory and that sexual violence is never deserved.
As stated in the article, sexual partners may dread rejecting their partner or being rejected, creating a “dance of ambiguity” in which consent is not asked for or given. The California affirmative consent law for colleges addresses this “dance of ambiguity,” mandating a clear “yes” from sexual partners, and requiring accused perpetrators to defend not only that their accuser consented but what language used and behavior exhibited caused their belief that consent was given. This puts the responsibility on sexual partners to be certain the acts occurring are wanted. Instead of “no means no,” partners must ask and freely give a “yes.” Consent has not been given if an individual is silent, unconscious, or too drunk to be an active consenting participant.
Carol Tarvis brings up an often-voiced concern that women claim to have been raped when they regret sex, and would rather blame men and alcohol than take responsibility for their actions. She states women do this because “if they are inebriated, they haven’t said yes, and if they haven’t said yes, no one can call them sluts.” But if these women haven’t said yes, then they have not consented. Women and girls are often accused of crying rape because they regret their choices, but a person cannot choose to have sexual contact to which they did not consent. If we stop shaming women for desiring sex, we will also stop shaming and blaming them when they are assaulted.
Further on the subject of inebriated sex and consent, she says, “Men who are drunk are less likely to interpret nonconsent messages accurately, and women who are drunk convey less emphatic signs of refusal.” No matter their gender, drunk people function worse than sober people. If a drunk person is initiating sexual contact and misinterpreting another’s messages, they are responsible for violating that person, regardless of how emphatic the refusal was, because consent was not given. Drunk drivers aren’t given a pass for the damage they cause just because their inebriation caused them to misinterpret messages on the road.
The author warns not to let the statistic that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in college “be used to generate a national panic or institute university policies that may cause more harm than good.” I believe there should be a national panic and uproar at the frequency these violations occur within and outside of universities. Which university policies does the author fear will cause more harm than good? School policies already in place have sanctioned perpetrators by having them work in a rape crisis center and write essays on “how to approach a girl you like.” Far more students have been expelled for plagiarism than committing sexual violence. Universities and courts do not define unwanted kissing as the same as rape, but currently, neither offense is being treated like a problem.
Many people are apathetic about sexual violence nationally and within their own circles and relationships—we activists call this wide-spread apathy rape culture. Whether or not individuals are in romantic relationship, a compassionate person cares whether they hurt their sexual partner physically or emotionally, and whether they want that activity to be taking place. Consent is not currently a priority and it needs to be made one.