The Magic Word

Our Male-Dominated Culture Has A Beef With Sexual Consent

  • Graphic Laura Lalonde

This story isn’t that complicated, and it’s about consent. In my freshman year, students were bombarded with “talk consent to me, baby” pins and lectures about the importance of consent. It sounded pretty straightforward. Yet, in one year, I have met many women that can talk about the disparity between what was taught then and what they’ve experienced.

Natasha—who shared her story on the condition of anonymity—was turning nineteen. This meant she could finally legally drink in Whistler, and there was no way she wouldn’t celebrate that with a copious amount of alcohol. After a few hours of partying, she went to take a midnight nap—as she so often does when drunk.

After falling down five steps of the wooden staircase trying to reach her bedroom, she successfully passed out on top of her bed. Her four roommates, April, Amy, Justin, and James, came in to wake her. Justin, who was also her manager at work, handed her a tin can in which she vomited, and they all left her to rest.

All but James, who was also her co-worker. “Coming in and out of consciousness,” she could feel him cuddling her.

This didn’t bother her; even the sudden erection she felt against her back didn’t worry her, until she realized what James was attempting to do.

“He was trying to put it in and it hurt,” she said, scrolling down her Tumblr dashboard, distant from her story. Her words fell out of her mouth as though it were a plot from a movie.

In her disorderliness, she wondered what was happening and rolled out of bed to safety, only to fall face down on the floor. That’s all she was really capable of doing in the state she was in.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“What do you think I’m doing?” he replied, laughing.

Natasha then crawled out of the room, making her way to the staircase where she passed out again.

That is “all” that happened that night. No rape and no other aggressive actions from James, but it was sexual assault.

The problem of sex and consent lies not only in the 460,000 sexual assaults— according to a study made by Statistics Canada in 2004—reported in the country in a given year. It also lies in the attempted rapes, in the fear of saying “no” to sex, in the problem of the “come on baby, we’ve done it before,” and in the silenced victims.

That night, Natasha didn’t comprehend what had just happened; her drunkenness was too present. The following morning, however, it hit her hard. She felt upset, and the questions kept piling up in her dehydrated, pounding head. Why would he have done this?

“I trusted him, he was my closest guy friend,” she said.

She was shaken. In the next days her silence only strengthened her distress. She and James ignored each other, and the awkwardness—like her secrecy—ate her up inside. She finally decided to confide in Amy and April.

“It didn’t seem to be such a big deal until they said it loud and clear: ‘attempted rape,’” she said, still scrolling down her dashboard.

Telling them what happened was hard enough for Natasha, but Amy was pushing her to confront James about it, or she would do it for her.

Natasha wanted to talk to Justin about it, in hopes of getting a second opinion on what she should do. His reaction scarred her. He laughed and scoffed at her story.

“James isn’t the kind of guy to do this. You should reconsider the situation before doing anything about it,” he told her.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of someone telling a woman to second-guess herself, which Natasha had already done. She had asked herself repeatedly if she had done anything to make this happen, if it was her fault.

Three weeks after her birthday, James came home from a night out and they were finally alone in the living room. If April and Amy hadn’t pushed her to say anything, she would have kept it bottled up.

“Just because it’s me and I was his friend doesn’t make it okay,” said Natasha.

Fear and embarrassment were swelling in her. There were so many possibilities for his reaction: would it be laughter, anger, or maybe denial? “This was my time to shine,” she said jokingly.

James pretended he didn’t remember, followed with an apology that ended midway as he passed out on the couch. But with the way he had been acting towards her since that night, it was obvious to her that he knew he had done something.

Even though it seemed to Natasha like he didn’t take his actions seriously, she had already “built a bridge and gotten over it.” Their friendship was never the same, and she would cringe at the idea of being alone with him.

“I didn’t want him to touch me or anything like that again,” she said.

Although that was the end of the story that night, Natasha has gone through many more experiences like this one. Pushy men have become common for her.

“I don’t know if that’s the way guys are,” she said, trailing off.

She gained a different perspective on how men treat women. At 12 years old she had already developed a womanly figure, and an indifference to men’s constant sexual comments.

“I don’t know how it is to not be known for my body parts,” she said.

She became somewhat immune to it, as a kind of self-preservation.

“[There have been] so many guys leering at me since I was twelve. A guy whipped out his dick once and jacked off [in front of me],” she said.

Natasha was 14, clothed on an empty nude beach in Greece, when a man started masturbating while staring at her. Shocked, she ran as fast she could, crying, to her parents.

These experiences have taught her to shut men out, ignoring their inappropriate looks or words while out in the streets. She laughs it off. She summed up her reaction when men leer at her breasts:

“Yes, they are big. And you can look at them all you want because that is as far as you are going to get.”

From older strangers to boyfriends, she felt men often had no understanding of boundaries or respect towards her, especially in her adolescent years.

“They had no sense of control over their own sexual urges, which women are expected to be controlling,” said Natasha.

“Even if you’ve had sex with someone five hundred times, you still have to ask every time for consent. It is not a given,” said Drummond. “You can never assume consent. It must be asked for.”

It’s expected that with a boyfriend of one and a half years, consensual sex would be more than a simple normality, that it would be engrained in the relationship.

Think again.

Lying in bed one night, Natasha’s boyfriend wanted to have sex. Regardless of her objections, he forced her legs opened and said, “You’re not going to make me wait again.”

And that was it. He had sex with her.

The more she opened up to me, the more episodes unraveled in her mind—anecdotes she had buried away.

According to Jennifer Drummond, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Resource Center at Concordia University, the majority of sexual assaults come from someone trusted, like a friend or a partner.

“Even if you’ve had sex with someone five hundred times, you still have to ask every time for consent. It is not a given,” said Drummond. “You can never assume consent. It must be asked for.”

The idea of rape in popular culture is nothing like most common experiences. Pop culture promotes the notion that only a violent attack by a stranger counts as rape. Yet, Drummond says someone being coerced into having sex counts as sexual assault too.

“It isn’t consensual if it is anything but an enthusiastic ‘yes!’” said Drummond.

Women too often feel the need to say ‘yes’ to sex, out of fear of a man’s reaction, the fear of sounding prudish, or the fear of disappointing someone. Non-consensual sex is very present: out of the five women I talked to, three could recall experiences of non-consensual sex.

Odile McDonald is a 47-year-old hardy business owner and mother of two daughters. She comes from a family of sisters and suffered abuse as a child.

She has always been a confident feminist. She remembers raising her ex-husband’s kids and noticing a difference in the way he would talk about sex. He congratulated his son for his numerous girlfriends, while ignoring his daughter’s dates or discussing safe sex practices like the need to buy condoms.

“This is what consolidates the idea of men as the predators and women as the hunted,” said McDonald. This issue is amplified in the way we raise our children.

“We should be able to say ‘Hey dude, I don’t want to have sex’ without feeling ashamed,” she said, envying people that talked about sex in that determined way. “It is such a present part of our lives; we should not be so ill at ease when we talk about it.”

Natasha’s new roommate, Chloe, has also had disturbing experiences with men and sex. She studies Fine Arts at Concordia and is a burgeoning feminist. She carries a sketchbook filled with drawings and writings. With it, she tries to make sense of the issues that infuriate her.

Chloe remembers being In bed with a man, once, when she was asked if she wanted to sleep with him. Seeing that she was indecisive, he instantly backed off. It was the first time a man had ever asked her this and respected her answer. It seemed strange to hear those words and to see these actions. Odder yet, she felt disoriented by it.

“For men to say they cannot not have sex is weak, it is so fucking weak. You can definitely be respectful,” said Chloe, putting her fist down on a stool in the bar where she waitresses.

It reminded her of the “consent is sexy” pins given out at frosh. It contrasted dramatically with everything she had ever experienced.

“It has become normalized to not ask for consent anymore,” said Drummond.

Whenever Chloe stands by what she wants—to not have sex—men walk out on her. When she’d just moved to Montreal, she met one of those men at McKibbins on Bishop St.

As she left the bar, he insisted on accompanying her to the bus stop. He then led her to a gloomy alley next to a church. He tried talking her into having sex and when he realized she wouldn’t cave, he left her there, at 3 a.m., in a city she barely knew.

“He had come ‘this far,’ so I should have had sex him,” said Chloe. That was his argument.

She hated that night for a long time, and felt embarrassed and vulnerable.

“Who knows what could have happened to me?”

This is what women are scared of: ruining the moment or getting the other person mad.

More women than you would think have suffered from a man feeling entitled to their bodies—whether a boyfriend, a friend, a one-night-stand, or a stranger.

“They feel like a man by abusing their power over women. Congratu-fucking-lations,” Natasha said, finally getting riled.

This is not only a story of consent, or a tale of too many women with too many testimonies. It’s also about men asserting manhood through sexual violence. And it’s all around us. The fear that women carry, the non-consensual sex, the misogyny, the rapes and the free-walking assaulters.

“We need a culture change in general,” said Drummond. “We need to shift people’s attitudes towards gender, sexism, other types of oppressions intersected with sexism that allow these incidents to occur.”

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