It is easy to mistake intercoursal consent for the absence of “opposition” at penetration, largely regarded as the point of no going back – I have made the mistake before, in conceptual terms that is, that if there are no scuffles involved, that consent must have been required and given. There are girls who have been compelled to put out for reasons such as shame, resignation or pre-emptive fear (distinct in this case from resignation or fear compelled by violence), who simply want to get whatever it is over with, with minimum fuss. I have heard stories: example: Guy B suddenly appears while his friend, Guy A, is having sex with a girl. Guy B, with the active connivance of Guy A, assume that the consent given to Guy A extends to him also, especially if the girl is one keen to keep her relations with Guy A under wraps. Today’s males – and yesterday’s? – simply do not know where to draw the line.
Oh and yes, I overheard this one happen a while ago, because I was where I was supposed to be at a wrong time: A girl was essentially raped by four boys who felt it was ok because, wait for it, it was rumoured – falsely or truly – that she’d been with ten boys – I do not know if they meant collectively or individually – previously.
I intend to focus on the grey areas of consent, the no-yes between the firm extremes of no and yes. There is nothing grey about those who simply bypass consent with violence, the threat of violence, or other instruments of coercion – these instances are firmly black. There can be no conceptualizations about them.
There is a resurgent NoMeansNo campaign about, especially on American college campuses. It would be an immensely useful campaign in Nigerian university campuses, from where it should percolate further into wider society. Problem: No sometimes does not mean no. Really.
After deferring to Bunmi’s muffled no for the best part of a night, Bello is resigned to making do with all the non-penetrative intermingling they have been at all night. They have been talking for a while but are only meeting for the first time. After some three hours, Bunmi finally lets Bello remove her jeans and they have sex. In the post-mortem of the event, Bunmi says: You know we could have had this sex way earlier. Bello is stunned but manages to hide it under a: Well, I needed it to entirely be your decision.
Some other boy may have taken Bunmi’s irresolute no for a poorly disguised yes much earlier in the night. Bunmi may not have appreciated the haste after all, despite what she told Bello. She may also have. The arena of sex and consent can be very fluid and complicated. There are girls whose nos really want to be nos but are ultimately betrayed by their bodies (for example, say, by the wanton alertness of some breasts, clad or shorn). So, say such a girl ultimately has sex with a boy who, despite being told no manages to get his hands on her breasts. Do we give her time of day if she alleges sabotage? Or do we turn our noses up at what may be termed her naivete? I suppose the famous masculine protest – “but she was moaning!” – derives from such betrayals.
Problem: How does one distinguish which no means no from which no means try harder? Very big problem. To avoid trouble or a heavy conscience, I agree that a boy simply has to treat no as no.
And consent is a sophisticated concept. I believe that it is coterminous with intercourse in that the requisition of consent does not simply terminate at penetration. You may have had consent to penetrate, thrust once or even a fair few times, but if you hear a stop, or a no, the girl has effectively withdrawn her consent. The reason – physical, mental or whatever – is nobody’s business. If she needs you to get off, you should, no matter how far your hormones have raged.
And even here the question is still valid: Does stop mean stop?; Does no mean no? My candid advice to males is to treat stops and nos as stops and nos first, before anything else. Philosophical conundrums mean little when you are accused of rape. (Even if ours is a society that does not seem to be ready to devote sexual predatorship the scrutiny it needs, the weight of such allegations on the “normal” being can be troubling.)
In all of this, we must consider the man too. Particular women’s conceptions of consent and sexual experience, especially after the event, have been known to wander into the fantastical realm of falsehood, as this Slate article by Emile Yoffe illustrates, and this famous Rolling Stones imbroglio exemplifies. In wider society, there is precious little talk about rape or coercion or consent the other way round because men are regarded – mostly accurately – as raging sexual beasts, who will sell their mamas for a piece of “heaven”, his consent taken as given. It is intuitive to not blame the hunt on game. Which is fine, because that topic is not the focus of this piece. My conception of consent requires a lot of restraint on the man. Perhaps in the social upbringing of the male child, the importance of sexual restraint should be hammered into him. How, I do not know for now. But meanwhile…
Here are my hard and fast (if hilarious) guidelines. Let’s call it Casual Sex for Non-Beasts:
- If you see sex in the horizon (when do men never see sex in the horizon?), control is the last thing you need, especially with prospective sexual partners (hopefully, you know the quirks of settled partners, hopefully). Cede control. If she is “on top”, she holds all the aces. The weighty decisions are entirely hers: penetration, when to stop. Her no is simply to get off you. She’s the cowboy and you are her erm… bitch. And don’t press her ass down yet. You just wait. In fact, fold your hands behind your head.
- If consent is withdrawn mid-action (you know, “stop”, “STOP”, “STOP!”, “no”, “NO”, “NO!”), do not disregard it. You may live to regret this disregard. What you should do, because you’re human after all, is to thrust one more time, just once, tentatively, like you’re unsure, because you *are* unsure. This is my discriminatory test for NoMeansNo and NoMeansPauseButGoOn. If she keeps at the withdrawal, biko, get off. If she doesn’t storm off, perhaps she may re-invite you. And if she does storm off… well, like a Bond title once declared, Tomorrow Never Dies.