Black & White

On the 5th of every month, bloggers from around the world are open to write about rights and issues concerning women. First started by Shine and Marie, we’re hoping to bring a variety of women’s issues to the forefront to make people aware of what’s going on. For the month of August, we’ve chosen to write about Physical and Mental Abuse. Please join us in telling us your stories, thoughts, and ideas on a monthly basis. To read previous installments, click here.

This is a tough post to write, mainly because I’m convinced I’m going to get comment-flamed if I word any of this wrongly – which I will, and I don’t mean to. Really, it’s all about where you draw the line, isn’t it? It’s not always as simple as ‘she said no’, ‘she said yes’, it was consensual, it wasn’t consensual, all stand for the judge, case closed.

Because people, somehow, get confused. I’d like to say I don’t understand how this happens, but I do. Somehow you drink a bit too much, you’re wearing a short dress, everyone thinks you’re a slut anyway, and you end up in a situation you didn’t answer, and everyone seems to think that’s acceptable.

I remember being really rather incensed earlier this year when I was sitting around the sitting room with my housemates and some of their friends and said friends (guys) were talking about how their housemate had been at home one night, totally sober, when this girl he knows shows up at his house absolutely and utterly drunk out of her mind, and he invited her in and before she passed out altogether had sex with her. He was totally sober; she was totally drunk. My housemates and their friends were falling about laughing because actually, the way this story was told, was that M started by saying, ‘oh god, it was hilarious, H raped some girl last night’. She was far too drunk to  give consent and while, yes, perhaps in the situation that was kind of what she wanted, and maybe that makes it alright, I’m not sure it does.

Do you see what I mean about lines? And then, what do you say – consent or not-consent? Friend A goes to visit Girl, B. A is coming on strong from the beginning and B keeps saying that she really isn’t interested, and she keeps on saying this, but somehow she’s too trusting and not assertive enough and a friendly shoulder rub turns into naked full-body massage turns into, somehow, her giving up and saying, OK then, yes, if that’s really what you want, and he sticks his cock in her mouth, and then they have sex. And it wasn’t what she wanted but she let him do it anyway because she didn’t really know how to say no and make sure he knew she meant it – I mean, how many times should you have to say it? And he was so reasonable somehow about everything, twisting the situation, making her reticence seem somehow unfair of her and not a perfectly normal reaction to the circumstances. Technically it’s consent, but it feels like a violation, and actually, look at it a slightly different way, he’s only a teenage boy, perhaps he’s really not that good at reading body language and understanding that ‘no’ isn’t a come-on in real life even though it is in the movies and in porn and the rest.

And there, coyness is our undoing, because how can we expect men to always know the difference between a ‘no’ that means ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ that means ‘no’? And does that make the situation partly her fault, or not? And if it is partly her fault, does that make it any less of a bad thing in her mind? Or somehow worse?

And so it’s all very well, all this simplistic feminist banging on about how wearing a short skirt or drinking too much doesn’t constitute consent, and how if you’re wearing skinny jeans that doesn’t mean it can’t possibly be rape; and it’s all very well, on the other side, arguing that you should stay safe and always get a licensed cab home, but actually I bet you most of the time, most women who have had that kind of experience are on a date, with a friend, with an ex, someone they know, and that person just somehow misunderstands or doesn’t recieve the signals they’re being sent, and it’s all the consequence of a series of terrible misjudgements, and perhaps if Friend A had any idea about how Girl B felt about what happened, he would feel incredibly guilty, but of course, she stopped answering his calls, starting the following day, and maybe he’ll never learn. Maybe he did know that what he was doing was wrong, but he didn’t quite realise just how wrong. Maybe she told him as he stuck it in, you know I’m going to hate you forever for this – and what clearer signal could you possibly ask for – but she was already naked and so he didn’t believe her.

So I don’t know what the answer really is. How can we educate women and men, girls and boys, to understand the signals they’re getting and to give out the clearest possible answers? How can we make sure that we all understand what we want from a given situation and we all understand what the other person wants too?

It’s not always meant to be abuse. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t abuse, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a violation or that it’s not every bit as wrong as it is. There are men out there, I’m sure, who don’t care to get consent before they undo their flies, but for every one of them, I think there are at least ten who just didn’t understand ‘no’ when they heard it.

What I’m really saying is, black and white thinking is not helpful to anyone. There isn’t always a clear line. We’re human beings, and we hurt one another more than anything else on this planet can possibly hurt us. And that doesn’t make rape any less terrible – for goodness’ sake, if anything, it probably makes it worse. Because of course you’re thinking, was I to blame? If I’d drunk less/worn more/not gone out to meet him for dinner…and there isn’t an honest answer.

It’s all about being assertive, they tell you. And that’s all very well if you’re already confident and articulate and you have that self-esteem and that feeling of self-worth and you know you’re well within your rights to scratch this ‘friend’ in the eyeballs, or scream, or kick him in the balls. But what if you’re not? So many of us aren’t, and it’s not the kind of lesson you can learn in a day or call upon just at the moment you need it.

Sometimes there is a clear line, of course. Some men really do look down on women – wives, girlfriends, lovers – and don’t see them for the human beings they are. Some men really do think that some girls deserve rape. But to think that group of men constitute all the rapists in the world and all the men who have ever hurt a woman physically or emotionally is to oversimplify an issue and mean that it’ll be harder than anything to get this sorted so women don’t end up in those situations. And I don’t know what the answer is.



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16 responses to “Black & White

  1. Pingback: Femme Writes – Abuse « Femme Writes

  2. sherryrose

    i think you’re absolutely right- there is no black and white.

    rape isn’t simply some stranger jumping out from behind a bush attacking an innocent person and running off. it’s boyfriends who don’t understand “not tonight”, it’s ex’s that think since you used to back then it’s ok now. it’s drunk guys/girls at a party not able to use a logical mind and make the best decisions. it’s young kids that can’t read the cues or implied refusals, it’s the girls that haven’t found their voice yet or haven’t found out it’s ok to say NO and mean it and enforce it.

    the whole mess is a twisted, confusing, mass of a million different shades of grey. even worse, it’s become a joke to too many- people talking about their friends and laughing at something that happened. jokes told at a bar. guys bragging about things they’ve done. girls trying to laugh it off or avoid it because to face the real terror of the situation is too much.

    i don’t think there is one answer. i wish it could be simple. i wish there were some handbook or instruction manual that we could all turn to in different situations to have it spelled out for us. until then…

    excellent post. thank you for being willing to brave the comment-storm. you’re an amazing woman for speaking your voice.

  3. Laura

    That was a great post. I was going to write more in this comment, but really you said it all. Thanks for your open and honest opinion.

  4. I’m glad you wrote this. And while I may not agree with everything in it, I think the most important point is that all of this boils down to communication.

    I tried to make clear in the post I wrote about this today that I do think that women need to work on being clear. On saying no when they mean no and yes when they mean yes (which, true, does take a certain amount of confidence). And I do think that sometimes there’s just simply a breakdown of communication and no one understands what’s going on.

    But the “simplistic feminist banging,” as you put it is about enthusiastic consent. It’s about teaching men that the only consent is an enthusiastic and clear yes and teaching women that it’s okay to give an enthusiastic and clear yes. If this were the standard and the norm, it wouldn’t all be dependent on body language and clues and picking up hints or seeing through a ruse. It would be about “yes” and “no.”

    Nothing is black and white, and I couldn’t agree more with that. But this particular thing doesn’t HAVE to be such a problem. If we start teaching kids at a young age that we’re all people and we’re all to be respected and that it’s okay for girls to like and want sex and that it’s okay for boys to wait for a “yes”? I think the world could be a little bit better of a place.

    And frankly, I’m kind of appalled at anyone who jokes about “so-and-so raped a girl last night.” I’m not sure I would call what happened “rape,” and I’m not sure that everyone in the situation couldn’t have made better decisions, but I can say that joking that your friend raped someone is pretty fucked up.

    I could probably write for days, but I’m going to shut up now. I’m glad you posted this!

  5. well, any issue that has a PSA slogan like “no means no” is bound to be complicated; can you think of any other situation in which that would be a valid comment?

    i think that we as women need to own our choices. meaning that if we decide to sleep with someone, we need to own that as our decision and not the product of drinking, circumstances or pressure. on the flip side of owning our yes moments..

    “but somehow she’s too trusting and not assertive enough and a friendly shoulder rub turns into naked full-body massage turns into, somehow, her giving up and saying, OK then, yes, if that’s really what you want, and he sticks his cock in her mouth, and then they have sex. And it wasn’t what she wanted but she let him do it anyway because she didn’t really know how to say no and make sure he knew she meant it – I mean, how many times should you have to say it?”

    i only say it once. if i don’t feel heard, i’m outta there. we need to instill that courage and firmness in all women.

    and i don’t think we should force men to get a permission slip or explicit verbal consent. but i do think that there is something a lot less than honorable about sleeping with a girl who is so drunk she can hardly walk. especially if you’re pretty sure she wouldn’t do it sober.

  6. Interesting post, and I agree with a lot of it. Especially this:

    “black and white thinking is not helpful to anyone.”

    Although, I’m not sure I’d classify “Physical and Mental abuse” as a “women’s issue”. Can men not be victims of these things also? :-S

    • Jenny

      Thanks, everyone, for all your responses to this :). Hello anyone who hasn’t read my blog before, too!

      Dickie – go to Femme Writes to see what it’s all about – this is a site which is about women and feminism today and so the title Physical and Mental Abuse is referring to abuse that women suffer for being women, it’s not for one second denying that people everywhere are abused in many ways every day regardless of gender, it’s just that that’s not in the remit of the site or of this months subject.

      Shine – I may have been being a little facetious when I talked about feminist banging – I fully agree that if women had more of a voice and if girls and boys were better educated about the idea of enthusiastic consent the world would be a far better place :). Sadly I very much doubt the world will ever reach that point, partly because for many it’s about the thrill of the chase – and most of the time there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t know…

      Lastly I would like to thank everyone here for all your incredibly supportive and understanding comments and the surprising total lack of commentwrath I have so far received! Xx

  7. “this is a site which is about women and feminism today and so the title Physical and Mental Abuse is referring to abuse that women suffer for being women, it’s not for one second denying that people everywhere are abused in many ways every day regardless of gender, it’s just that that’s not in the remit of the site or of this months subject.”

    But why? Why only consider part of an issue like this one, so as to exclude the experiences and opinions of half of the population? What does that achieve?

  8. Let me first start out by saying this is a great post.

    I can’t believe someone would joke about raping a girl. That’s not only appalling but horrifying because there’s really nothing funny about it.

    It all starts with education for both girls and boys. They both need to learn there is nothing wrong with having sex, but not only do they need to be safe, they need to also respect each other. And while a guy needs to stop when a woman says “no”, ladies need to stop playing the coy “no means yes” game as well.

  9. For all a lot a ‘typical’ women’s magazines are shallow tat, I do actually owe it to them that I understand my ability to say NO. Bliss when I was an early teenager and Cosmopolitan more recently both emphasised again and again and again, every issue, that every woman (and indeed every man) has the right to be in charge of her (his) own sexual desires and encounters. Also that yes, perhaps the majority of rapes are not made by a stranger.

    Dickie, no-one’s saying that men don’t have problems with mental and/or physical abuse themselves, or that they can’t comment on the experiences of women. You remember that in one of your semi-recent posts you said ‘You may disagree with this paragraph on it, but please don’t argue with it in the comments because that isn’t the point of this particular post’, or words to that effect? It’s sort of the same thing here. If Jenny, or this particular site, tried to argue about every experience of abuse ever, she’d be here all day! Entire theses have been written! So she’s just focussed in a bit.

    That said, if you wanted to write the equivalent post looking at male issues, I for one would be fascinated to read it.

  10. That’s kind of the point; I wouldn’t write the equivalent post looking at male issues, because I don’t think it’d be productive!

    For starters I feel extremely uncomfortable “gendering” things like this, because I think that much of the time the experience is generalisable to lots of people. And then when there really are genuine differences between most male and female experiences (and of course I don’t deny that there are some), they are generally different sides of the same coin and I think that to only consider half of an issue can be misleading at best.

    That’s not to say that people should consider every piece of abuse ever because obviously that’s unmanageable; what I’m saying is that when people focus on something, it seems that sometimes they lose sight of the bigger picture (and in some cases, get hostile when you even attempt to suggest that there is a bigger picture…)

    By the way, none of this is intended as a criticism of the original post; it was more of a snark at the fact that it was chosen as a “women’s issues” topic :-p

  11. Jenny

    No, it’s not that it was chosen as a topic because we think it’s only a women’s issue; it’s more that we’re looking at abuse from a ‘women’s issues’ lens in the same way that one might look at employment or parenthood or bullying from a ‘women’s issues’ lens or an ‘issues for gay people’ lens or a ‘racial issues’ lens or through no specific ‘lens’ whatsoever. Femme Writes is about looking at how it is living as a woman and how you are treated specifically due to your gender rather than because of any other thing about you in the world today, does that make sense?

    The word ‘lens’ no longer looks like a word now.

    Meanwhile, Lucy, you make a very good point. I’m always kvetching about womens’ magazines but you’re right, that’s one thing they are quite good at. What is harder is continuing to feel that you have the right to say no in actual fact, when you’re actually *in* a given situation. But I don’t know what we do about that. Just keep drumming the message in, I guess.

  12. Yes, I think I understand what you’re saying. But the question remains: why bother? I don’t know if anything is learned by looking at wide-reaching societal issues “under a lens”. Or rather, nothing of any real use. Instead it seems to muddy the issue, and the danger is that some groups/issues get put under the lens more than others (and then I get shouted at for saying “oh well isn’t this related to that?”). That’s the point I’m trying to make.

    So coming back to Femme Writes, why are are only women allowed to write about “how you are treated specifically due to your gender”? It seems weird (and I’m tempted to say hypocritical) to be exclusive in that way. Personally I find it much more interesting to hear a diverse set of experiences and opinions.

  13. Pingback: A Question of Yes or No. « A Year Full of Books

  14. Pingback: It’s called FEMME Writes, see?

  15. MP

    That was wonderfully written and I agree with you completely. I think most women have been in a situation you described where they finally just gave in because nothing else worked or the man was just so persistent. I know I have and I appreciate you talking about it. Thank you.

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