The Single Most Important Aspect of Sex by @SianFergs

…is the very thing that defines it as sex as opposed to rape. Consent.

When done right, sex can be lovely and amazing and mind-altering. When abused, it can become the most terrifying and traumatising ordeal one could ever go through – rape.

There is a poorly-recognised, but definite line that separates sex from rape: consent. It seems pretty straightforward: if the involved parties consent to having sex, it’s good, and if they don’t, that’s rape, which is bad. But if there’s one thing I’ve picked up from the public discourse surrounding reports of rape cases – including that of Steubenville, Vavi, and more recently Brickz – it’s that many people are confused about what consent is.

And I don’t really blame all of them. It is often said that we live in a society where we teach people not to be raped instead of teaching people not to rape. Even at primary and high school, we all learn more about ensuring our own safety than learning about consent. While well-intentioned, this method of preventing rape is problematic because the responsibility to prevent rape is forced onto the victim, not the perpetrator, at a sub-conscious or conscious level.

In order for us to move away from rape culture and into ‘consent culture’, as it is often called, we should all educate ourselves about consent.

So what exactly is consent?

According to the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Act, No. 32 of 2007, rape is any non-consensual sexual penetration. The Act outlines the definition of penetration, as well as instances in which consent is nullified or where one cannot give consent.

A person cannot give consent, or their consent is considered invalid, if they are:

  • Intimidated, forced or threatened in any way, through violence or threats of violence against you or someone you love, or damage to your property
  • Compelled by someone who abuses their power or authority, for instance if someone tells you that you will lose your job if you do not have sex with them
  • Lied to by a doctor or other health-worker who tells you that a sex act is part of a physical examination, or is necessary for your mental or physical health
  • Asleep, or unconscious
  • In an ‘altered state of mind’ as a result of consuming drugs or alcohol, so much so that the victim’s judgement and/or consciousness is impaired.
  • A child under the age of 12
  • A person with a mental disability

In other words, consent isn’t not saying no. It is saying yes; it is agreeing to sex without being forced or intimidated into agreeing to sex. One of the most shocking discoveries in the Steubenville case – wherein a young woman was raped by two men at a party while she was unconscious, and others watched – was that many onlookers didn’t know that it was rape. Often people think that rape always looks ‘violent’, with the victim attempting to ‘fight off’ the attacker. This is not always the case, as sometimes victims ‘freeze up’, are intimidated by the attacker, are drugged or drunk, or – in this case – are asleep or unconscious. As the victim in this case was unconscious she couldn’t consent to sex, nor could she refuse it. What most people don’t understand is that the absence of both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ should be taken to mean a ‘no’. You need a ‘yes’, or its rape. Similarly, when it comes to sexual contact that doesn’t involve penetration, a ‘yes’ is also mandatory.

The idea of the mandatory ‘yes’ can freak people out. Often, silence is seen as romantic and sexy. Romantic comedies and Disney movies tell us that when we meet our one true love, we’ll intuitively know what they do and don’t want. Without verbally touching base with one another, the characters would grab each other and kiss passionately. There’s the romanticised idea that you’ll be so in tune with your one true love that they will always want you, which is simply not true. Indeed, sometimes consent can be non-verbal: it can come in the form of enthusiastic participation. But if you have any doubts, ask. I’d argue that, ethically, it’s always best to ask for verbal consent.

Saying to someone “Hey, can I just get your consent on this? Because you know, I really don’t want to rape you,” can be a bit of a buzzkill. But when you weigh it up, would you prefer to avoid asking an awkwardish question, or to avoid raping or harassing someone? I think the latter. Sometimes people don’t want to ask permission to kiss someone else as it makes room for rejection: they’d rather go in and hope the other person is awkward enough to just play along and kiss them back. To this mentality, I’d say that rejection might be hurtful, but it doesn’t really compare to the hurt and upset that comes with being harassed. Set your pride aside for another’s bodily autonomy.

The conversation on how to make consent less awkward is an interesting one. “Consent is sexy!” is a popular adage of the sex-positive community. This mentality has been criticised by some. I came across the following post on tumblr a while back: “Consent is sexy in the same way that not shitting on people’s doorsteps is sweet and neighbourly.” This is completely true: It’s not like not raping someone is sexy. It should be expected. But just because something is mandatory doesn’t mean it can’t be sensual; that’s why we have ribbed condoms. So look at it this way: consent is always mandatory, and it can be sexy. We have to embrace consent culture in order to get away from rape culture, so why not make consent as sensual as possible?

There are many ways to make consent a romantic and sexy part of your tapping routine. If you’re in a committed relationship, or if you have recurring hook-ups with a certain person, the implementation of boundaries and safewords is always a good idea. Communicate about what you’re comfortable and uncomfortable with.

If you’re hooking up with someone for the first time, just ask. There are a number of sexy, romantic, heart-melting ways to request or give consent. Envisage: you’re in the club, looking fine, hair did, and you’re dancing closely with a person you rather fancy. You’d like to kiss them, but you understand the importance of consent. So you whisper into their ear, “I’d really like to kiss you right now.” Now THAT is an example of consent being sexy. Keep a couple consent-seeking phrases in your hook-up arsenal; I think the simple question “May I kiss you?” coupled with a sweet smile is always wonderful.

It’s easy to forget to educate ourselves about the most important part of sex: consent. But it is the most essential part of a sexual relationship, so embrace it, make it sexy, and above all else, remember that it’s mandatory.

Just a South African Woman: An intersectional feminist blog tackling issues from a unique South African perspective. The posts attempt to explain and discuss some academic feminist theories in a simple manner, so as to make feminism accessible to more people. Follow me on Twitter at @sianfergs.
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