Sexuality in Conversation

If There's a Spectrum of Misconduct, is There a Spectrum of Consent, Too?

Matt Damon believes "we live in [a] culture of outrage and injury" and that our current national crisis of systemic sexual assault involves "a spectrum of behavior" which includes "patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation." His stance on the increasing number of sexual harassment claims against powerful men across industries—70 public figures have been accused since early October 2017—is raising eye brows and setting off tweet-storms all over the country, essentially because it demeans some allegations in favor of others. "[Patting someone on the butt and rape] need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?" he said in an interview with ABC's Peter Travers while promoting his new film Downsizing. "You know, we’re so energized to kind of get retribution, I think....We’re going to have to correct enough to kind of go, 'Wait a minute. None of us came here perfect'."

Damon asserts that the publicized sexual assault allegations exhibit a "continuum." The major flaw of his argument is that it ignores one important detail: Whether it was rape or a butt grab, the victim didn't provide consent. Thus exhibits what has been largely missing from this conversation; as the number of allegations multiplies and the definition of sexual harassment broadens in scale and shapeshifts before us, we need to be willing to engage in a discussion about what defines consent from here on.

A recent study by YouGov shows that what constitutes male sexual harassment differs according to everything from one's age, sex and nationality. Across five Western countries including the United States, the poll asked "Would you consider it sexual harassment if a man, who was not a romantic partner, did the following to a woman?” across a variety of behaviors ranging in sexual innocuousness, from commenting on a person’s attractiveness to more blatant acts like requesting sexual favors.

Overall, younger women tended to be less tolerant of behavior that could be construed as sexual harassment. Roughly 80 percent of Americans aged 18 to 30 felt that asking for a sexual favor was “always” or “usually” harassment. By the same token, more than half considered it sexual harassment if a man placed his hand on a woman’s lower back; about one-third felt the same way about complimenting a woman’s looks (and among the five countries, this was most prevalent in the States) and almost a quarter of millennial and centennial men believed asking someone out for a drink could be considered harassment.

No matter what we do, it feels as though acknowledging sexual interest in other people could lead to being accused of sexual coercion.
As someone who has done both research and clinical work with incarcerated sex offenders, I don’t doubt that some men (and women) engage in such behaviors with the intent of cajoling sex, but not everyone falls into that camp. So how do we factor this into our interpretations of whether a person is guilty of misconduct?

YouGov's study respondents were surveyed over the last two months, so I’d be curious to know what their answers would have been prior to October, when the Weinstein scandal broke, to get a sense of the extent to which they’d been influenced by news headlines.

It doesn’t take much looking around to recognize that we are in the midst of a generation-defining sex panic. As a society, we are slowly becoming terrified of sex; no matter what we do, it feels as though acknowledging sexual interest in other people could lead to being assaulted or accused of some form of sexual coercion. For example, Princeton University recently gave its students written instructions on how to obtain “consent on the dance floor,” which includes tips like asking “frequently” if their dance partner were “still into [it]” and reminding them, “We can stop if you aren’t!”

Not only is it infantilizing to assume your partner can’t just tell you if they don’t want to dance with you, it would be tedious and distracting to repeatedly ask—and be asked—about it over the course of any Top 40 song.

It is never a person’s fault if they are sexual assaulted, especially in the work place or in situations that should otherwise be sterile from sex. But it is also impossible to safe-proof every single sexual interaction from potential wrongdoing. Women are autonomous beings, capable of asserting themselves. Moving forward, the expectation and responsibility cannot be solely placed on men to constantly vet a woman’s comfort level at every stage of a developing relationship.

The same can be said for what goes on in the bedroom. Aspects of affirmative consent can have value if it’s the first time you’re with someone sexually, and it doesn’t have to be as ridiculous or unsexy as it comes across in those widely mocked instructional videos. Good communication and boundary-checking is key to ensuring you and your partner are on the same page, especially if you don’t know each other well.

That leads me to my next point: Maybe it’s worth considering only having sex with people you know and trust. I’m an advocate of sex-positivity, and you can still be pro-sex while being selective about your partners. If you wouldn’t feel safe leaving your wallet lying around in front of the person you're about to sleep with, it might be best to re-think sleeping with them at all.

And then there is the topic of rough sex and consensual non-consent. Sexual masochism is surprisingly common among women, and if you are a woman who enjoys rough sex or rape fantasies, there's no shame around that. But in increasingly nebulous times, women need to own it and be clear about what they want and understand the associated risk—not just to them, but to their male partners as well. I’ve had several male friends recount stories of women who wanted to be physically hurt (like being slapped in the face) when hooking up the first time. Even in consensual situations, today’s climate puts men in a precarious position, especially if something goes wrong.

I advise taking cues from the BDSM community if you’re interested in engaging in risky sexual scenarios. Have open and honest conversations about what you want to do beforehand, when you’re fully clothed and your decision-making isn’t clouded by being turned on. Decide on a safe word and use it. Contrary to what some may believe, having straightforward discussions about what you like sexually doesn't take the sexiness or spontaneity out of doing it.

Across the board, I’d also recommend not being under the influence of alcohol or drugs when having sex with a new partner. We make better decisions when we are able to think clearly, including choices around safer sex and the people we go home with.

The rise in awareness on this important issue has facilitated a much-needed conversation about whether it’s acceptable for silence—or the absence of “no”—to be interpreted as obtaining consent. But when it comes to navigating this unpredictable territory, we can choose to meet each other halfway, instead of pointing fingers and placing blame.

Debra W. Soh writes about the science and politics of sex and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.

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