Sex, Truth and Audio Tape: What does consent really mean?

The Harvey Weinstein story has unleashed a veritable tsunami of sexual assault and harassment claims. And there's a huge gender gap at work: overwhelmingly, men are the accused perpetrators; women, the victims. IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell explores the motivations, conscious and unconscious, behind this disturbing dynamic. Part 2 of a 2-part series.

The Harvey Weinstein story has unleashed a veritable tsunami of sexual assault and harassment claims.  And there's a huge gender gap at work: overwhelmingly, men are the accused perpetrators; women, the victims. IDEAS producer Mary O'Connell explores the motivations, conscious and unconscious, behind this disturbing dynamic. Part 2 of a 2-part series.

The complexity of consent

Sex educator, Heather Elizabeth.
It's a familiar story. Male students initiate rape chants on a university campus. There's shock and outrage.  And, sometimes, apologies. Students might be suspended, and fraternities banned. Consent workshops proliferate and "consent" becomes a 21st century buzzword.

Toronto-based sex educator Heather Elizabeth has noticed the trend. "No wonder it becomes messy," she says, "because we don't have the language and we're not great at nuances as a society, right? We look for answers that are clear-cut because we want to be able to solve sexual assault and say: look, if we do X Y Z, there will be no more sexual assault." Psychologist Dr. Liz Powell agrees. However, she's also critical of how the message is sometimes delivered.  "A lot of 'consent-focussed' education looks at 'don't be a rapist', instead of suggesting there is amazing sex to have if you open your mouth and use it to figure out what you'd like to do". Dr. Powell says that when universities focus too much on crime and pain, they take away individual agency.   

Liz Powell, developmental psychologist and sex educator.
But sexual harassment and non-consensual sex run like a current through all cultures, of course, from Hollywood to high school, from within marriage to the dating scene. Dr. Liz Powell has many millennial clients. She's noticed how consent becomes problematic, especially in a tinder and alcohol-fuelled world. "After a lot of drinking and sex, you're supposed to be chill.  Now chill is defined as not having any significant wants or needs. Not calling out the other person on bad behavior, or how boundaries weren't respected. You're never supposed to talk about sex and what it means because then you're breaking a social contract."   

So when it comes to consent, how are people supposed to express healthy no's and yeses?

Dr. Powell acknowledges that it's a hard question to answer: "I think that we live in a culture that gives people very problematic messages.  Women are socialized to believe that they should say 'no' to sex; otherwise, they are a slut... but they must say 'yes' to a relationship.  And yet they can't say 'no' too often because then they're a prude." Dr. Powell says women are told that their response often cannot come from a place of authenticity, but from a place of social acceptability. 
According to Dr. Powell, men also internalize conflicted social attitudes towards sex: "[Men] are told that they should want to say 'yes' to any sexual interaction that is offered to them. And this can go so far as to make male victims of sexual violence assume that they could not have been raped because men don't get raped. Men always say 'yes'; men should always want sex so they aren't empowered to use their 'no'.  And men are conditioned to say 'no' to a relationship. For me personally I value someone's 'no'. A good 'no' is a prerequisite for me to have sex with someone, because if I can't trust that you will tell me 'no' when you mean it, your 'yes' is meaningless". 
Leslie Waye, restorative justice practitioner and a sexual empowerment coach.
This becomes especially critical when there are 'power gaps' between two people. And when men won't take responsibility. "She seemed available, it's her fault, I thought she wanted it." These are some of the rationales that Leslie Waye has heard over her years working in restorative justice. In a program called Revive, she facilitates dialogue between perpetrators and victims when harm from sexual assault or harassment has taken place. That dialogue can occur through letters, over the phone, or in person — in order to open the door to healing for both parties.   
"There's more talking about sex, than having sex. " 

Ellie Moon, actor and playwright.
The subject of consent has fascinated Ellie Moon. The 24-year-old playwright interviewed a wide range of friends, acquaintances and strangers to explore sexual boundaries and consent.  Those interviews led to her first play, Asking for It.  Ellie Moon says that her generation has become more nervous about sex. "There's more talking about sex, than having sex. I think that's possible. This is a big cultural moment right now."     

Heather Elizabeth sometimes thinks we should focus on the aftermath of sex as well. "You can wake up the next day and be, like: I should not have done that … [and] recognize that you did and don't want to be in that situation again. So how do we train people to have these conversations — that I don't want to do that again, that was a mistake? But that's not the same as assault, right?  And so how do  we create this nuance? And I get nervous saying this because in a society that looks for easy answers, there is no room for this gray space. And people love to talk about the grayness of like: oh, you know, I thought the signals were 'yes', but actually they didn't want it. And I think that's B.S. I really think that speaks to a problem of entitlement." 

As a cautionary tale, Heather Elizabeth adds: "James Dean is a porn star who was accused of rape by a number of his co-stars. And that is within the world of BDSM and kink, where you're supposed to be quite clear in your negotiations. So there's no perfect solution, right. Because even when you negotiate things, if what people want is a power trip and if what someone wants is to violate consent, then no amount of agency, or pleasure, or focus, is going to combat someone's entitlement." 

Guests in this episode:

  • Leslie Waye is a restorative justice practitioner and a sexual empowerment coach. She lives in Cambridge, Ontario.   
  • Liz Powell is a psychologist and sex educator based in San Francisco. 
  • Heather Elizabeth is a sexuality educator and sexual empowerment coach based in Toronto. 
  • Ellie Moon is an actor, playwright and the creator of: Asking for It

Further reading: 

  • Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, published by Seal Press, Berkeley California, 2008. 
  • Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, published by Simon and Schuster, 2015.
  • Virginity or Death! And other Social and Political Issues of Our Time by Katha Pollitt, published by Random House, New York,  2006.
  • Whipping Girl:  A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, Seal Press, Emeryville CA, 2007.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown,  Hazelden Publishing, New York, 2010. 
  • American Savage: Insights, Slights and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love and Politics by Dan Savage, Penguin, 2014.
  • Marriage, Sexuality and Gender by Robin West, Paradigm Publishers,  New York, New York, 2007.
  • Naked at Our Age, Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex by Joan Price. Seal Press, 2011.
  • Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma, by Staci Haines, Cleis Press, 2007. 
  • How to be a Person: The Stranger's Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos and Life Itself by Dan Savage, Sasquatch Books, 2012.

Related websites:

**This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.