I once had occasion to date a woman who had very strong boundaries regarding acceptable affection. (I won’t get into the reasons, because they were hers, and totally valid.) Now, as I am a fanatic for consent, this turned out to not be that big an issue for me; in fact, it was a healthy reminder of the way things should ALWAYS be. That is, I had to ask her when I wanted to try something new. I made sure that I got enthusiastic assent before I stretched a previously-established boundary. And yeah, sometimes it was frustrating, but it was often sexy as hell. (It helped that there were no boundaries on kissing, and she was a past master of the art.) And in a weird way, by needing to seek and receive consent constantly, we achieved an intimacy I’ve seldom felt in other relationships.
I despair sometimes that we were able to achieve this mutuality of respect and consent only because we were both women. Because lately, except for Thomas Macauly Millar, it’s getting pretty hard out there.
Take, for example, your latest court-sanctioned reaffirmation that a woman’s body belongs to everyone but herself:
A jury on Thursday rejected a young woman’s claim that the producers of a “Girls Gone Wild” video damaged her reputation by showing her tank top being pulled down by another person in a Laclede’s Landing bar.
A St. Louis Circuit Court jury deliberated 90 minutes before ruling against the woman, 26, on the third day of the trial. Lawyers on both sides argued the key issue was consent, with her side saying she absolutely refused to give it and the defense claiming she silently approved by taking part in the party.
The woman, identified in court files as Jane Doe, was 20 when she went to the former Rum Jungle bar in May 2004 and was filmed by a “Girls Gone Wild” video photographer. Now married, the mother of two girls and living in the St. Charles area, Doe sued in 2008 after a friend of her husband’s reported that she was in one of the videos.
“I am stunned that this company can get away with this,” Doe said after the verdict. “Justice has not been served. I just don’t understand. I gave no consent.”
But Patrick O’Brien, the jury foreman, told a reporter later that an 11-member majority decided that Doe had in effect consented by being in the bar and dancing for the photographer. In a trial such as this one, agreement by nine of 12 jurors is enough for a verdict.
“Through her actions, she gave implied consent,” O’Brien said. “She was really playing to the camera. She knew what she was doing.”
Ah, yes, “implied consent.” Because she happened to be at a bar where a film crew for the somehow-not-yet-criminally sleazy “Girls Gone Wild” franchise was taping, and she didn’t turn on her heels and leave like a proper paragon of virtue would have –no doubt ruffling her crinolines as she did so. Certainly the fact that she could be heard saying “no,” on film, isn’t a defense.
Because NO is never a defense. It’s merely a prerequisite to making a defense. See, she still needed to not be in the video, even though she would surely have been sued had she taken some of the several deliciously violent courses that spring to my mind when contemplating my reaction to a GGW camera crew. And certainly, she should have prevented somebody else from pulling down her top. What was she doing wearing a top that could be pulled down? In a bar? Where there is alcohol and men?
She should have known better, right? She should have known that this might have happened, and if it did, and there happened to be a camera crew handy, she’d have no right to stop them from exploiting her image to make tons of money and show her naked breasts to complete strangers. Without her consent.
Just her implied consent.
When one is confronted by cases such as this–or the Larry Rivers Art/Child Porn/Images of a Minor Made Without Her Consent that Sady and Amanda discussed last week–one wearily wonders if there is any way to be publicly female without giving implied consent to have something done to your body. I mean, seriously: just how far does this go? Had GGW showed up to, oh, say, Le Bernardin, and some trashed suit was spending his bailout money on adult entertainers, and somehow a primly dressed female patron walked into the shot and had her dress ripped off…is that implied consent? Does a $180 prix fixe somehow mitigate the implications of consent in the way that a $3 PBR doesn’t? Because to be honest, what is the difference? Why should it matter if you dance or you don’t, if your skirt is shorter than your belt or brushes your ankles? How in the hell can clothing or location or body movements override a direct refusal to consent?
The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. Not really. And not in the good way that you might think I’m going, what with the feminism and all. I mean just the opposite: it doesn’t make a difference. Cover your body completely, or go out naked into the streets; inhabiting a female body seems to be the exception to the old saw that possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Coincidentally, the divine (!) Echidne is rerunning some of her most thoughtful columns this week, and this one couldn’t be better timed:
Yesterday my visiting alien from outer space came to me all excited (you can see it from the quivering antennae). It had learned the concept of property, both public and private, and it had decided to apply it to women’s bodies and sexuality. Its conclusion was that women and their sexuality are private property, belonging to husbands, fathers and sons, in much of the world, including most Muslim countries, and that women in the Western democracies are public property, belonging to everybody.
“Nononono!” I said. “You have it all wrong. Women do own their bodies and sexuality in most countries of this world. They can decide what to wear and who to have sex with. They can decide if they will be pregnant and so on.”
My alien friend wasn’t convinced. It asked me what would happen if I went out shirtless and braless, for example. Wouldn’t I get arrested, unless my name was not Echidne but Ed? And can a woman choose whether she uses contraception or not, in all countries? Can she use it if her husband doesn’t want her to? Can she breastfeed her baby in public?
It then asked me about pornography. Why is the majority of porn about women’s bodies? Why is most of it aimed for men’s consumption. Who owns the right to view the generic “female body”?
Sometimes I really hate this alien. I had to explain about the sexual difference between men and women, how men get turned on by the very sight of the female body and how that means that women must cover those bits of their bodies which mostly inflame men’s desires. Otherwise the men can’t control themselves. Men are so much more visual than women, and the society reflects that, by regulating the amount of female nudity allowed in the public sphere. We can’t have naked breasts slip out suddenly on television, in the middle of a football game, say.
“Breasts..” mused the alien. “They are for nurturing the young humans, right? But what about pornography, then? If men are more visual than women and easily inflamed, shouldn’t porn be illegal or severely regulated? It sounds to me as if women are not in control of the female body, even in the West. Someone else, is. Someone else determines when that body can turn up naked in your visual fields.”
Which takes me back to me and my lady friend. She set very firm boundaries with me, and in a way I’m forever grateful that she did, because it gave me a very practical class in the fictitiousness of implied consent. I couldn’t assume consent for anything. What’s shocking is that such a situation seemed unusual. That such a situation isn’t normal, and commonplace. Or that such a situation even today is still better understood by two women–even one who took as roundabout a path to womanhood as I did.
Because as women we knew what implied consent sounds like.
It sounds like “No.”