Why Nuanced Conversation About Consent Is So Hard

April 26, 2017

A few months ago there was a consent scandal in my community.

When I say scandal—I mean there was a long discussion on Facebook—started by one man who was angry that he had heard about some women having rapey experiences with men, and to him that wasn’t okay.

And it’s not okay.

My community and our culture as a whole is severely lacking in the ability to communicate around sex, and it puts people in situations where they feel used, abused and taken advantage of.

The comment thread was full of men and women being outraged at this behavior, because of course — the more they become outraged the more people would think that they would never ever do something that horrible.

But that’s the lie—we are all rapists.

Now before you get too outraged and self-righteous—let’s look at the definition of the word “rape”.


1. unlawful sexual intercourse or any other sexual penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth of another person, with or without force, by a sex organ, other body part, or foreign object, without the consent of the victim.1

That seems pretty straight forward, except for the part about consent. What exactly constitutes consent?

Let’s look.

[kuh n-sent]

1. permission, approval, or agreement; compliance; acquiescence.2

This is where it gets interesting, because when we’re talking about consent we introduce a gray area. Instead of consent being binary (yes/no) it’s actually more of a spectrum.

On one end we have a person who is a “fuck yes!” That person is fully aware and informed of all that “yes” implies and they communicate it clearly and enthusiastically under no influence of drugs, alcohol or anything that would impair their judgement.

On the other end of the spectrum we have what most people think of as rape. Forcibly entering someone with them verbally and physically objecting. That person is a “fuck no!”.

It looks like this.

The problem is that most consent violations aren’t full-on rape, they are communication failures mixed with lust—and they often happen between good people with good intentions.

The consent violations that happened in my community weren’t black and white, they were more nuanced. They happened in what I will call the “gray area”, represented below.

They gray area is hard to talk about, because anything less than a 100% “fuck yes” is technically gray area, and the gray area is a form of consent violation.

Will it get you thrown in jail?

Probably not, but it sure doesn’t feel good—in fact, it feels downright shitty. It can be traumatic too, because having someone or something penetrate your body is a serious fucking deal—and most men don’t have a map of what that’s like because they have never been there.

Read: 5 Not-Shitty Reasons Men Should Take It Up The Ass

So—if consent isn’t black and white and rape is penetration without consent, then rape is also something that lives on a spectrum.

Again, I’m not talking about the kind of rape that will get you thrown in jail, I’m talking about what happens every day between well-meaning people. If any of us have ever entered someone without them being an unequivocal “fuck yes” that was verbally communicated, well thought-out and given from a place of being fully informed and clear-minded—we have participated in some form of rape.

And that includes women too, because men can be put in positions that they are not a “fuck yes” to and women have just as much of a responsibility to stop and check-in before proceeding.

So now you might be thinking—“Okay dude I get it, we’re all rapists… but how does that help anything?”

The problem with the current dialogue around rape is that we’ve created an “us vs. them” model. On one side are the knights in shining armor and on the other—evil villains who need to be destroyed.

Naturally, what happens with men is we want to be seen as the knight in shining armor—because if we get labeled as a villain then one of our deepest fears would come true—we would never get laid again.

That’s a big fear for men, especially men who live in a community where people talk. If you get labeled as a “bad guy” you can kiss sex good-bye. That fear drives us to deny any part of ourself that might be considered anything less than perfect when it comes to consent, but as we’ve seen—it’s not that simple.

When we always need to be seen as the good guy (or not the bad guy) we lose our ability to have deeper, more nuanced conversations about consent. We point fingers and chastise the “other” when what’s really happening is we’re projecting our hatred for that part of ourselves outward—and in the process avoiding honesty and vulnerability, which is what would actually move the conversation forward.

That’s my hope in writing this article—to stop the witch-hunt and level the playing field so we can begin the conversation our culture so desperately needs.

Solzhenitsyn said it best—and this quote means the world to me, because it’s at the heart of everything we need to understand if we have any chance at creating a better future.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?3

And that’s the dilemma—the villains we seek to destroy live inside our heart—and to make the kind of systemic change we want, we must be willing to expose ourselves in the process. But can we do that? Are we truly willing to destroy a piece of our own heart?

Are we willing to stop pointing fingers and subtly posturing ourselves as the good guy long enough to be able to have compassion, to sit in the awkwardness, and listen without judgement?

Are we willing to raise our hand and be counted among the people who have struggled and still struggle with things like asking for permission, communication, and the intricacies of consent?

If we can’t—we will continue the insane path we’re on—trying to eradicate evil by looking for it outside of ourselves.

If only.
If only it were all so simple.

But it’s not.

Got something to say? I’m listening. Click here to comment on the Facebook thread.

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  1. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/raping
  2. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/consent
  3. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Gulag_Archipelago