The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.
We need to talk about what consent really means, and why it matters more, not less, at a time when women’s fundamental rights to bodily autonomy are under attack across the planet, and the Hog-Emperor of Rape Culture is squatting in the White House making your neighborhood pervert look placid. We still get consent all wrong, and we have to try to get it a bit less wrong, for all our sakes.
To explain all this, I’m going to have to tell you some stories. They’re true stories, and some of them are rude stories, and I’m telling you now because the rest of this ride might get uncomfortable and I want you to have something to look forward to.
I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with an increasing sense of dread. While I can easily draw parallels to anti-feminist sentiment in modern society, the specifics of the story remain, for me, primarily fiction.
Not so for Hännah Ettinger, who grew up in the fundamentalist Christian “Quiverfull” movement. Ettinger first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and saw herself in the story. At the Establishment, she describes the similarities between her life under the shadow of a repressive misogynistic religion and that of the women in the dystopian novel.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.
And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my 13th birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.
Norwegian filmmaker Kyrre Lien began researching online commenters on Christmas Day 2014. “I became fascinated by how much hate and ignorance people were writing in the comments section of a news site,” he says, “so I began looking at people’s profiles, trying to work out who they were. Many seemed quite normal. They had families and looked like nice people, but the comments they were writing in a public space were so extreme. There was a disconnect.” And so began Lien’s three-year journey into the lives of some of the internet’s most prolific online commenters, now the subject of a documentary, The Internet Warriors.
Lien’s research took him across the world – from the fjords of Norway to the US desert – meeting people of extreme, “often illogical” beliefs: the racists, the homophobes, the slut-shamers. Lien initially researched 200 potential subjects. Half said no when he approached them. It was then a process of elimination: “To find out what their motives were, who they were, and why they held the views they did. In a way,” he says, “I became an investigator.”
Kjell Frode Tislevoll used to spend hours debating online. “Like when I commented on an article: ‘What we need in Oslo is a sidewalk for those with dark skin and a sidewalk for those with white skin. That way, we won’t be attacked or mugged.” He got 20 likes. Eventually he decided to apply a filter on Facebook, so he’d no longer see posts about immigration.
But things are changing for Tislevoll. Last year, a refugee reception centre was built in his home town, and he slowly found he was becoming “less sceptical of immigrants”. It coincided with the arrival of a Muslim man at work. “He’s OK,” he says, “so my issues with immigration are going away. If I met my former self in a discussion forum now, I’d probably get into an argument with him.”
She’d been receiving vicious emails for a decade. Sometimes she sought solace by commiserating with friends, or by stomping off to do something else, or occasionally — after the cruelest messages—by lying on her bed and crying. Temple-Wood became a frequent target of abuse merely because she is the rare female Wikipedia editor who has been active on the site for years. She manages to let much of the harassment slide off her. But many women eventually find the bullying to be too much, and leave the site.
…Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.
Do you remember me? you type. I have some questions. I would be grateful if you might be willing to answer them.
Why did you hurt me? is your question, the only one, but you do not write this.
Of course I remember you! he replies, almost immediately. I will give it my best to answer any questions you have. I hope you are doing good.
You ask if he might be willing to share his memory of that day at the mall. Your point of view would be helpful for my own closure, you say, no matter what that may be. You ask if he has ever thought of it again, if the experience ever held any weight for him. You tell him there are no right answers, because you believe this is true.
Gil responds from a different email address. His personal one.
Let me really think about it, he says, so I can give you my best recollection.
I want to help you, he says, in any way that I can.
Is it really that hard, being a First World woman? Is it really so tough to have the career and the spouse and the pets and the herb garden and the core strengthening and the oh-I-just-woke-up-like-this makeup and the face injections and the Uber driver who might possibly be a rapist? Is it so hard to work ten hours for your rightful 77% of a salary, walk home past a drunk who invites you to suck his cock, and turn on the TV to hear the men who run this country talk about protecting you from abortion regret by forcing you to grow children inside your body?
I mean, what’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to soften the edges of this glorious reality?
– Newly-sober Kristi Coulter, in Quartz, writes on sobriety, misogyny, and why so many women reach for wineglasses to celebrate their lives — or deflect the blows.
It’s strange, in the years of Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer changing comedy, and Tina Fey making room in TV, and Hillary Clinton making her cicada-like, quadrennial return, to pan the camera across the rigid men’s club of the arts. From the Chelsea galleries to the spring and fall auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s (which offer the gender composition of a pro football team) to the museums where schoolchildren walk hesitantly on field trips to see the visual products the culture has treasured. Where every other aspect of American life has changed, the Art World offers this wonderful scientific breakthrough of time travel.
—Pat Lipsky, writing in The Awl about the difficulty of being a woman in the art world. Lipsky’s essay, which draws on her personal experiences as an artist coming of age in the ’60s, is beautiful, vivid, and deeply depressing.