Every April, Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month incites an all-too-necessary conversation about many topics surrounding sex, notably including the nature of sexual assault, abuse, and rape- and what obtaining and communicating consent might look like in a modern and more ethical society. This movement is not even yet two decades old.
Many of us who have survived sexual trauma are still pushing to create a more inclusive, expansive definition of consent that is enforced in both law and society- one which upholds the value and dignity of all human individuals and recognizes complex systems of oppression still at work today. I believe we have a long way to go before that definition is recognized in general society.
The conversation SAAPM naturally instigates quickly becomes broader than that surrounding sexual assault alone; it’s a social justice issue through and through. Conversations about consent are about fair treatment and human rights: at its core, oppression and failure to obtain consent are forms of abuse by nature. Failing to obtain freely given, informed, enthusiastic, and sober consent before engaging in sexual intercourse is not only sexual assault, it is also sexual abuse- it is impossible to untangle the two. Intent does not affect impact.
I believe only when we begin to consider how “sexual assault” and consent exist in relation to oppression and, most specifically, abuse dynamics, can we start to facilitate truly meaningful conversations surrounding sexual assault and rape- among other forms of sexual abuse that are inexcusable in an ethical, just society. In such a society, everyone is treated with dignity, compassion, and fairness.
When we talk about equality or equity (terms not to be used interchangeably!) this is, I believe, what lies at the heart of the matter. The oppressor and the oppressed; the underlying abuse dynamics beneath action and inaction; the humanity or lack thereof. And so we must keep asking how such great abuse and oppression continue to pervade our “woke” modern society- because they do, if we are to believe survivors. We do not live in a world where everyone is given equal opportunity, equal say, equal safety. And not only is that unfair, it’s an inhuman injustice.
Our society today is very scared of the words “oppression” and “abuse”. When we talk about them conceptually, each of us must almost inevitably hold a mirror up to our own individual behaviors- and we are likely to find some of them unappealing. No one is perfect, no one is an exemplary human all of the time. We are likely to wonder, at some point: “What I am the monster the “other” is screaming about?” That can’t be, can it? How could we live with ourselves? But I believe it’s so much more complicated than that. What if we just began these scary conversations starting with the most simple ways in which we hurt one another- and considered looking at “hurt” on a spectrum, first and foremost? What if we contextualized it all and put it into a sort of palatable human systems theory?
Every year, I find myself ever more frustrated with the state of the world and wanting more from it. But in a world where we continue to grapple with basic concepts of boundaries, of consent before sex, of the humanity within every individual even as we all wrestle with “good” and “bad”, it’s awfully hard to have more productive conversations. I always find April and SAAM painful; I’m glad they are over. Incremental change is so important, but it’s hard to sit through. Here’s hoping that there are many sitting with me, hoping for a more compassionate process as time passes.