If no isn’t an option, yes has no meaning

I am always amazed at what a difficult concept consent seems to be. She asked for it, she started the argument, she was into making out, what did she think was going to happen if she went there/did that …. are all variations on the theme of “she consented” and used to try to confuse our understanding of rape and intimate partner violence.

Most recently, I was shocked and repulsed at Ariel Castro’s gall in asserting that “there was harmony” in his home, and that much of the sex he had with the three women he had imprisoned was “consensual” and besides, the women weren’t virgins anyway. When I heard this on NPR, I began yelling “What the F?” in my car. Fortunately I was alone.

The good news is, it seems like most people reacted like I did, and that was heartening.

How is it that someone can be so confused about what constitutes “harmony” and consent that they can say with a straight face that it existed in that situation. Castro is an extreme case, but I suspect that one of the reasons he was able to convince himself of this is because it is generally consistent with the purposefully confusing and blurred picture men in particular get about female consent.

In other words, it’s not that far out of normal, and that is the scary part. Blurring the idea of consent plays out in all sorts of ways in our culture. And it is useful because it helps the dominant group pretend/ignore/claim that the subjugated group isn’t really being oppressed, but that they actually CHOSE or consented to their situation. This alleviates their responsibility to grapple with what relationships would look like if each person truly had equal value, dignity, and respect.

So in the interest of clarity, let me explain something about consent.

It is really quite simple: if a person can’t freely say no, then yes (or silence) has no meaning. Yes only means something if NO is a real—no negative consequences— possibility, something one can say free of the fear of violence, force, humiliation, murder, homelessness, loss of economic security, the safety of one’s children. If NO is dangerous, then YES is empty. It’s not consent.

Consent-Flowchart

Other people’s business

Two of Ariel Castro’s neighbors are being held up as heroes for helping Amanda Berry escape his house after being imprisoned for over a decade. Not to take anything away from these guys, but seriously. When a woman is screaming for help and trying to break down a locked door, it doesn’t take a hero to recognize that the situation calls for action.

What’s heroic is taking action when the situation is not so clear. We’ve now heard that over those years other neighbors saw disturbing signs and called police. So why didn’t those attempts lead to their rescue?

I know from my work studying domestic violence murders that a call to the police is often not the solution. Many of the police calls prior to these murders played out just like what Ariel Castro’s neighbors described. Cops show up to a scene, knock on doors, ask questions. They don’t find evidence of a crime. Maybe they suspect something more is going on, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they write a report, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they follow up later, and maybe they don’t.

There is plenty of room to criticize the police response. But we cannot let that be the whole story. It is naive to think law enforcement can protect us from every evil, and it is dangerous to suggest they should try. Do you really want armed agents of the government empowered to break down your front door because the neighbor saw something suspicious?

The answer is much more complicated, and requires more from all of us than a 911 call. When you see a woman pounding on a window looking like she needs help—go ahead and call. But don’t stop there. Better yet, don’t start there.

Domestic violence murders have something else in common with the horror that unfolded on Seymour Avenue: deep roots. Ariel Castro had a long history of brutality against women and was apparently a victim of sexual abuse himself. His violence had scarred generations even before the kidnappings. Charles Ramsey got it right, talking about his decision to run toward the screaming and the locked door: “It’s just that you got to put that—being a coward, and ‘I don’t want to get in nobody’s business’—you got to put that away for a minute.” Getting to the roots of this kind of violence means putting those attitudes away for good.