With the issue of consent still fresh in my mind after watching Executed For Sodomy, I’m particularly aware of how agreements shape our sex lives. What we agree to, and what might have been kept from us when we do, can change the context of an encounter from joyous expression to painful humiliation. In the play, when Cathy Muhlhahn marries and sleeps with Catharina, she has consented to sex with a man that she loves, but unbeknownst to her that man is really a wife in disguise. In these circumstances could it be said that Catharina has raped Cathy? In my opinion: yes, and here’s my take on a recent news story to illuminate why.
Many of you will probably have seen the Metro headline a couple of weeks ago: “Sex with consent ‘can still be rape”, referring to a judge’s ruling on an encounter between a husband and wife. It was decreed that the husband, who failed to withdraw before ejaculating despite his wife’s request that he do so, had committed an offence by negating her consent. Because her willingness to have sex was based upon this agreement, his abuse of it was seen by the judge as falling within the legal definition of rape.
Now sex in its purest form is an organic; fluctuating expression between communicative humans that cannot be prescribed or predetermined completely. There will always be something of a leap of faith about it, and the best way to avoid inadvertently hurting someone is to keep bloody communicating beyond the initial kiss. Sometimes things can change a lot between saying yes, and the actual splitting of the atom, as it were. I think it’s best seen as a continuing negotiation and exploration between adults; consent falls within that bracket too. It’s an ongoing aspect of sleeping with someone, and “Aw, but you said I could” is not an acceptable counterpoint to a change in circumstances. In this case, it’s a brazen “You said I couldn’t and I lied to manipulate you before going ahead and doing whatever the hell I wanted to do anyway” type of rapist reasoning, and to me quite clearly shows an intentional lack of respect for her choices.
Now in many situations in life we’re called upon to give consent to others using our stuff. But it’s an accepted part of social decorum that we, as owners, set the boundaries. Let’s say you invite a friend over for dinner. During the course of the evening they ask if they can use your bathroom. You agree, and continue to spoon out risotto, ready for when they return. After 10 minutes you’re concerned they’ve been a long time, after 20 you decide to investigate. You go upstairs and find your friend settled into a hot bubble bath, using your razor and brushing their teeth with your toothbrush. “But you said I could use your bathroom….”
It’s a crude example, granted, but what I mean to illustrate is this. In life, none of us can assume our actions will be acceptable if we do not get consent from the person they affect first, and it’s our responsibility to deal with the consequences if we don’t. In the case described in Metro it seems palpably obvious to me that the woman’s consent was abused, to the point that she ended up carrying a child she never wanted because of someone else’s decision. That’s not just an assault on someone’s body and trust; it’s a manipulation of their future. Of course I see that withdrawal is not a reliable method of contraception, which many people have pointed out, but that is not really the issue here. The issue is that withdrawal was her chosen method of contraception, and the term upon which she agreed to intercourse; neither of those choices was respected.
What the judge is acknowledging here is what should be apparent to everyone: we will all be held accountable for going back on our promises, especially when it affects the body and mind of another person. It shouldn’t be so controversial to expect a husband to care what his wife wants. It shouldn’t be shrugged off and accepted that some women lie about being on the pill to seduce a man. If you lie to a person to get them to have sex with you; you’re raping them, as a manipulated choice is not a valid one. Whatever gender you are, it is your responsibility to get consent via the truth.
By Stephanie Gunner