Desire and Consent: Discussing Recent Rape Apologies

by: Rachel Luban 

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Trigger Warning: discussion of sexual assault and victim-blaming follows.

By now you may be acquainted with the firestorm set off by the Good Men Project’s publication of two rape apologies: one by the female friend of someone who “accidentally” raped a sleeping woman, the other by a (probably serial) rapist who sees raping people as the “cost of doing business” of partying. The GMP has been given a round drubbing for publishing the apologies, and subsequent apologies for the apologies, and by now most of the feminists responding to this debacle seem relieved to throw the last shovelful of dirt on its grave.

At the risk of dignifying the GMP’s argument, however, I’d like to add one more nail to the coffin.* The first article, Alyssa Royse’s “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too,” outlines the following scenario:

In this particular case, I had watched the woman in question flirt aggressively with my friend for weeks. I had watched her sit on his lap, dance with him, twirl his hair in her fingers. I had seen her at parties discussing the various kinds of sex work she had done, and the pleasure with which she explored her own very fluid sexuality, all while looking my friend straight in the eye.

This is the woman whom her friend raped while she was asleep. Jill Filipovic at Feministe thoroughly debunks the author’s argument that her friend simply misinterpreted the woman’s signals and could reasonably think penetrating her while she was unconscious was the desire she was signaling: “Even if the woman’s signals weren’t mixed at all — even if they signaled exactly what she wanted to do — he did something that in no universe is considered acceptable or anywhere within the realm of consensual.”
Her point bears elaboration. The relevant distinction, I believe, is between desire and consent. Filipovic points out the should-be obvious—that if the woman in question was in fact indicating her sexual interest in the author’s friend, “she was probably interested in engaging in some sort of sexual activity — not in having sexual activity done to her like she’s some sort of blow-up doll while she’s unconscious.” Beyond the fact that what she desired was not to be penetrated in her sleep, there stands the more fundamental fact that desire is not consent. Desire does not constitute consent, imply consent, or promiscuously suggest consent.

Desire is a state; consent is an act. Forgive the crude metaphor, but imagine you’re in the market for a house. You find one you like, you express your interest to the owners, everyone’s excited. You now have mutual desire. That does not mean, however, that you can move in right then and there, nor does it mean you can move in surreptitiously in the middle of the night. First you must sign a contract translating your mutual desire into terms on which you can act. The action is what makes it consent.

“The real world is a place where ‘no means no’ simply isn’t enough,” GMP senior editor Joanna Schroeder writes in her defense of the decision to publish these rape apologies. The idea she’s promoting, that signals are murky and it’s easy to get mixed messages, comes largely from conflating sexual interest and consent. Consent is very easy to obtain (or not obtain, as the case may be): ask. Ask “Do you want to have sex with me?” or, if you’re too squeamish to name the thing you want, ask “Is this okay?” or “Do you like this?” Divining someone’s desire, without asking for consent, is what’s murky. Royse says that while her friend was wrong to make assumptions, “weeks of flirting, provocative dancing and intimate innuendo led him to believe that sex was the logical conclusion of their social intercourse.” But desire, even if properly recognized, does not have any logical conclusion. A woman is attracted to a man: maybe she wants to have sex with him that night, maybe she wants to have sex with him after they spend some time together, maybe she wants to have sex with him but has a monogamous partner, maybe she wants to make out with him, maybe the kind of sex she wants to have with him isn’t the kind he has in mind, maybe she doesn’t want any physical intimacy with him for any of a thousand reasons. Desire is a state without inherent meaning.

Similarly, goodness is a state; rape is an act. Asking whether “nice” men or “good” men rape (a question implicit in the Good Men Project’s hosting of this conversation) is ultimately irrelevant. I would probably not call a rapist nice or good, however he behaved when he wasn’t raping people, but debating his moral or temperamental condition is just a distraction from the matter at hand. We need to hold people accountable for their actions. As Jay Smooth says about calling people out on racist remarks, we must have the “what they did” conversation, not the “what they are” conversation: “I don’t care what he is, but I need to hold him accountable for what he did.” The GMP is having the wrong conversation. It is a perilous diversion from holding people accountable for sexual assault.


*This risk is one I take seriously: Jill Filipovic has explained the dangers of fostering a conversation that asserts that “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” (the title of the first rape apology). Research demonstrates that rapes are committed by a small number of men who usually rape more than once, who believe that rapists are much more common than they actually are, and who are more likely to rape when surrounded by acceptance of cultural myths about rape–such as “nice guys commit rape too.” So the GMP’s rhetoric around having a much-needed but politically incorrect conversation is shaky even before the conversation begins.

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