Consent is not the answer to sexual violence

I recently read an article about sexual abuse, written by a victim of sexual abuse. In the article, the author candidly narrates the horrors of being taken advantage of. She also describes the confusion, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts the abuse engendered in her, reactions which unite her to most other victims of sexual violence. You can read it here for yourself.

Other considerations aside, the article is a heart-wrenching account. It is a story of abuse, not just of Nelly (for that is the name of the author), but also of the trust she had placed in the men who ended up molesting her. Reading it, one cannot help but think that, with just a little bit of self-control, these men could have spared the poor lady a most miserable set of experiences.

However, I do not write this article to commiserate with Nelly, although I do not deny that that would be a most worthy endeavour. Rather, my intention here is to examine the lessons she shares and the recommendations she makes on how to stop sexual violence.

For at the end of her story, apart from rightly denouncing the stigma with which sexual abuse victims are saddled, which leaves them with the blame for the crimes they suffer and makes it hard for them to seek redress, she also proposes that, to curb sexual abuse, girls and boys “need to be talked to about consent and sexual violence.”

It is this second idea that I wish to focus on. I do not think that talking to young people about consent and sexual violence will lead to less of the latter and more of the former. I think, rather, that instead of talking to youngsters about sexual violence, we should talk to them them about, and show them that it is possible to live, the twin virtues of modesty and chastity.

And we would have to start by letting them know that being alone with an unrelated person of the opposite sex is not a very good idea. Every honest person will admit that the sexual urge is a remarkably strong force. Unbridled, it has the capacity to derail normal rational thinking and lead men and women down paths of immense depravity.

Like all animal species that reproduce sexually, we are wired to seek mates for reproduction. Our very bodies are built for it, so that being a human being is necessarily also being either a man or a woman, with the corresponding anatomy and hormonal makeup. This is not a bad thing in itself. If we were not like this, the human species would have died out a long time ago.

Recognising this, and acting with it in mind, will help us limit the situations in which sexual abuse can take place. Instead of consent, young people should be taught to know themselves. They need to learn how not to unnecessarily put themselves in situations where keeping their hands to themselves would be the harder choice. It is much easier to keep the sexual urge in control if there is no easy outlet for it.

I know this might be read by some as victim-shaming, that dreaded and much-decried tendency to blame victims for the ills that befall them. It will be seen as obvious allusion to both of Nelly’s narrated encounters with rape. In the first instance, she was alone with a man she had known for five months. In the second instance, she was alone with a friend in a university hostel room.

There is something to be said for the naivety and innocence that led her into both situations. One can even say that one of the crimes committed against her was that she was robbed of both qualities, of which the world needs a lot more these days. But no amount of knowledge about consent and sexual violence would have saved her from either event. She trusted these men.

So what is the best way to handle being in the same space with another person of the opposite sex? Well, apart from the fact that most such situations are preventable, it should always be possible get a third party in the space. Get a friend. Or let your companion come along with a friend. We tend to behave better when we are being watched, unless the person watching is an accomplice, which would be a different matter altogether.

Here is a case in point. At my workplace, office doors have little glass windows at standing height, or are themselves made of glass, so that someone passing along outside can easily see what is going on inside. By all counts, it is a very innocuous measure. The doors probably cost just a little more than regular doors to make, perhaps less. Moreover, no one really goes around peeing into offices they do not intend to enter.

We also have a sexual harassment policy, because we are a big organisation and we need to have such policies to comply with regulations. But the feeling of openness created by the little windows easily dispels any randy thoughts long before they can be acted upon. It might sound extreme, but I can bet my precious little goatee that the windows do a far better job of preventing sexual harassment than any policy ever could.

It would be useless to centre the conversation about curbing rape on consent. Consent, alone and as such, cannot grant legitimacy to a sexual act. If it did, a lot of what we consider sexual misconduct would not be considered that way. It is perfectly possible, for instance, for a married woman to consent to sex with a man who is not her husband. But we call this cheating. Its real name, adultery, sounds even worse.

No, consent cannot be the final word. The final word can only be found in the nature of the relationship between the partners. Just as the men who sexually abused her had no right to sleep with her, no one has the right to sleep with anyone to whom he is not married. The only consent that matters is the one given by a spouse when they say, “I do.”

If we only understood this, we would fight tooth and nail to keep our genitals out of all the wrong places. But we do not. Not only that, we often call this kind of sexual common sense outdated. And so we will continue to hear stories of sexual violence.

I hate to disagree with Nelly on this one. After all it was her who got abused, not me. I cannot speak from her seat, as it were. But I am also convinced that talking to our young ones about consent and sexual violence will not save us from the scourge. Only virtue can.

Feature image: Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

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