In this post I define and discuss the terms consent and sexual violence; cultures such as consent culture with community accountability and rape culture. I also define the terms I use for people: people who have harmed, also known as violators and aggressors; people who have experienced harm also called victim-survivors; secondary victim-survivors; and co-strugglers. I also explain my use of active voice rather than passive voice in describing acts of sexual violence and my use of possessives to describe the ownership of sexual violence. These are the definitions and meanings I use in this blog, built on but not the same as legal and dictionary definitions.
We consent to many things everyday from medical procedures to sharing food with friends. In Contact Improvisation, boxing and other contact sports, and BDSM (an umbrella term for sexual practices including bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism), touch that would normally not be welcome is welcome. In these contexts that expand the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior, consent is critical.
While we may not be looking for sex, definitions of sexual consent, are instructive. Planned Parenthood uses the acronym, FRIES, for the elements of consent: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. Understanding of sexual consent evolved from “No means No” to “Yes means Yes” and beyond Feminist Jaclyn Friedman advocates for enthusiastic consent. Dr. Nadine Thornhill advocates for authentic consent: people “agreeing to have sex because it’s what they want.”
One way to think of consent is being asked for permission and giving it, but some argue that focusing on permission is a limiting model for consent. It assumes that one person is trying to get something from someone else. A more robust understanding is that consent is an agreement. Indeed the word, “consent,” from the Latin consentire — literally means “to feel together.” Al Vernacchio points out that agreeing to be sexual together is a mutual decision like when we order pizza and discuss our appetites and desires. Robot Hugs uses the metaphor of building a castle to show that how we talk about consent in a relationship evolves over time. So, for example, dancers who have danced together for years may require less consent negotiation than first-time partners.
Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent with the four quadrants of taking, allowing, giving/serving, and receiving/accepting is useful for exploring the dynamics of consent.
The concept of consent has limitations. The scholar Joseph Fischel refers to it as “the least-bad standard” in sexual assault law. It can frame less-than-enthusiastic sex as assault, while doing nothing to address the painful, unsatisfying sex that many people, mostly women, experience. Many BDSM communities—forerunners in developing consent parameters—adopted “safe sane consensual” as a guideline.
Please note that my focus is not the interpersonal dynamics of sexual consent but establishing environments in which consent can be given and honored. Consent must be understood in context. In an uneven power dynamic, the ability of the person without power to consent is questionable. If no isn’t an option, then yes is meaningless.
Sexual violence is sexual activity when consent is not obtained or not freely given. Sexual violence is a broad term, encompassing the full spectrum of unwanted sexual activity from rape and sexual assault to non-contact sexual acts such as harassment. Sexual violence is sexually violating personal boundaries. Parallel terms are sexual misconduct and sexual harm. Gender-based violence is a broader term encompassing sexual violence and other forms of physical, psychological, and emotional violence based on gender.
Culture is the way we do things—our way of life. The chart, “The Shift from Rape Culture to Consent Culture,” lays out the developmental progression of creating a consent culture from a rape culture.
A culture of consent is a culture in which mutual consent in interpersonal relations and respect for each other’s choices is the norm. In such a culture, people ask, wait, and listen. They respect the answers they receive. They understand that everyone has the right to personal and bodily autonomy. That means lovers come to agreement before becoming intimate, but also that friends and family accept “no” when someone says they aren’t interested in more cake or a certain movie. In a culture of consent, people take responsibility after they have violated others, and if not, the community seeks accountability when people who have been violated desire it.
In a culture of consent, the community recognizes that power differentials can make withholding consent more difficult for some people than for others, so the community upholds the norm of consent and has structures that support it. Creating a safer brave space is one way to create a culture of consent.
Incite! Women of Color and Trans People of Color Against Violence define community accountability, in part, as a process in which a community works together to transform the political conditions that reinforce oppression and violence, provide safety and support to violently targeted community members in ways that respect their self-determination, and address community members’ abusive behavior, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior.
Safer Brave Space
See my page, Safer Brave Space, for my reflections on creating spaces where being brave is as safe as possible, spaces that practice community accountability, creating a culture of consent. Safer brave spaces recognize that some people may need to summon more courage than others to do the same brave things.
While some may find the term, “rape culture,” jarring, it does exist. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday documented that the incidence of rape varies cross-culturally. Rape-prone societies have greater interpersonal violence, male dominance, and sexual separation. Likewise, researchers have found that organizations prone to sexual harassment and abuse are male dominated, super hierarchical, and forgiving when it comes to bad behavior.
Amanda Taub succinctly explains: “Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It’s not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.” Likewise, Buchwald, Fletcher, and Roth define a rape culture as “a society that accepts sexual violence and the fear of violence as the norm. A society that, knowingly or not, perpetuates models of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality that foster aggression, violence, and fear.” Rape culture espouses individual freedom and freedom of expression, but those freedoms typically belong disproportionately to those in power.
Racial and other types of violence compound sexual violence. Racial violence, sexual violence, and their interrelationship have been depicted in a pyramid building up from attitudes and beliefs to individual acts of prejudice to institutional discrimination finally to violence and death.
People Who Have Harmed
I like to use language that does not reduce individuals to their worst actions, so I’ll say “a person who harmed,” “a woman who violated,” “a man who violates boundaries,” or other variations. Person-first language also helps us recognize that we have all harmed others.
Such language can get cumbersome, so I often use the word “violator” for a person who has sexually violated someone’s personal boundaries, thereby committing sexual violence. Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) used the term “aggressor” rather than criminal-based vocabulary such as perpetrator, offender, rapist, or predator. Other parallel terms are responsible party and abuser.
I use the terms above when violations have been substantiated. While false accusations are extremely rare, they do occur, so initially I use the terms “reported person,” “person reported (to have harmed),” “reportee,” “respondent,” or “implicated party.” Parallel terms are “accused (rapist)” and “alleged (perpetrator).”
People Who Have Experienced Harm
Just as we have all harmed others, we all also have been harmed. To help us claim our experiences and yet not reduce our identities to an action we experienced, I often say variations on “the person who was harmed,” “a man who experienced a violation,” or “a woman who experienced sexual violence.”
But again, that language can get cumbersome. Some people who have experienced sexual harm or endured sexual violence embrace the term “survivor,” some prefer “victim,” and others use both those terms depending on specific circumstances or their stage of recovery. To acknowledge this full reality, I use the term “victim-survivor.” Allowing people to refer to themselves in the way that feels comfortable to them is trauma-informed. Giving people control over their own stories helps them regain the agency that was taken from them.
For neutral language, I may refer to a person who describes experiencing harm as a “reporter,” “person reporting harm,” or an “impacted party.” A parallel term is “accuser.”
Friends and loved ones of a person who experienced harm are secondary victim-survivors. They are in an awkward position: they are witnesses to the trauma of someone they care about and may have their own trauma around that but at the same time their friend or loved one may want them to co-struggle. Their challenge is to separate out their own feelings so as not to burden their friend or loved one. “Ring Theory” puts the person experiencing trauma is in the center ring with people in subsequent rings being more and more removed from the trauma. Secondary victim-survivors and other co-strugglers are well advised to provide “Comfort IN and dump OUT.”
See my post, “A Call for Co-Strugglers,” for how Black thought leaders led me I use the term “co-struggler” rather than “ally” and for a discussion of what co-struggling entails.
People impacted by sexual violence
Sexual violence impacts many people. I use the term, “people impacted by sexual violence,” to encompass the many people who might be impacted by an act of sexual violence, starting first and foremost with the person who experienced the violation but also including everyone with whom they might come in contact, such as secondary survivors. I also include people who have harmed others as having been impacted by the sexual violence that they perpetuated.
When referring to the sexual violence I and others have experienced, I choose my words carefully.
I use possessives strategically. I do not use the terms “my rapist” or “my rape.” I want no ownership of him or what he did. It’s his rape, not mine. He was the author of the crime. It was his planning, his action, his responsibility. He owns what he did; I do not. He is not my rapist, but I am his victim. He is not mine but, unfortunately, I was his.
So instead, I say “the rape I endured” or “the sexual harm I experienced” or “the sexual violence to which I was subjected.” And I say “the man who raped me.” I use the same language for other victim-survivors unless they have chosen to frame what happened to them differently.
I avoid referring to sexual violence in the passive voice. In passive voice, whoever is performing the action is not the subject of the sentence. Instead the object of the action is the subject. The relationship is inverted, and the actors—in these cases, the violators—often disappear from the discussion. “She was raped by him” gets reduced to “she was raped,” leaving the person who committed the violation completely out of the story. The violator disappears, and the victim-survivor remains. Instead, I try to use the active voice and make the person who committed the violation the subject of the sentence. It’s not always easy, but I try to keep the people who have harmed in the stories of their violations and say, “they violated her:” subject verb object. I don’t want them to disappear.
© 2020-2022 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 5.27.2022