Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Steubenville, etc. & Consent

So much is in the news the last few days about the rape convictions at Steubenville. It took the suicide of another young person who was apparently anticipating mass murder to knock it off the front page. There is more to be said about this culture than we can ever say, especially as it affects young people, and much of it will go unsaid.

The mainstream news media's empathy with the plight of the convicted young men was shameful in exactly he measure that this empathy was left unqualified by sensitivity for the young woman who was repeatedly violated - and is still being violated. That is one narrative, one with which I am overwhelmingly sympathetic.

There is another that is tougher, but that Christians ought to attend to, and that is, that these boys should be forgiven if they are sincerely repentant at some point - taking nothing away from the outrage that is due on behalf of the rape victim.  If Amish families can forgive a mass murderer who killed their children, the bar for other Christians who are called to forgive is pretty high.

One article by an African American woman noted that incarceration, such as it actually is in the United States, will probably make greater predators out of inmates than when they go in. So punitive justice is done, and desert is factored into this aspect of justice, but we haven't seen past the desire for vengeance and into an actually existing system where machismo is valorized in sports, in fraternities, in the military, in business, and on hyper-drive in prison.

I don't have an easy answer for this one, except to change how we do prison.  But the reality is, men who go to prison are not less likely to rape when they come out.

Many people in our culture celebrate the idea of prison rape as part of a just punishment - and for rape itself, this is an even greater temptation - though in doing so, we reiterate the association of sex with hostility, aggression, and conquest - precisely the association in the mind of any rapist that we are ostensibly punishing.  (I won't even start on "male" and "female" roles in men's prisons - on becoming "a prison bitch.")

So much to think about, more for those of us who raised boys, who have grandsons, and who still associate with men.  But let's return to women, because women are overwhelmingly the victims of rape; and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators.

The issue on my mind right now is one that is being discussed by the very people who are thinking past justice for the victim - and I am glad she got some semblance of justice - or the rightness of the verdict in the context of the law as it stands. I am thinking, as many people are, about what people can do to ensure that boys will become men who are less likely to rape in a culture that associates sex with hostility, control, aggression, and vengeance - a rape culture.

One particular article described a meeting of women who were raising boys, where the women were asked what qualities they would like to see in their sons when their sons matured. The answers ranged from humor, to athleticism, to strength, to courage... but when one woman said "kindness," the others were taken aback. Well, of course, yes, kindness, too... an afterthought, almost an obligation. And so masculinity and femininity as a hierarchy of power were re-inscribed unaware. The author then added, in her own editorial voice, that she wanted boys to become men who would understand what "consent" means.

And here is where a warning light started blinking in my mind, probably due to the great influence on me of feminism - a particular kind of feminism that focuses on sexually-structured social power. Because "consent" is easy to define out of context, but very slippery in real space and time.

Let's do a few examples.

If a man and woman go on a date, and they are drinking, can she "consent" to sex after two drinks and that "consent" be meaningful? Four drinks? Eight? If she would not have consented when she was sober, but she does consent when she gets tipsy, is consent qualifiable along some continuum, or is it a cut and dried affair with some observable line of demarcation?

If a woman works with a man who offers her money for sex, and she has sex for money, is that meaningful consent? How about if she is a sole parent who is in trouble financially? How about if she needs the money because one of her children is ill and she can't afford a doctor? How about if she doesn't work WITH the man, but FOR the man; and she fears for her job? Is there anywhere in any of these scenarios where we call it "rape"?  Not according to law, we don't; because the law says she "consents."

How about a married woman who has no desire for sex, or who finds sex with her husband - for whichever of many reasons - to be unwanted or unpleasant; and her husband threatens her with separation or divorce? Is she consenting or being coerced? Is the situation more starkly apparent if the woman will be reduced to poverty by a divorce? If her children will suffer?

How about a woman who lives in a society where her chances to survive and flourish are curtailed by being a woman, and having a man as a "breadwinner" is understood as a kind of long term necessity? Or how about a woman who lives in a society where she fears all men - based on her past experience with some or many men - and she feels it necessary to cleave to one man as protection against all other men? In these last scenarios, are these factors in the "choices" of any women you know who live with or marry a man?

If one is honest, one can begin to see how this business of consent is not intelligible by law, which in liberal society is forced to reduce consent to a decontextualized episode - something with a beginning, a middle, and an end broken off from history. That is why rape is defined by law as a particular kind of force and a particular kind of sex (yes, rape is sex!); and determined in a voyeuristic, after-the-fact, and detailed re-living of the episode that forces the victim of a rape to revisit the pain, fear, and humiliation several times over.

From the standpoint of a Christian, I submit that the legal debates about consent may concern us, but those debates can only scratch the surface of our responsibility to discern the meanings of sexual consent. We are called to compassion, and I use that word in the same way Walter Breuggemann speaks of compassion:
Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion.  Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.  In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion.  Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion.  The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to norms.  Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement.  Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.
In the same way, I want to suggest, the structural power of men over women that complicates the notion of consent must be subjected to a radical critique.  Men, in a very real sense, constitute an empire that has colonized women.  Because men are implicated simply by virtue of being men.  In a patriarchal society we cannot escape from the power that we inherit with our biological gender, so, as Christians, I fail to see how we can escape an attitude of constant contrition in sexual matters.  Without contrition (accepted as a gift) and a kind of vigilance, we cannot fully acknowledge the hurt, take the hurt seriously, and demonstrate that the hurt can no longer be accepted as the norm.  We have to stay awake!

The hurt does not begin at the moment of "consent," but with the history that is excluded by the law - with the structural power of men as men over women as women.  That does not mean we strip women of agency - because women are certainly agents, including sexual agents.  On the contrary, what I am saying is that men who take this question seriously as Christians must work to abdicate power as an ongoing practice in sexual matters.  We can take nothing for granted.  We must avoid the twilight and not just the darkness.  We have to ask, and ask again, and ask again, then listen, listen, and listen again.  We can never, ever take consent for granted.

That's a much bigger order than understanding the legal definition of consent.

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