“The first time I saw him was on the bus, on my way home from work. I was sitting in the middle of the bus when he got on. He had a sharp jawline, piercing predatory eyes (just my type!) a shirt which failed to conceal his muscular torso, and healthy, glowing skin.
I looked at him.
He looked at me.
And we knew instantly we’d soon sleep with each other.
He sat down in the seat right next to mine, the skin of his leg brushing up against my own. He smelled like smoke and musk. I looked forward and tried to pretend that I wasn’t interested.
I rang the bell when my bus stop was up next. When I got out of the bus, he followed me home. All the way to the second-floor door of my apartment.
I looked at him.
He looked at me.
We knew things were going to happen.
I had barely gotten into the door when he started to rip off my clothes. This was obviously not his first time, as he moved with a dexterity unbeknownst to every other guy I had slept with. The whole time, I was silent with euphoria.
By the time he finished, I couldn’t even lift myself up from the mattress. That’s how good he was. He left shortly after.”
What, reader, happened above? Was it a hookup? Or did someone just stalk, harass, and rape another person?
There’s a strong case to be made for the latter.
This stranger sat beside me in the bus and was rubbing up against me inappropriately. This is sexual harassment. Then when I left the bus, he followed me all the way home, into my apartment, and then into my room. This is stalking. Finally, my clothes were ripped and my neighbours heard nothing because I was too afraid to call for help. This was rape.
From a third person perspective, it sounds like rape. But from a first person perspective, it sounds like the hottest hookup ever to be had.
This is what I call The Barbell Issue. On the one side, there’s a strong case to be made that this was non-consensual. On the other side, it’s clear that this was completely consensual.
But the consent is hard to prove. How could a jury tell whether it was consensual or not? Heck, how could I myself even tell whether it was consensual or not?
These aren’t far fetched issues – here’s a list of real life cases where epistemological issues around consent are the difference between someone losing an education (and all of the money that went to it) and even a career.
And here’s a video from a couple of days ago where a woman was kissed passionately by a stranger-man. She was enthralled that he had done so, and thus had no issue with it. But as CTV News explained when they took down the video, the kiss was “non-consensual.” Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say that he seduced her.
Now, here’s a theory. One of the roles of culture is to minimize this barbell. Nature is amoral – reproduction is reproduction, whether forced or not. It is culture that clarifies whether sex is consensual or not. How does culture do this? By establishing rituals which diminish the weight of both sides of the barbell. Culture prevents the greatest of ecstasies but the worst of abuses too.
Most recently, I think we had marriage. Marital rape, for example, wasn’t acknowledged legally before 1983. Rape was defined as a woman being violated by a man who wasn’t her husband. Maybe this hearkens back to times when rape was a property crime – one man violating the property of a family, leading to the woman being unable to be married off. Who knows. The point here is that marriage used to be the way sex was designated as societally and interpersonally acceptable, or not.
I don’t think that we should go back to marriage as the standard for consent. First of all, you can still be raped in marriage. Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote that a woman probably suffers more unwanted sexual encounters in marriage than she does in a brothel. Second, I think that marriage may not be necessary anymore, as we have now divorced sex from reproduction. I’m guessing that another reason for why marriage (especially monogamous marriage) exists is because it allows for the best environment for the development of children. Third, marriage is too costly and restrictive. I think that leaving a marriage (not to mention getting one) is waaay too much work for the benefits, which is something like a monopoly over sex with another person.
Nor does the “affirmative, verbal, active consent” standard work either. The tea video is an example of this. As an article I critiqued a couple of years ago pointed out, consent is not something that one party asks for and the other party then says “yes” or “no” to. It’s constant communication and attention to the other party. It’s more like two people sitting down who have an egg between their foreheads, and the goal is to both stand up at the same time without cracking or dropping the egg, all the while not using their hands either.
So what’s the solution?
I’m working on it! And that’s why this post is entitled the Barbell Issue, not the Barbell solution.
ps. please forgive the extremely immature erotic fiction writing from above. I tried to make it as readable as possible, but I’m obviously new to the trade.