Over the past several years, Coachella has been a source of spontaneous joy and confused sadness for me. On the one hand, it was the site of one of my favorite bands, Rage Against the Machine, reuniting as hard and political and amazing as ever. On the other hand, Holographic Tupac. This past year, the big news was Madonna performing with Drake and the “hilarious” reactions to the former planting a deep, surprising kiss right on the latter’s mouth. From Drake’s response, it’s clear that he had not agreed to it or known about it ahead of time.
Most reporting about the incident played it for laughs, showing stills of Drake covering his mouth, spitting, and expressing apparent disgust or revulsion. People say that it was funny, Madonna surprising him like that. A new article on Hollywood Life turns the narrative slightly, with Drake now stating, “Don’t misinterpret my shock!! I got to make out with the queen Madonna and I feel [100 emoji] about that forever.” Okay, I certainly would never want to remove Drake’s agency to contextualize his public actions as he so chooses. What does disturb me is the reporter for the article bringing in Drake’s significant other Rihanna in the statement: “Madonna had every right to plant THAT kiss on Drake…and it was Rihanna who gave her Madgesty the green light, a source revealed.”
It is ridiculously easy to look at the details of this story and claim good fun and no harm done. Drake is not upset. Rihanna thought the prank would be excellent, and clearly, so did Madonna. Everyone is pleased. None of those points matter, however, when we are discussing the fact that Madonna committed battery against Drake, that people in the public sphere are laughing about it, and that reporters are justifying it by stating that his partner agreed to it all on his behalf.
My statements are not hyperbole. The definition of battery, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an offensive touching or use of force on a person without the person’s consent.” The key word in that definition is “consent.” Drake did not know that he was going to be kissed by this woman, however much he admired her or was pleased about it afterward; therefore, he could not consent and, therefore, it was battery. Rihanna cannot give consent on Drake’s behalf, significant other or otherwise. Only he could, and he did not.
To put these statements in context: I am currently engaged to be married, and I get upset if my fiancée volunteers me to help a friend move. Dating does not grant access to the body of another person and sexually mature people should not be acting as though it does.
Of course, I am not calling for the immediate arrest of Madonna, but the issue does emphasize how poorly consent is understood in contemporary culture. A CNN report back in September of 2014 discussed a California law that would mandate an “enthusiastic yes” for sexual consent, based on the University of California system’s own standards of “Knowing exactly what and how much I’m agreeing to; expressing my intent to participate; deciding freely and voluntarily to participate.” Consent did not necessarily need to be presented as verbal, but did need to be “unambiguous, ‘enthusiastic’ and ongoing.”
Critics responded with mockery, derision, and an insistence that this standard would result in everything from a flood of false rape reports to a general loss of all the fun in sexual encounters. Contrary to what many of my wonderful comrades on the left have stated, I do not believe that these attitudes stem from an active desire to protect rapists or to attack victims of sexual assault. They derive, rather, from a lack of perspective and understanding.
We have a narrative for rape in our culture. According to this narrative, it usually happens to a white, attractive cis-woman with a stream of blood trickling down the right side of her mouth, perhaps her left eye swollen, her hair certainly mussed, and her clothes torn and ill-fitted. It sometimes involves tears, sometimes screaming, and always the existential threat of broken bones and death. It is struggle, and even more tragic, a lack of struggle for fear of something worsening the worst of all violations. Once in a while, when a screenwriter wants to get extra edgy, there will be an acknowledgment that most woman are raped by men they already know and trust, and this matter will be treated with shock and outrage.
These characters are Anna in Downton Abbey and the tragic victim-of-the-week that Detectives Benson and Stabler fight for on Law & Order: SVU (two shows I love). This woman is the unfortunate daughter in The Hills Have Eyes (one of my favorite horror movies), who survives one of the most disturbing depictions of sexual torture ever committed to film and gets the gruesome, fiery vengeance we all want against monsters before the end credits. I’ve never supported the death penalty, but I will admit that these moments — and others — have made me question my stance.
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But I’ve never felt that way watching the scene in Gone with the Wind when Rhett grabs Scarlett and ascends the stairs with her kicking and screaming her refusals, or the scene in Revenge of the Nerds in which Robert Carradine’s character wears a mask to trick Julia Montgomery’s character into thinking she is having sex with her boyfriend. These actions constitute sexual assault as much as the ones I listed above, and yet they don’t fit the narrative. They’re sexy or funny or something else that dances on the edge of awful, where we can mistake it for something pure, like a prank kiss your partner thought would be great to volunteer you for.
Stories of explicit sexual violence are not every story. Believing that they are is what pushes otherwise well-meaning people to ask survivors what they were wearing, or to tell harassment victims that they must have been flirting, or to suggest that one cannot be raped by a significant other. But believing in consent — real, understood, and unquestionable consent — anesthetizes these impulses.
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Stories of rape, sexual assault, and battery are as diverse as the individuals affected by them. Their connecting line — the one factor common to each and every instance — is a lack of consent. When the discussion turns to a white cis-woman who has been ambushed and attacked by a stranger, she has been robbed of her consent. When a man, before or during a sexual act, rescinds his desire to continue and is ignored, he has been robbed of his consent. When a young person is too young or intoxicated or in any manner incapable of understanding the full extent of what is happening, they have been robbed of their consent.
To quote a young survivor I had the privilege of listening to, “Consent is not sexy. It is mandatory.” To state that anything less would result in a deluge of women falsely accusing men of rape is laughable in the face of data both on the rarity of false rape claims and the high percentage of women who already do not report their assaults. To state that it will ruin sexual pleasure is to show distinct comfort with a lack of sexual communication. I am not in the business of telling anyone what to do sexually, but extensive experience in consent-loving environments like the BDSM community is not at all necessary to comprehend that intimate action requires at least as much discussion as when you ask a coworker if they want anything from the vending machine.
Yes and No do the job marvelously in either case.