Everyone knows the word consent and everyone believes that the only people who are capable of sexually assaulting another person are sociopathic sadists who hide in alleyways with a knife.
Though these types of cases do exist, consent is necessary, must be explicit, enthusiastic, ongoing and non-negotiable in every sexual encounter, anything otherwise is abusive with extreme physical and emotional implications for those affected.
The reality of sexual assault is much more vast and complex than people care to admit or understand. The reality of sexual violence can be recognised vividly, by listening to those who (often anonymously) identify that they have been subjected to sexual harm. When people can recognise that they have experienced traumatic tendencies regardless of how extreme, as a response to a sexual encounter, there was an abusive or coercive nature of the interaction.
A survey was conducted in 2017 by Thursdays In Black, a nationwide student movement, aiming towards a world without rape and violence. This report highlighted the reality of sexual assault amongst all groups of people, including men, women, gender minorities, LGBTQ+ people and people of all ethnicities. The report was significant in showing how anyone can suffer from sexual assault, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and socio-economic background.
The survey discussed a wide range of topics including all forms of harassment, sexual harassment, sexism, ableism, racism and sexual assault. This survey showed that there was a wide range of sex-based harassment and assault experienced by many people across the spectrums of gender, sexuality and race. In many cases as well the victim knew the perpetrator prior to the assault or harassment taking place.*
Harmful perceptions about gender, especially in relation to rape and sexual violence reinforce dangerous ideas perpetuating that not believing that active and ongoing consent is important during every sexual encounter. These perceptions lead to the entitlement that people can degrade and dehumanise another person. People have become accustomed to the idea that because there are cases of severe sexual assault involving extreme violence, kidnapping and murder that other situations ‘are not that bad’.
These harmful perceptions leading to the disregard for explicit consent as a necessity has created an idea of an ‘ideal’ victim of rape. Those who are left out of the ‘ideal rape victim’ complex are placed in positions where not only do they begin to doubt themselves and their own experiences but their experiences are minimised by wider society. The concept of the ‘ideal victim’ is a very harmful rape myth, as it completely dismisses many of those who can perpetuate and who can be harmed by sexual violence.
When rape was first introduced into the Crimes Act, the definition of rape as a criminal offence was designed to only serve those who were part of the ‘ideal victim’, and in many ways, those who do not fit into this category can still be persecuted more harshly by the justice system. The ‘victim’ in this consists of a caucasian, petite young woman who sexually virtuous and unprovocative, who is cautious but still susceptible to be taken advantage of.
Male survivors of sexual violence are not don’t fit into the ideal victim position, therefore are not acknowledged as being capable of being victimised by sexual violence. Toxic gender stereotypes and constructions for men and masculinity have to lead to perceptions about males and their relationship with sex. From a very young age, men are socialised to associate sex with masculinity, base self-worth and achievement.
Creating a culture of believing that men are permanently available for sexual activities is incredibly dangerous. These assumptive attitudes around sex can lead to people not being able to see their sexual partners as people and ignore the emotions and personal autonomy involved with sex. Entitlement stems from these attitudes. Having an implanted idea that someone is always freely available, means that ongoing acknowledgement that what is happening is consensual is not there.
Regardless of someone’s relationship with another person, no one ever has the right to another person, in any form. A romantic relationship, a friendship, a casual relationship mean absolutely nothing when it comes to the compulsory need for consent. There always need to be explicit communication that what is happening between all parties is free of coercion, manipulation, pressure and abuse of power.
Abusing power and abusing trust is something that is unfortunately very common with sexual encounters. Particularly involved with males, abusing a position of power can be very overlooked because of the attitudes that men are ‘supposed’ to be able to fight off any perpetrators and also will always be sexually available.
There is a gross acceptance of abuse involving younger male victims and older perpetrators. There is a legal age of consent for a reason and needs to be respected regardless of the relationship and the genders. When the victim is a younger male and the perpetrator is an older female, it is consistently overlooked, regardless of the power imbalance. Simply just because there is a boy a victim people don’t respect that he is a legitimate victim, therefore, ignore the offence for what it actually is. This attitude needs to change. Someone is always a perpetrator if there is a wide age gap and if the victim is under the legal age of consent.
Under New Zealand law, a sexual violation is outlined as if one person rapes or has unlawful sexual connection with another person. Rape and unlawful sexual connection are defined when consent is absent during the encounter. However, there is no definition of consent in New Zealand law. Regardless of there not being a legal definition, it doesn’t mean that active consent is not important and essential.
If someone is unable to communicate with their sexual partner, then they shouldn’t be having to engage in any sexual activity at all. Humans can recognise the emotions and feelings of others by such things as body language, the look in people’s eyes and what they are saying. If someone is not completely engaging, looking away, pushing you away, being silent, looking uncomfortable in any way means no.
If someone uses language like “maybe” “later on” then all actions must stop immediately. Abuse of safewords and taking advantage of someone’s intoxicated state means what is happening is not consensual. One of the main things to do is to simply just ask and keep communication ongoing because you should want to sexually engage with someone if they don’t 100% want to sexually engage with you.
* For more info about the Thursdays In Black In Our Own Words Survey go here:
Ailish Leydon-Lyons is a researcher and writer for Mosaic-Tiaki Tangata. She has recently completed a degree in Criminology, Sociology and Social Policy, and is currently doing a Certificate in Restorative Justice at Victoria University.