Two weeks ago, an audio surfaced on WhatsApp, and later on Soundcloud/Twitter/Facebook of a man named Morris (pronounced Mollis by the woman in the clip due to the influence of mother tongue) having sex with a woman despite her repeated pleas for him to stop in two languages, and her saying she was tired and had surrendered. This is repeated severally throughout the recording, and the woman sounds genuinely pained.
Imagine my surprise when I came online to find Mollis being touted as a don for what was most definitely rape. Men were all over claiming that Mollis was their hero, and a man to be emulated, while some women were saying that she was having too much fun, or just couldn’t handle “some good dick.” Some people came out and said that she sounded like she was in pain, and that she had withdrawn her consent severally, hence it was rape, and Mollis was a rapist.
The backlash was unbelievable. We had people, mostly men, saying that it couldn’t be rape, because earlier on he’d told her that she had a good vagina and she said “thanks”; because what was she doing in bed with him if she didn’t want it; because, apparently, consent cannot be withdrawn mid-sex. Once you say yes, in their misguided opinion, you can’t change your mind. They forget that a woman has the right to withdraw consent midway into sex, the same way any human being has the right to change their mind and this has to be respected. To fail to recognize this is to dehumanize women. I was astonished at the number of men who may have done these things and not recognized that they were rapists, and the number of women who may have had this happen to them and failed to recognize that they had been raped.
Rape is sex without consent, plain and simple. When one of the parties involved in sex is unwilling or unable to consent, then no matter the circumstances, that is rape. We imagine rape to be something that happens along a dark path when a woman (or man) is waylaid by a group of strange men, or a single one, and amidst tears and fighting, is pinned down and violently penetrated. What about the woman who is taken out for drinks by a man, and then after she has one too many and is unable to exercise her right to consent, he forces himself on her? What about that married couple, when the woman is not in the mood but her husband makes her have sex anyway, and she is too afraid to voice her unwillingness/anger because of fear of physical abuse, or “sabotaging” the marriage? What about that ten-year old boy whose first sexual encounter is with the house help? To limit our definition of rape to the stereotypical image earlier mentioned does a great disservice to many, and causes them great pain.
To avoid the perpetuation of this cycle of pain, we should not just seek consent (that is, an affirmation that the person you want to have sexual relations with also wants to have sexual relations with you). We should take it a step further and seek enthusiastic consent – don’t just seek passive agreement to sexual relations, seek enthusiastic agreement – make sure the person is as psyched about the sexual activity as you are. They should not be impaired or unconscious. We have been told severally that “no means no” but this is no longer enough. It’s not just about being told no/to stop, it’s about getting a definitive, enthusiastic yes. The problem with the “no means no” school of thought is that it leads people to say that the concept of consent is confusing. It leads to people seeking to avoid a “no” as opposed to getting a “yes”. What if someone does not give a definitive no?
Here’s my school of thought: “No” means no. “I have a boyfriend” means no. “Maybe some other time” means no. Sometimes, even “Yes” means no, when the person being asked doesn’t have a real choice in the matter. Anything other than an enthusiastic yes is NOT consent. Why is this so important? Because women have been taught by society not to be direct for fear of being offensive or being attacked, so several times, a woman may not directly say no when she does not want to have sex. There is a fear of saying “I do not want this. Stop. No.” And even when they do this, as the woman Mollis raped did, they are not taken seriously. It is assumed she just can’t handle the dick. She’s secretly enjoying it. She’s moaning and crying because of pleasure, not pain. On the other hand, men have been taught that they have to work hard for sex – pursue, coax, plead – until they get it.
I want to believe that most people do not want to be rapists, but we must remember that we are surrounded by a culture that supports, and sometimes even encourages rape. Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence, including rape, is trivialized and normalized. It shows itself through blaming the victims of sexual assault/rape; Emily Buchwald in Transforming a Rape Culture adds:
“…a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself…In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable…However…much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”
This culture is so persistent, that people think of it as “the way things have always been/will continue to be”. Thus, we can make jokes about sexual violence, create memes, support celebrities like Bill Cosby and others who have been implicated in multiple rapes, and blame the victims of rape/sexual assault because surely they must have somehow brought this inevitability upon themselves. We forget that most rapes are committed by ordinary men who look just like our friends/brothers/fathers/cousins, because they are surrounded by a culture that okays rape and sexual violence. Perhaps accepting this is too painful for most of us, because it would mean that we are somehow complicit. But we are.
Rape culture is what allowed a police officer to strip search a high school girl two weeks ago, and when she found her with contraband in her underwear, allow pictures of her breasts and private parts to be photographed. These photographs then spread on WhatsApp yet again before going viral on social media. It leads us to believe that she was a “bad girl” and somehow deserves to be shamed for her behaviour. It is what leads people to share nude images of a minor, with such glee, without her consent (please remember that minors according to the law cannot consent.) It is what leads an officer of the law, alongside a photographer who should know better, to think it is okay to use a girl/woman’s sexuality to shame her for bad behaviour. These incidents show how Kenyan women, regardless of age, continue to be abused sexually and denigrated in the public eye with no reprieve.
Our troubling attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society is further seen in this story, published in the entertainment section of one of Kenya’s largest newspapers, in which a taxi driver had sex with his wife against her doctor’s warning, and woke up to find her dead after they stopped because she was in pain. Several jokes and puns are utilized in the story, such as “Act of rod” and “gland to gland combat”, trivializing the fact that a woman died from having sex with her husband after his insistence, ignoring the doctor’s warning. After she started gasping and becoming weak, begging him to stop, he just rolled over and slept. He did not rush her to hospital. When he reported the matter to the police, they dismissed him, telling him they were in no mood for his jokes, and that he should solve his bedroom problems without involving them. This is all after a woman died due to sex.
Something has got to give. We can, and must, change our attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society, or else more people will continue to be victims of sexual violence. We must begin to educate ourselves on how to have safe, pleasurable sex that does not create any victims. We must stop looking at sex as something a woman owes a man, and that he must take at all costs, such as rape or death. Instead, sex should be viewed as something two consenting adults agree to participate in for their mutual pleasure. We must stop shaming women for enjoying sex, and stop teaching them to be coy, because this enforces what men are misguidedly taught – that no means maybe, and that maybe can be turned into a yes if you persist long/hard enough. This way, sex is not something men take from women, but something they share. How hot would that be?
We should create and encourage a sex positive culture, where sex is not a dirty thing. One in which people are not ashamed of their sexuality, and instead embrace it and encourage others to embrace their own; where people are able to communicate their sexual needs to their partners in a safe/open environment. One in which both having sex and not having sex are considered okay. One in which we teach members of the society about their reproductive health and encourage them to take it just as seriously as the health of the rest of their bodies. We should focus on ensuring that all sexual activities are consensual; enthusiastically so.
“Yes!” means yes.