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Posts Tagged ‘consent’

I have spent a lot of time this week dreading talking about this, but knowing that I absolutely must talk about the deluge of revelations about sexual assault in the news, including a woman accusing Judge Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was fourteen years old. Having written a book in which a grown man has sexual contact with a fourteen-year-old girl, I don’t get to take a pass on talking about this.

To have this conversation requires me to ask you to accept that I am simultaneously two contradictory things. I am a woman who has been sexually assaulted, as an adult and as a child, but I am also a woman who at the age of thirteen had a loving and consensual relationship that involved sexual contact with a man more than a decade older than me.

I will never argue that relationship wasn’t illegal. Of course it was. He knew better. Hell, I knew better, but thirty years later, I have no regrets. Quite the opposite, I have very fond memories of a relationship in which my consent was respected in a way it has never been since. It was my first sexual experience, and I got exactly what I wanted, and was never pressured into doing things I didn’t want to do. In fact, that relationship taught me about the importance of consent and about my right to refuse anything I didn’t want.

Despite my personal feelings about my relationship, I will never suggest that it shouldn’t have been illegal. There’s a reason I wrote a novel in which the man involved in such a relationship goes to prison. We need age of consent laws to protect young people from predation. While I felt capable of consenting at thirteen, most thirteen year olds are not. We need the laws to be black and white, even as a whole lot of gray exists in the world. We also need to enforce those laws, but for that to happen, we have to listen to victims of sexual assault and believe them. The laws are meaningless if we don’t listen every time.

The first time I was assaulted as a child, I told exactly one person. That person didn’t believe me. I didn’t tell anyone else. The second time it happened, I didn’t tell anyone, because I had learned that no one would believe me. This has been my experience as an adult, too. People refusing to believe me when I say I wasn’t a victim at thirteen. Police officers explaining to me at nineteen that I hadn’t “really” been raped. The second time I was raped as an adult, the only person I told was a counselor at an abortion clinic. She was literally the first person who believed what I had to say.

I tell you all of this to acknowledge that my personal experiences and the novel I wrote are troubling and problematic. I write these kinds of books, because they reflect my lived experiences.

I tell you all of this to affirm that when someone tells me what has happened to them, my default is always to believe them. I would rather learn later that my faith and compassion were misplaced than fail to offer them in the first place. If we truly want to protect people from sexual harassment and assault, the first step is to believe that these things happen. And they happen without regard for whether the accuser has a “troubled past” and without regard for whether the accused is liked or respected in their field. If we’re tired of people coming forward ten, twenty, thirty years after the fact, we have to make it possible for people to come forward immediately. That starts with listening and believing.

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radiojornalismoAlmost three months on from the release of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I’ve done quite a few interviews, but yesterday I got to do one where I was finally asked to discuss one of the issues at the heart of the novel. I’ve talked a little about it at live book events, but this one finally gave me the terrifying chance to talk on the record about consent.

If you’re curious, you can listen to the whole interview here or you can read excerpts from it here. (That second link comes with bonus, maximum-80s picture of me at 13.)

One of the things that I talked about in the interview is the fact that our laws are of necessity based on very black and white ideas of right and wrong, but that we have to acknowledge gray areas. We want the issue of underage sex to be so clear cut that no decent person could get involved in it. That’s the way we like to see it in the news, some great maw in the moral foundation. We want to believe that we stand on one side–the right one–and squint toward the other side, the one where pedophiles gather in shadows.

I say that as someone who not only existed in a gray area, but who thrived and was happy in a gray area. When I was a young teenager, I was in a loving relationship with a much older man. That relationship was sexual, it was consenting, and it was secret. Not just while I was in it, but even once I was an adult. Obviously, it was secret at the time, because it was illegal, but why did it continue to be secret long after it was over, and long after I was an adult?

I kept it a secret, because I got tired of having my narrative overruled by well-meaning people who were more comfortable shaming me than believing that I had been capable of consent. Prior to the release of this novel, I had only told a few people about that relationship, and every time was disastrous. One intimate partner, the one who had goaded me into talking about my earliest sexual experiences, told me, “You’re wrong. You were a victim and that man was a pedophile.”

It was devastating to be told that my personal feelings were irrelevant. In many ways, it was as terrible as the time I tried to report a sexual assault and the police sent me home without writing down a word, after they calmly informed me that I hadn’t actually been raped. They weren’t even two sides of the same coin. They were the same side of the coin. I was being silenced and robbed of my narrative agency. You were a victim, you weren’t a victim, you don’t even know what happened to you. Except I did. Of course, I did.

What scares me about all of this is that we continue to treat people this way. We continue to disbelieve what people say about what happened to them. The John Geoghans and the Jerry Sanduskys of the world are made possible, because when the first child came forward to tell someone what had been done to them, they weren’t believed. Either because they were accusing someone in a position of authority, or because their ability to discern what had happened wasn’t respected.

The thing is, consent isn’t black or white. It’s a long procession of gray areas. A child doesn’t magically become capable of consent when they reach the birthday the legislature in their state has deemed gives them the power of consent. (The fact that it varies by geographical location should be a hint that it’s not as tidy a process as we’d like.)

If you tell me that I was incapable of consenting at 13, then you’re also telling me that I was incapable of refusing consent. The message there is that a 13-year-old’s body doesn’t even belong to them, but to their parents, to the state, to the church.

People become capable of consent, when we teach them what it means to consent, and when their consent is respected. When we actually listen when a child says yes or no, we empower and protect them.

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