I #StandWithLeah because we’re all still lying down.
The last few weeks have been a storm of controversial events: the Snapchat CEO’s leaked emails, Provost Etchemendy’s hasty response to the entire undergraduate population, #StandWithLeah and the ongoing struggle to reform the University’s sexual assault policies and resources.
It’s easy to see those events as separate or unrelated. Sexism isn’t the same as sexual assault, right? But, perhaps surprisingly, the underlying issue runs deeper than these two topics.
We can’t truly talk about sexism, rape or other issues on campus without understanding that we live in a culture of nonconsent.
In its most basic form, consent is permission, approval or agreement. Therefore, nonconsent is the lack of permission, approval or agreement.
Living in a culture of nonconsent means that our interactions with each other are inherently lacking explicit permission, approval or agreement. And to a large degree, we think this is perfectly normal.
Women are taught to go to parties in groups because it’s safer to not be alone; we mix our own drinks because we’re wary of roofies; we let at least one friend know when we decide to hook up with a stranger so just in case, someone knows where we were.
Stanford students wouldn’t bat an eye at those tips. But when we think about it, if these tips and tricks for navigating spaces on this campus are normal, that means that sexual assault, date rape and roofies are considered normal enough to be a danger. Everyone’s familiar with the “consent is sexy” signs that organizations like the Sexual Health Peer Resource Center (SHPRC) have been distributing over the past few years. We need those reminders for a reason.
“Some asshole felt me up last night,” we’ll complain, and our friends will express outrage and nod along in sympathy. Empathy, really — it’s happened to a lot of people.
“Should we report it?”
“No, it was dark and I didn’t see them clearly. Plus, the rest of the party was great so it balances it out!”
The conversation ends, the day goes on, nonconsent is just another part of campus life.
Nonconsent and parties seem undeniably related. But outside the “social scene” at Stanford, the same dynamics are reproduced. Say your house or dorm is doing Secret Snowflake, and you make a guy who normally wears baggy sweaters show up in a speedo for the night. Hilarious and harmless — but while he doesn’t say a word, he has issues with body image: He has cutting scars; he’s anxious and jittery the whole night.
He’s too afraid of what people would think to turn down the request or to say that he’s uncomfortable. “You’re supposed to be uncomfortable,” people tell him. Nonconsent is normal.
The word “passive-aggressive” also comes to mind — in fact, it’s hard to find a better example of casual nonconsent in our lives. “Passive-aggressive” seems to describe the way in which we resolve conflicts. We’re scared that a confrontation might ruin a friendship, a work relationship (no mention of Stanford is complete without throwing in the word “networking” somewhere) or a romantic relationship, and so we communicate through not communicating. For us, it’s easier to memorize the infinite list of “actions and their implied meanings” than saying “we need to talk.”
We’ve all become experts at interpreting what that side-eyed glance means in the bathroom, at dressing a certain way in the hopes that someone telepathically understands what we want, at performing this convoluted dance that looks more like a prescripted play than actual human interaction. Deviating from your lines can kill you. Remember the girl who was murdered for saying no to a prom invitation? Nonconsent is so ordinary in our society that we feel entitled to it — we feel like with many situations, other people aren’t supposed to have a choice in the matter. Luckily, murder isn’t the usual outcome of defying expectations of nonconsent.
That being said, it’s not just about labeling those extreme cases, or about focusing on rape as related to mental illness or social awkwardness. That’s what our stereotypical idea of the rapist is: a misogynistic, entitled man who rapes strangers out of rage. That might be why, in a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice, 49 percent of the respondents — college women — who had indicated that someone “made [them] have [penetrative] sexual intercourse by using force or threatening to harm [them]” did not believe they had been raped.
It’s not a coincidence when the same Bureau of Justice study reports that 82 percent of rape is by someone the victim knew, such as friends, acquaintances, intimates or relatives. There is the implicit assumption that if the rapist is someone the victim knew, if they don’t match his or her idea of the “stereotypical rapist,” it isn’t rape.
We need to have a conversation about nonconsent, about all students on campus — rapists or not. The reality is that we have smudged the line of consent ourselves. The ways we fight with our friends, date, hook up, go to parties and trash talk other people all contribute to the normality of nonconsent. It seems almost hypocritical to condemn sexual assault without also critically examining the nonconsensual aspects of our everyday lives that may seem normal.
The conversation about sexual assault needs to be a conversation about nonconsent. It needs to be a conversation about alcohol, communication, social norms, “awkwardness,” bodily autonomy and sexism. It needs to be a conversation about Greek life, about hookup culture, about the glorification of the Game: the batting of eyelashes, the unspoken first kiss, the rough sex in bed with the lights off and the silent morning after.
If we can’t have those conversations, we can’t change a thing. When we stand with Leah, we stand against nonconsent. When we stand with Leah, we stand against normal.
Contact Lily Zheng at firstname.lastname@example.org.