Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Consent Equation

 

I know that my son, Clyde, has not always appreciated having a budding social justice warrior for an older sister. I’m sure he didn’t fully appreciate having her come home from working her shift at Pride in the Pines when he was twelve and making him listen to her “sexuality is a spectrum” speech. And no eleven-year-old boy is ever really ready for his sister to casually mention that “virginity is just a social construct.” But the day that probably stands out the most in his mind is the time when he was nine and she burst into his room demanding he answer the question, “Can drunk girls consent?” And then, when he didn’t answer her quickly enough, answered the question herself with a sharp, “No, they can not.” Nor did he probably appreciate the lecture that followed when she explained to him that consent must always contain the following three elements: “continual, verbal, and enthusiastic.” At nine I’m pretty sure he was more interested in catching up on the latest Naruto release then in learning the finer points of navigating sexuality in a world of vastly unequal power dynamics.

Now, however, at the wise old age of sixteen, when such things are much more relevant, I’m sure he feels a little less mortified, and a lot more grateful. (Well, to be honest, probably no less mortified, and only a little more grateful.) But still, there must be some degree of gratitude there, if only for helping him thus far avoid any of the scandals that have befallen pretty much every celebrity ever, with the possible exception, of course, of Tom Hanks. (Please, don’t ever let me hear anything bad about Tom Hanks.)

Of course, I’d like to believe that Clyde (or any boy, really) has always been the type of person who already understands everything his sister once insisted he learn, with special emphasis placed on the importance of consent, but recent scandals would seem to insist otherwise. Apparently, there are some men (yes, I know: #notallmen) who seem to be under the impression that the “nuances” of consent are not, in fact, something simple enough to explain to a nine-year-old boy, but are rather some form of advanced math, a complicated story problem involving clothing, and alcohol, and buyer’s remorse. The truth of the matter is that consent is not even long division level of hard; it’s simple addition. You+ continual, verbal, and enthusiastic=consent.

This is so easy to understand, and so commonly accepted that Lenny Bruce worked it into his stand up act sixty years ago. (“You never touch it” he complains to his wife, who replies “Do you really want me to touch it if I don’t want to touch it?” When he answers her with a desperate “Yes!” the audience laughs. They laugh because, even back then, they knew what he was asking of her was wrong.)

Lenny (and Lenny’s wife, and Lenny’s audience) all understood what Louis C.K. and others seem to have forgotten, or pretend not to have known in the first place: not only does an absence of “no” does not mean “yes,” but a “yeah, I guess” doesn’t mean “yes” either. Because, really, the most important part of the consent trinity is enthusiastic. Without enthusiasm there is no consent. (And if you are so socially inept that you legitimately can’t tell the difference between enthusiastic and grudging, then it is probably in the public’s best interest not to let you wander freely about without some kind of an aide.)

We can’t all be lucky enough to have an older sister who firmly believes (rightfully so) that “the birds and the bees” should be updated to include “and asking nicely, please.” But, just maybe, we can all make up for lost time by channelling our own budding social justice warriors and explaining consent to the boys in our lives. Even if they would rather get caught up on the latest Naruto release.

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Yes, There Is Something We Can Do

 

Before we knew anything about the driver of the car that careered down a New York city bike path, before we knew any of the details about the shooting in Las Vegas, before we had more than snippets of information about the massacre of half of the congregation at a small Texas church, we all instinctively knew one thing about the assailant: it was a man.

Think about it: as shocked as you were when you first heard the news, how much more shocked would you have been to find out that the perpetrator was a woman? That’s because, in nearly 100% of seemingly “random” acts of violence, the perpetrator is a man. An angry, violent, man. And this—this, is what scares me the most about all of these attacks. It scares me because this is the part of the equation that I actually have the ability to do something about, and I’m terrified that I’m going to somehow mess it up.

I can accept the fact that there is no way for me to control many of the terrible fates that could potentially befall me or the people I love. Random acts of violence are just that—random—and I can no more determine when and where the the next one will strike than I could determine where the next meteor will fall. And so, by that logic, there is nothing to be gained by worrying about them.

However, as the mother of a son, I can try and control the other half of the equation. I can’t do anything to ensure that I or someone I love won’t one day be faced with an individual who is so broken and angry they want to hurt everyone around them. But I can do a lot towards making sure that I don’t help create that very same broken individual myself.

It is a sad fact of our society that the only emotion many boys are allowed to feel is anger. Not sadness, not fear, not disappointment, not anxiety—every expression of these “weaker” emotions is met with the command to “man up,” or “stop being a little pussy.” And so we create these sad, inchoate creatures who have been denied the opportunity to really understand what it means to be human. We talk about Millennials who have never learned “how to adult,” while ignoring the much larger problem of our neighbors and coworkers who have never learned “how to human.”

Look, I’m not trying to pull a Trump here and say that this isn’t a gun problem. It is clear to anyone with even a slight understanding of math that less guns would equal less carnage, in the same way that if we were suddenly able to purchase personal nuclear weapons at Walmart the body count would start to go way up. But there’s no reason that it can’t be both an anger and a gun problem, in the same way that someone can be both drunk and stupid. And so, what I’m suggesting is that we try and work on both problems at once. Outside of the home let’s work on electing people who understand that, unlike lobbyists, numbers never lie, and inside the home let’s work on helping our tender-hearted, sensitive boys stay that way.

Although perhaps “work” is the wrong term for what we must do, because that implies that there is something wrong with our boys that we need to fix, when the truth is that there is something right with them that we need to stop breaking. Just like our little girls, our little boys are born ready to love and be loved in return. Compassion and kindness is their factory setting; all that is required of us is to not change it, and to speak up when others (coaches, teachers, older relatives) try and change it themselves.

It might not fix the entire world, but it will at least fix the part of it that is still within our grasp. And who knows? It’s entirely possible that that just might be enough.

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