Sophia Katz’s essay recounting her sexual assault by Stephen Tully Dierks got a lot of attention because of its implications for the Brooklyn literary scene, but it’s an excellent piece of writing on its own terms, showing the various power dynamics Dierks exploited very effectively.
Remarkably, there are people who seem to think there’s some ambiguity about whether Katz was sexually assaulted, which leads us to an equally superb piece of writing by Mallory Ortberg:
I cannot and will not, as Ellen does, pick apart Katz’ motives for going to New York City or staying with Dierks or not “taking responsibility for herself”; I will assume that as the person best qualified to speak on what happened before and during her stay with Dierks, Katz did not board a plane to New York City because she believed she was going to have to continually fight off sexual advances from her host.
If I had a guest coming in from out of town, and I had romantic or sexual designs on them, and I asked if they would be willing to share my bed and their response was “I’ll bring a sleeping bag; I’d like to sleep on the floor,” I would be appropriately chastened (and privately a bit mortified). The message would be abundantly clear. The No is obvious. The No is there.
I would have to be looking for a way to cheat my guest of their clearly stated wishes, were I to abruptly start undressing and caressing them the moment I got them alone. I would have to be looking for a way to wear down or tear down their No into a Fine, I Won’t Stop You.
I do not believe that most women — that most victims of sexual assault — freeze or shut down when faced with the prospect of coercive sex because they don’t really care what happens next, or because they’re excited to push through the moment for the sheer joy of accusing the aggressor of rape after the fact. I believe that these women, these people, have a finely tuned sense for their safety, that when a woman reports having “a feeling that it would turn into an ordeal if I rejected him,” she is not crazy and she knows what she is talking about.
I should not have had to do it either time. The first time I said No, the first time I turned my head away, the first time I crossed my arms over my chest and walked away, the first time I said “What are you doing?”, the first time I displayed a clear and obvious distaste for what was being done to me rather than with me should have been enough. That expectation — that the person saying No should be prepared at any moment to fight someone else off – is an undue burden. Pretending that active consent is ambiguous and confusing and difficult to obtain is a pernicious lie that has no basis in reality. It is abundantly clear when someone is eager and ready to sleep with you.
I said No. Sophia Katz said No. Saying No was easy, making the man who wanted to hear Yes listen to me when I said No was the challenge. A man who wants to hear a Yes will find a way to drag it out of you.
Saying No was easy. Getting Shaun and Adam to listen to my No took everything I had.
It should not take everything you have to turn down someone’s offer for sex.
A woman who says “No thanks, I’ll sleep on the floor”; a woman who freezes up and tenses at your touch; a woman who says “I really don’t want to” and “We really shouldn’t” and “We can’t” and “Please at least wear a condom” is not saying yes to you, and if you would like to pretend that that is unclear, you are a liar, you are being disingenuous, you are lying and you know it.
Some of the discourse surrounding affirmative consent standards seem to assume that determining consent is some deep mystery wrapped in several enigmas. The basis for believing this has always been unclear to me. It is generally not difficult to tell when someone is consenting to have sex with you. If you’re unsure, you can ask him or her! If you have any doubt, stop! It’s not terribly complicated. There may be some issues with how to write this into a legal standard at the margin, which I’ll deal with in a subsequent post, but I don’t see any problem in principle with an affirmative consent standard.