Fifty Shades of Consent: Rape Culture Versus Feminism – The Feminist Wire

Fifty Shades of Consent: Rape Culture Versus Feminism

By Kelly Oliver

As I started research on campus rape for my book Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, I fancied myself a nerdy feminist avenger who could take on the bad guys, footballers, and frat boy rapists. But, just scratching the surface of rape on college campuses was eye-opening. The issue was much more complicated than sexist athletes or fraternity brothers conspiring to rape women. Of course, I did find many outrageous examples of athletes and fraternities doing just that. The high profile Vanderbilt rape case is one such example. Another is a fraternity at the University of Wisconsin that was suspended for a “rape conspiracy” that involved spiking punch and serving it to select girls wearing red wristbands; several young women ended up in the hospital as a result. Then there is the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity at Penn State where police found a Facebook page run by the frat that contained hundreds of pictures of nude and unconscious women in sexually compromising positions.

There have been several notorious cases of videos or snapshots of unconscious girls being dragged, undressed, prodded, peed on, written on, and/or penetrated with fingers and objects, or raped: a high school girl in Steubenville Ohio referred to by her rapists as a “dead girl,” a college girl on a beach in Panama City Florida who was drugged and then raped while by-standers watched and recorded, teenager Rehteah Parsons who committed suicide after photographs of her being raped circulated online, Audrie Potts, another suicide after photographs of her semi-naked body went viral at her high school, and then there was the Vanderbilt University rape case where police finally convinced an unbelieving college junior that she’d been gang raped by her boyfriend and his football player buddies by showing her videos and photographs the perpetrators took of her, which they sent around to friends.  The girls and young women in Steubenville, at Vanderbilt, on Panama Beach in Florida, and those featured on the Facebook page of the Penn State fraternity all found out about their sexual assaults through third parties showing them images of themselves passed out and abused.

But, to my surprise, I also found lots of cases that are not so clear-cut, cases where young women got drunk, seemingly consented to sex—if drunken consent is possible (and that’s the ten-thousand-dollar question)—and then when they sobered up, claimed they were raped. For example, at Occidental College in California, during her first week on campus, “Jane Doe” as she is called in the report, got drunk during orientation, and went to the dorm room of another first year student, “John Doe” (no relation), who had also been drinking. Realizing she was drunk, Jane’s friends escorted her back to her own dorm room, where they thought they left her for the night. Next, she texted a friend she was about to “have sex,” and then went back to John’s room. The next day, she accused John of rape because she didn’t want to have sex—at least her virgin sober self didn’t want to have sex. John was expelled from school.

Like this alcohol-related case, I also found cases where sober girls or young women seemingly consented, but actually didn’t want to have sex. The case at St. Paul of a fifteen-year-old girl who went along with sex with an eighteen-year-old boy because she was afraid, as she said later at the trial. In this case, consent is colored by the significant fact that she was under the age of legal consent while the boy was of age. But, at the trial, the issue became not her age, but whether or not she resisted. She said she didn’t resist, although she was crying (which should have been a sign to the boy that she didn’t want sex), because she was scared. The boy was acquitted on charges of sexual assault, even though, at one time, this would have been considered statutory rape.

As I continued my research, I became more confused about the issue of consent. Looking for clarity, I investigated the so-called “Mattress Girl” at Columbia University. As a senior project for an art class, Emma Sulkowicz did a performance piece where she carried a twin mattress around campus, rain or shine, to and from classes, because she claimed she’d been raped by her then-boyfriend, or at least regular hook-up, on that very mattress. She was protesting what she took to be the university’s lack of appropriate response to her claim that what began as consensual sex turned into anal rape when her partner flipped her over against her protests. Whether or not there was consent or protest became a “he-said she-said” situation, like most sexual assault cases where there is no witness (or Selfie). Of course, feminists have fought hard to get marriage rape to count as rape. Yes, what begins as consensual can quickly become nonconsensual. An invitation to a dorm room isn’t an invitation to sex or assault. And a consensual kiss isn’t necessarily consent to anything more.

But instead of clearing my head, reading about this case made me more confused. I have had good and bad sexual encounters, and I’ve done things I wish I hadn’t, and more to the point, some people have done things to me that I wish they hadn’t, but I’d never considered that I’d been sexually assaulted…until reading some descriptions of recent sexual assaults. It made me wonder whether most people have been raped, if rape means doing something you don’t really want to do. I also began to think that in some of these cases at least, there was serious confusion between consent and desire. If “Mattress Girl” objected to anal sex and voiced her objection, then her partner should have stopped immediately; otherwise, he was guilty of assault. In some cases I read about, however, it was unclear whether the woman accusing a man of rape voiced her objections—and thereby made her lack of consent clear, or whether she felt violated and expected her sexual partner to intuit her lack of consent. In some cases, accusers seemed to be admitting consent to sex, while denying they wanted sex. And therein lies the rub: consent is not the same as desire.

For example, in the Occidental case, the drunken girl consented insofar as any drunk can, and the next day her sober self was clear that she hadn’t wanted to have sex. Intoxicated consent is a sticky wicket. Where do we draw the line to determine whether or not a person is too impaired to consent? Unlike drunk driving, we don’t have blood alcohol standards for drunk consent. Recently, there has been a spate of high profile rape cases involving unconscious girls and women. Clearly, an unconscious person cannot consent. But, can a drunk person consent? And doesn’t it depend on how drunk? There is a difference between being a little tipsy and being shit-faced and nearly or completely unconscious. And what about the Occidental case where both parties are drunk? She accused him of nonconsensual sex because she was intoxicated, but could he also accuse her of nonconsensual sex because he was drunk, too? Were they raping each other? Or, should men be expected to be reasonable enough, even when drunk, not to have sex with an intoxicated woman? Perhaps they should.

It’s one thing if a young woman chooses to drink, or even drinks due to peer pressure, it’s quite another if unbeknownst to her, her drink has been spiked with a Roofie or the “rape drug,” GHB. Spiking girls’ drinks shows obvious intent to rape well before any of the parties is intoxicated. The use of rape drugs is also evidence that for some young men, lack of consent is actually the goal. They want nonconsensual sex with semi-conscious or unconscious girls, and plan accordingly. As I mentioned earlier, that was the plan at the University of Wisconsin fraternity that spiked a punch bowl and then targeted “hot” girls to receive “free” drinks. More recently, a father and son were charged with drugging a girl during orientation at Illinois State University. Allegedly, the father bought alcohol for underage students, and then slipped a pill into the soda of a girl that she then drank. She became ill and returned to her dorm room, and the son followed and allegedly raped her at least twice. The father and son duo were arrested boarding their train back to Chicago, and the father had 22 tablets of the drug Ecstasy in his pocket.

Obviously, it’s not just millennial frat boys or privileged athletes that think its okay to drug girls and rape them. Think of the now infamous statement of convicted Stanford University swimmer and rapist Brock Turner’s dad, who said his son shouldn’t do jail time for a mere “twenty minutes of action.” Are these fathers encouraging their sons to assault women, or excusing them when they do?

Of course, rape is nothing new. And neither is rape culture—a culture that accepts sexual assault as “boys will be boys,” and blames victims for wearing short skirts or being “sluts.” What is new is the visibility of sexual assault, and consequently a heightened awareness of the scope of the problem. Media, especially social media, combined with our society’s embrace of certain kinds of sexual images and sex talk, along with rape activists’ work to bring sexual assault into public consciousness, have led to what we could call a clash of cultures, rape culture meets feminism. On the one hand, images of sexual assault circulating on social media as entertainment by perpetrators encourages sexual assault as part of men’s coming of age. On the other hand, rape activists and other women’s empowerment movements have worked to raise awareness of rape without victim blaming, and as a result, more women are able to talk about their experiences of sexual assault. Social media plays a central role in both rape culture and rape activism. Social media is used by some men to document their conquests to share with their friends. And social media is used by some women to support each other and share their stories of sexual assault. Social media emboldens both rapists and survivors to document their experiences. The huge difference is that while the perpetrators seem to feel they are just having fun and what they’re doing is typical or even amusing, the victims feel she has been violated and images of assault just adds insult to injury.

While I don’t buy the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” line of thought, there is a deeper culture clash going on here. Like rape, pornography is nothing new. But, with the Internet, pornography is readily available, even to children and teens, as never before. And again with changing attitudes towards sex and sexual taboos, violent pornography and S/M pornography is on the rise. Most boys are raised on pornography, and images of sexual relations between men and women from pornography inform their ideas and fantasies about women. Their sexual desires are formed, in part, by watching porn.

While girls are much less likely to watch or use porn, they are feeling the “trickle down” effects of pornography on what counts as sexy these days. Poses emphasizing cleavage and butt cheeks, along with the ubiquitous pouty kissy lips, are staples of many social media posts. At the same time, however, girls are still spoon-fed fantasies of “Prince Charming” and romance, especially at the movies. Girls’ expectations for intimate relationships are formed by Disney Princesses, who recently are strong and empowered, but still cute and sexy, and oft times snag a handsome prince. As girls graduate to live action Hollywood films, they get stories of “having it all,” careers and families both, empowerment and prince charming, and a chance to live happily ever after.

What happens when fantasies bred from pornography and fantasies bred from Hollywood collide? Boys are raised on porn, and girls are raised on Cinderella. Enter Fifty Shades of Grey (the best selling book of all time), the story of a rich, powerful, sexy guy who likes kink and whipping girls, and a naïve virgin who falls in love with him but wants vanilla sex and happily ever after. The rich guy wants the virgin to sign a bondage contract agreeing to be his submissive, but she refuses. He beats her anyway, and some of the time she likes it. Ironically, Fifty Shades has become the poster child for affirmative consent policies that treat sex as a kind of contract between consenting parties, forgetting that in Fifty Shades, SHE NEVER SIGNED THE CONTRACT. Fifty Shades of Grey, especially the books, offers a great example of the conflict between consent and desire, especially when Anna goes along with kinky things but inside her head, she doesn’t like it. That is, she consents, but she doesn’t want it, which are two different things. There are times, too, when she actively says “No,” and even runs away crying, when she clearly doesn’t consent. And then there are those porn fantasies that what starts out as her resisting ends up with her panting for more. It’s these kinds of fantasies that are especially dangerous for women.

At one end of the spectrum, young women are waking up the next morning after drunken sex and knowing they were raped because they didn’t want to have sex, at least their sober selves didn’t want sex. They may have seemed to consent when intoxicated, and in some cases even initiated sex, but in “reality”—the reality of their innermost desires—they didn’t want sex. On the one hand, some young men want sex with unconscious girls and flaunt the lack of consent, while on the other, some young women appear to consent, but then feel violated because they didn’t want it, or didn’t like it.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have frat boys hanging banners and chanting “No means Yes. Yes means anal.” In recent years, every fall, on college campuses across the country, inevitably some fraternities welcome freshman with banners and chants explicitly celebrating nonconsensual sex. For example, a few years ago, Yale fraternity brothers marched around the freshman dorms chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Just last fall, there were similar chants and banners welcoming freshman at Ohio State University, Western Ontario University, and Old Dominion. Then there was the chant used at St. Mary’s University in Halifax to welcome new students: “SMU boys, we like them young. Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that ass.” These examples suggest an aggressive campaign on the part of some fraternities and men on campus to insist “No” means “Yes,” and consent is not only irrelevant, but also undesirable.

Education is key in counterbalancing both Cinderella fantasies (my prince will come) and pornutopia fantasies (that women want to be raped). Enter feminism. Feminist education can provide alternative conceptions of both femininity and masculinity such that women are not seen as passively waiting for a man (to pick their drunken body up off the floor), and men are not seen as the agents of consent (getting women to consent to something they don’t actually want). The Fifty Shades version of contractual consent wherein the woman consents to let the man do stuff to her is highly problematic, and not just because the woman is again imagined as passive but also because of the split between desire and consent…and because she never did sign that contract, dude. Every college student should be required to take Feminism 101 to debunk the myths of both Disney princesses and porn fantasies that feed rape culture.


Kelly OliverKelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt. She is the author of fifteen scholarly books, including, Carceral Humanitarianism: The Logic of Refugee Detention (University of Minnesota 2017); Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, Winner of a 2016 CHOICE MAGAZINE AWARD (Columbia 2016); Earth and World: Philosophy After the Apollo Missions, (Columbia 2015). Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment (Fordham2013); Knock me up, Knock me down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Film (Columbia 2012); Animal Lessons: How They Teach us to be Human (Columbia 2009); Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media (2007); The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Oppression (Minnesota 2004); Noir Anxiety: Race, Sex, and Maternity in Film Noir (Minnesota 2002); and perhaps her best known work, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minnesota 2001). Her work has been translated into eight languages. Most recently, she has published three novels in The Jessica James Mystery Series (the first, WOLF won an IPPY Gold Medal and is a Finalist for a Forward Magazine Award for Best Mystery).

Her op-eds have been featured in The New York Times and Los Angeles Review of Books. She has appeared on ABC news and CSPAN books television. And, she has been interviewed for the L.A. Times, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and various other newspapers and radio programs.