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Jan 30, 2012
In Friday’s Washington Post, Christina Hoff ommers questioned CDC findings on sexual violence. Calling the study "careless" and saying it relies on "the familiar jargon of feminist theory," Sommers even puts the word sexism in distasteful air quotes, as in, "the report also called for more research on ‘sexism.’"
Sommers takes issue with the phasing of the CDC’s question about sexual assault:
In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions….[the sample was asked] “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”
What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape.
So, first of all, I don’t think the CDC was unclear in its phrasing. It’s asking sample participatns if they were too drunk or high to consent. Only they can answer that. And in its sexual violence toolkit, the CDC is again quite clear on the topic:
What is meant by “alcohol/drug facilitated penetration”?
This represents times when a victim was sexually penetrated but they were unable to consent to it because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol or drugs. This includes times when a perpetrator intentionally drugged or spiked the drink of a victim but without the victim’s knowledge, and cases where the victim may have voluntarily used alcohol or drugs, but the perpetrator took advantage of the victim when they were too intoxicated, high, or passed out to consent to sex. (Emphasis mine)
But it’s this comment from Sommers that I’m more troubled by:
The CDC effectively set a stage where each step of physical intimacy required a notarized testament of sober consent.
No, they don’t set that stage, and Sommers knows they don’t. What the CDC has done is ask women if they were raped. They include "Someone had sex with you when you were too inebriated to consent" as a definition of rape.
But what Sommers is really attacking isn’t a specific CDC question, it’s attempts to normalize enthusiastic consent – a culture where what "sex" means is that both parties discussed what would happen ahead of time, and communicated throughout the experience, changing what they were doing as needed – including stopping if they weren’t totally sure the other person wanted it.
I’ve heard snide comments like hers many times — beginning in 1993, with Antioch College’s famous dating policy. At the time it was greeted with mockery. The very notion of having to ask each time you did anything! In 2006, Gettysburg College’s sexual misconduct policy (in short, "Effective consent is informed, freely and actively given, using mutually understandable words or actions which indicate a willingness to participate in mutually agreed upon sexual activity") was also met with indignation.
But what is so funny, what is so absurd, about requiring mutual consent? In this article about good sex education, Al Vernacchio brings up a "pizza metaphor" to encourage good communication around sex:
“If you’re gonna have pizza with someone else, what do you have to do?” he continued. “You gotta talk about what you want. Even if you’re going to have the same pizza you always have, you say, ‘We getting the usual?’ Just a check in. And square, round, thick, thin, stuffed crust, pepperoni, stromboli, pineapple — none of those are wrong; variety in the pizza model doesn’t come with judgment."
He’s talking about decision-making around sex, but it extends to mutual consent as well: before you get a pizza, you both have to agree you want pizza. And you have to discuss several other points as well. You have to check in.
When people make that "Better call a lawyer before you make out with someone these days" joke, what I hear is "Having to ask someone before you do something sexual with them is silly/burdensome/wrong." Tell me this: How does spreading that attitude help the "real victims of sexual violence" Sommers is so concerned about?
I think people mock "enthusiastic consent" model because they liked the old way, where boys insisted and girls resisted. Where you teach that both parties must enthusiastically consent, you are saying that women have to say what they want or do not want out of sex. And if there’s one thing social conservatives can’t handle, it’s a sexually empowered woman.