This guest post is written by Rebecca Flin
So we know what “rape-culture” is at this point, right? Thank god we finally have a word for it! Like the emergence of the term, “sexual harassment” in the 1970s, the recent addition of the term “rape culture” to our everyday lexicon has given us a way to describe what used to be called “just the way it is” or “life”. Therefore, we are now able to see and discuss it. And I don’t know about you guys, but I see it everywhere: movies, the news, music, child-raising, the subway, you name it. Rape culture is our culture. But now that we see it, we can start changing it right?
So tell me, what can I do to move away from rape culture? There’s certainly a lot of discussion out there about what NOT to do –aka what rape culture looks like. But I rarely come across a blog post, an article, or really any kind of discussion whatsoever of what I SHOULD do—what consent culture might look like. Is rape culture so pervasive, that most of us, honestly just can’t even imagine a culture of consent?
I personally wasn’t able to imagine a culture of consent until I saw it. And now that I have seen it, I feel the need to share my story, so maybe others can imagine it too.
Recently, I attended a special weekend dance retreat up in northern Washington. It was probably the most hippy-dippy, counterculture event I have attended in my life (please note that I have never been to Burning Man). The event was held in a gorgeous northwestern forest setting with plenty of trees, cliffs, and a large, gorgeous freshwater swimming hole. Many people spent the majority of their daytime hours skinny-dipping and lounging around somewhat or completely naked. There were also a number of classes/skillshares and facilitated discussions about things like consent and gender.
When I arrived at this hippy-haven, a guy started helping me with unloading my vehicle. He introduced himself, and I immediately recognized him. Two years earlier, I had met him at a weekly dance venue when I traveled through Washington on a road trip with some friends. I remember dancing with him and having a dance connection so intense that it actually scared me a little bit—enough that I deliberately left the dance without exchanging contact information.
Later in the event, of course we danced. Dancing with him made me swell up with joy, while simultaneously feeling a slight thrill of danger over a background of safety and trust. It was like riding on the back of a motorcycle. Two years of no contact meant nothing.
Soon our dance connection turned into something… a bit more, as dance connections do sometimes. That is exactly what I was afraid of when I ran away from him two years before. I felt that chemistry, knew it could develop, and was afraid of the possible outcome. To some extent, I still felt that way. I had no interest in having sex with him –or anyone else for that matter–at this particular time in my life, and I didn’t want to open up that can of worms.
But our dance connection was growing into the sexual realm. I felt it happening. The dance was over, but neither of us walked away– those chills were running all over my body, begging to grow wings. Our faces were close together, breath in sync and heavy– it was that perfect moment, the one they capture in all the movies. I knew it was coming. That classic, dreamy, first kiss. And then something truly miraculous happened.
“Rebecca, I’d like to kiss you”
I was taken off-guard. No one had ever verbally asked me to kiss them before unless I was physically keeping my face away from theirs so that they couldn’t. “Oh wow” I thought… “He is actually asking for consent!” And for something as “small” as a kiss. And that phrasing, “I’d like to kiss you”. I felt desired, but not pressured. It didn’t spoil the mood like the awkward, weirdness of, “Can I kiss you?” It gave me a chance to think about it: I did have some reservations. I was afraid that kissing him might lead him to believe we were going to have sex. But damn, I did want to kiss him, so I replied with a small, breathless “ok” and leaned in.
The kiss was marvelous. I felt like I was melting. And it was so cool to be totally, entirely prepared. There was no shock of “oh, now we are kissing”. Plus, I knew that we both really truly wanted to be doing this, it wasn’t just ‘happening’.
Still, I shook myself out of it because I didn’t want to mislead him into thinking we would have sex (especially in such an open sexual environment such as this hippy-place). This is how much I have internalized rape culture. I expect men to challenge me when I lay down a sexual boundary. I am good at asserting my boundaries, and trust that they will eventually be respected, yet I often choose to avoid progressing a sexual situation altogether rather than to “put myself in a situation” where I have to fight to lay down a line.
With this in mind, I tore myself away after a bit of some seriously hot making-out and stumbled out of the dream-dance-kiss back into reality.
The next day we ran into each other by the swimming hole. I hadn’t made up my mind about whether–and if so, how –I wanted to proceed with him. Honestly, I was planning on just ignoring the whole situation altogether in good non-confrontational cowardice form. But then he opened up the inevitably awkward conversation:
“So I know that you said you were alright with kissing last night…”
“But I still somehow felt like I maybe wasn’t reading you right. Sometimes you seemed into it, but other times you didn’t…”
Oh my god he was checking in. Rape culture tells me that men always want to just “get the sex”, so naturally, I was shocked that he chose to risk “getting the sex” by verbally checking in. “Checking in” is a part of consent culture that is very easy to dismiss. It’s easy to tell yourself, “Oh, I already asked about that. They said they were ok” despite picking up on body language or other signs that would tell otherwise.
I told him that he was in fact, reading me correctly. He was getting mixed signals because I myself was full of mixed feeling. I really enjoyed kissing him, but I was worried that it might lead to sex, which I just wasn’t interested in. He told me he understood, that he wasn’t looking for sex either, and that if we engaged in sexy times again it would just be kisses and cuddles. Woah! Rape culture misled me in this instance. He wasn’t looking for sex. I was so happy he had talked to me, because now I could fully enjoy kissing him without fear.
Oh, and here is the most crazy-insane part of this encounter. The entire time we were having this conversation, we were both completely naked. We had this conversation at the hippy-dippy swimming hole, when we both just happened to be finishing a naked swim. It was the perfect time to have that talk (aside from the nudity), so he didn’t let nudity deter him. And he managed to make me feel comfortable while having a really awkward conversation. Naked.
I was completely blown away by this experience. It was the first time I had ever seen consent practices so explicitly modeled. I want to pass it on. I want to take all aspects of this interaction (except maybe the nudity) out of the counter-culture setting and bring them to the mainstream. Next time I want a kiss, I want to say something like, “I’d like to kiss you” or “Would you like me to kiss you?” to show others how deliciously sexy consent can be! Articles or documentaries or blogs about what rape culture looks like and what not to do, or even about consent culture and “how to practice consent”, are nothing compared to the power of modeling.
What if the movies and the TV shows showed that perfect dreamy first kiss with one party saying “I’d like to kiss you” then waiting for a verbal or physical response before their lips meet? How different would our culture be?
Someday, I bet the media will portray consent culture as the norm. But until then, “the revolution will be polite”. We can show others what consent culture looks like by modeling it. If more people can see it modeled, then more people can imagine it, which means that more people will make it a reality.