By Finn Wightman
Read the letter below
I bumped into this letter on the Internet some years ago but it was to touch me for a very long time – and it still remains relevant today. I immediately got in touch with the author, a British woman who I refer to as my sister from across the seas.
Each day when I read about rape, I think back at this letter and how we can all guide our children into adulthood which includes among others, talking about sex, making them understand consent and rape and its consequences.
In recent weeks, my daughter, a drama student at Wits University, together with fellow 2nd-year students, put up a performance on the impact of rape on families. This play has been selected to go to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
She’s now writing a play on the misconceptions and myths about rape. And when she told me, I immediately thought about this letter and asked her to read it. She was inspired and moved, and asked if I could get in touch with the author for permission to use the letter in her upcoming play. Wightman has agreed and I thought to republish this letter here, for all of us to read and be motivated to tackle the issue of rape.
I’m writing this letter after watching the parents in the Steubenville Rape Trial crying over their son as he was found guilty of rape. I’ll be completely honest with you; I can’t say that I found much pity in my heart for their pain. Instead I found myself thinking, ‘yes, you should be crying. Your son treated that girl like a toy, a rag, a nothing. You raised a boy that lacked even the most basic compassion for that girl as a fellow human being.’ I’m imagining your face right now, thinking ‘okay mom, not quite sure why you’re telling me this…’ Yep, brace yourself; mom’s got a bee in her bonnet. Just bear with me and carry on reading.
You see, somehow this crying couple’s son and his friends were convinced they had a right to do as they pleased – either because they were brought up believing themselves to be above the rules, or because they were so lacking in common decency that they had no concept of how to treat other people. Whichever it was, the parents and coaches of Steubenville failed their sons and contributed to a culture where a girl was treated in the most heartless and disgraceful way for these boys amusement. The horrible truth is that as long as parents anywhere allow their boys to think that their wants are more important than other people’s rights this will continue to happen. I’m writing this letter to you because I don’t want to fail you in the same way. I love you too much to leave these things unsaid.
I need you to know that writing this doesn’t mean that I think you would act like these boys did. Discussing the potential for bad behaviour doesn’t mean I think it’s inevitable, or even likely. It just means I need to know (for both our sakes) that I taught you what sexual freedoms and responsibilities really mean. Educating you about proper consent doesn’t mean I see you as a potential sexual predator, any more than my educating you about the safe use of matches presumed you were a potential arsonist. This is about safety; your safety and the safety of any potential sexual partner.
I want you to consider a scenario. Imagine an average weekend when you’re staying at your mate’s house. You’ve had a good day laughing and joking with a group of people, some of whom you know and a couple of friends-of-friends. You’ve had a couple of drinks, laughed at stuff on the internet, played x-box for hours and then gradually drifted into various stages of getting comfortable, shedding some of your clothes and sleeping.
Now imagine waking up to discover a man on top of you, having obviously had some kind of sex with you. I know that’s a shocking thought. Something you’ve probably never considered, even though male victims make up 8% of reported rapes. Imagine your shock, your disgust and your anger. Now imagine everyone telling you that it’s your fault.
Would you feel that the fact that ‘you didn’t say no’ while it was happening made it okay? Or that the fact you were drunk or partly clothed or sleeping in public meant you’d put yourself at risk and were ‘asking for it? Would the fact that you’d spent some time together, been friendly, or accepted his offer of a drink, mean you were ‘sending out signals’ to him? Would the fact that you made a sexual joke earlier in the evening mean you were ‘up for it’? Would the fact that he heard you’d had sex with one of his friends, or relatives, be an acceptable reason? How about if you were walking home alone at night? Would you be actively putting yourself in danger and ‘partly responsible’ if a stranger dragged you into an alley and sexually assaulted you? If you accepted an invite to a friend’s house and he pinned you down on the sofa, would you be to blame for being alone with him?
I’m convinced your answer to each of those would be a loud and vehement ‘no’ – quite rightly.
So ask yourself this: if every single situation remained the same – except this time you’re female – does that make it acceptable? The answer, of course, is still no. No, nothing changes the lack of consent in these scenarios. Every one of those situations is sexual assault; no ifs, no buts, no maybes, and no excuses. Consent cannot be assumed, forced or taken. EVER. Consent is always, and only, something that is willingly given.
So let’s be absolutely perfectly clear: Sexual acts that take place without consent are rape, and the only thing that means yes is the word yes.
Not saying no does not mean yes.
Not fighting you off does not mean yes.
Not being awake does not mean yes.
Not being sober does not mean yes.
No type of clothing – or absence of clothing – means yes.
No amount of previous partners means yes.
Accepting a drink does not mean yes. Going out to dinner does not mean yes. Accepting a lift home in your car does not mean yes, and neither does an invitation in for coffee. Sitting next to you on the sofa does not mean yes. A gasp, sigh or returned caress does not mean yes. Erect flesh is not a yes – cold, fear, and even death can all cause the body to mimic the signs of sexual arousal. A yes to a kiss does not mean you can assume a yes to anything else. Never assume. Let me repeat that: NEVER ASSUME.
Resist the dangerous temptation to hope a kiss will just drift into something more without talking about it. Understand that ‘trying it on’ or ‘pushing your luck’ or imagining you’re correctly ‘reading the signs’ are all just polite euphemisms for being willing to risk committing a sexual assault in the hope that your feelings are reciprocated. Seriously, don’t. Every single woman I know can reel off experiences with this. Don’t be that guy.
The word yes is the only 100% unambiguous yes.
So, how do you get to yes? You ask. Really, it’s that simple. Ask the question, hear the answer, and respond accordingly. Even if it’s not the answer you were hoping for. Especially if it’s not the answer you were hoping for. That’s the difference between two people enjoying sex together, and one person sexually assaulting the other. The only reliable invitations to sex are clear, unambiguous, and verbal. If asking and affirming seem too embarrassing to contemplate, then maybe you just aren’t ready for sex with another person.
There’s only one person you should ever consider having unquestioning, silent sex with: yourself. That’s also the only person that might possibly ‘owe you’ an orgasm.
I know, all this sounds like such a list of rules and obligations for something that’s meant to be ‘natural’. Too much effort, even – well that’s tough. The world should not be treated like a sexual all-you-can-eat buffet where you can just help yourself. That’s exactly the attitude that has those boys (quite rightly) sitting in a cell. Sex that involves anyone beyond yourself is never just about your desire. If you imagine that your desires ever allow you to coerce another person into fulfilling your sexual need, then you have to ask yourself if you are willing to personally face the consequences of that view. We’re right back to that scenario where some stranger decides to use your body to fulfill their sexual desires, regardless of your feelings. Or you end up in a cell. Think about what that mindset means for the female relatives that you love. Should they be ‘fair game’ to any person attracted to them – like some commodity? That’s the rape-culture mindset, right there. It’s why I’m taking the time to put my thoughts on to paper; because the best lesson I can teach you is the ability to recognise that your choices have consequences, for you and the people you involve in your decisions.
So far, so negative… but there are real personal benefits to consent. Consensual sex is glorious. Verbal communication is hot. Listening to your partner and verbalising what you want will make you better in bed, and more responsive to each other’s needs. Talking about your desires and fantasies is far more likely to lead to them happening than hoping you’re dating a psychic. I’m sure your cringing at me now, but if you got this far there’s chocolate in the fridge, help yourself to it. Yes, this is a test.
You might not think it now, but making sure the sex you are involved in always involves complete consent will be the best gift you can give your future self. You’ll never look at yourself in the mirror and wonder if you pushed someone to doing something they weren’t ready for. You’ll never be the hypocrite that lectures their child while hiding a guilty secret. You won’t be burdened with regret at the harm you personally caused someone. You’ll never look a woman who has been abused in the face and know you’re a part of what caused her hurt. Most of all, you’ll be a leader not a follower. You’ll never be that boy in court; instead you’ll be part of a better consciousness that will make the world a safer place for everyone.
You’ll be the man I already see in you.
With love, always, Mum xxx
Rape Crisis https://rapecrisis.org.za/rape-in-south-africa/
This article was first published in https://someviewsfromabroad.blogspot.co.za/2013/03/a-letter-to-my-son-about-consent.html