September 4, 2013

“But I followed you here and brought all these flowers!” (Warner Bros. Pictures, Daniel Smith/Associated Press)

I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do this. I was hoping that the Miley Cyrus conversation would not continue to spiral out of control, devouring suns and shattering worlds and trampling all common sense in its wake. But somehow we have created a hideous blame vacuum where everything from the glass ceiling to the eventual heat death of the Universe to what happened In Steubenville to the Stacey Dean Rambold case are somehow because Miley Cyrus did that dance at the MTV Video Music Awards and Life on the Planet as We Know It Will Never Be The Same.

So before it goes any further, let’s talk about consent for a moment. That’s the one thing these cases all have in common: In none of them did anyone consent to sex.

Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh, who let off a teacher who raped a 14 year-old with a 30-day sentence in the course of which he pointed out that the victim was “older than her chronological age” is coming under a lot of fire. He apologized Wednesday for one lousy sentence, but not the other one.

He was “not sure just what I was attempting to say, but it did not come out correct,” the judge said, which is a pretty terrible apology as apologies go.

I’m sure what he meant to say was, “Women are people, rape is rape, I’m going to go rethink my life and gee these sentencing guidelines are kind of screwy,” but what came out was, she was “older than her chronological age” and “it wasn’t this forcible, beat-up rape.”

That doesn’t mean there was consent.

And consent is not optional.

People need to stop treating consent like it’s nice but not required, like holding doors open for people or carrying mints on your person — or treating consent like it’s implied if you are female and ever pick up a drink or go out wearing heels. Nope. Sorry. That’s not consent.

I always feel a vague whiff of despair whenever I try to write about something like this, because inevitably the Internet is divided into two groups of people: people who already agree with you about the need for consent, and people who do not realize that this is a problem and are off somewhere taking creepshots and sharing hints about fun household uses for your empty Axe bodyspray cans. The latter are the ones who need to read this, and the former are the ones who actually do. But just in case:

Consent is not . . . you are a woman who left the house wearing [item of clothing that my grandmother does not own].

Consent is not . . . you seem pretty mature.

Consent is not . . . you climbed out of the bowels of a teddy bear and gyrated.

Consent is not . . . well, I didn’t have to club you and drag you back to my cave.

Consent is not . . . you sang along with “Blurred Lines” and giggled.

Consent is not . . . you are my student.

“Well, then, what is consent?” you may be asking. “Must be hard to obtain. Or else why would we keep treating people who completely fail to get it as though they have committed a minor, forgivable oversight, like leaving their car keys on the counter? Consent must be a big hassle.”

Nope! Consent is very simple. All you have to do is make certain that the other adult you are about to have sex with wants to have sex with you. Notice: adult. Children and most teenagers cannot consent, and they especially cannot consent if you are their teacher, an adult in a position of power over them, no matter what vague recollections anyone has of the ’60s and ’70s and having a lot of sex on the brain. Sorry. At that age, your brain is not fully developed, even if your body is. There are many decisions that we as a society have decided teenagers are not capable of making, even if we allow them to dictate all movies that come to theaters. The fact that a teenager feels capable of making a decision does not mean that the teenager is actually capable of making that decision, as anyone who has been a teenager or wrestled car key away from a teenager will tell you.

I can’t believe that this has to be spelled out, but apparently, it does. I thought these were crazy straw-man arguments too, but then I saw some people ACTUALLY MAKING THEM

To recap: Consent doesn’t mean that you sort of assumed that anyone in his or her right mind would want to copulate with you. Consent does not mean that you feel like her Inner Goddess winked at you at some point. Consent does not mean “Hey, I didn’t have to physically subdue him, and no pepper spray was brandished — it must have been fine!” Nope. Consent means that you obtained permission from someone old enough to give you permission. It doesn’t matter how old the person seems to you. Humbert Humbert does not run the justice system.

And if you fail to get permission, because your partner is too young to consent, or too drunk, or any other reason — this is on you. It is not on Miley Cyrus, or the “rainbow party” culture (which probably does not, by the way, exist). It is on you, and if your life is not going to be a picnic from now on, making CNN anchors sigh over your lost potential, well, that’s on you, too, and the CNN anchors need to stop.

This should go without saying. But somehow, it doesn’t.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.