Content Warning: Mentions of rape, sexual assault
“If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine instead of sex, you’re offering them a cup of tea!” So goes the standard “consent is like a cup of tea!” video that I’m sure many of you have encountered in high school sex-ed or college orientation safety videos. I don’t want to ridicule the importance of teaching consent, but there’s something about this video/metaphor that I always found so silly. I can just imagine the writer’s room: “men might not know how to not assault people, but they definitely know how to offer someone a drink.”
The glaringly obvious flaw is that it leaves out so much, like fear, alcohol, coercion, etc. But I’ve spent quite a bit of time ruminating on the cup of tea metaphor and the more I think about methods of teaching consent like it, the more I think it is not just futile and oversimplified, but dangerous. These things serve to convince us that rape culture is a collection of arbitrary incidents due to naivety rather than a reinforcement of a larger evil deeply woven into the material basis of our society.
When I was in elementary school, there was a boy in my class who used to twist my lower arm until it turned red. It was never too serious, but out of annoyance I told on him to a teacher of mine, and the response I received was, “he probably has a crush on you.” This is just one minuscule example of the ways we are taught to accept and internalize male aggression even when we are young enough to be playing tag and hopscotch on playground asphalt. We see our bodies critiqued and covered by school administrations. We see our bodies as commodities at every level of consumption. We are taught that the more we consume diet plans and makeup the more palatable our bodies will be. That is the underlying thesis of misogyny: your body is something that is owed, that someone else is entitled to. Your body is never really your body. So what does it mean to grow up and consent to sex when for your whole life you have been taught that it is something you already owe?
Individualistic feminism tells us that empowerment can be found via individual success within patriarchy. Even if the ladders a woman climbs in politics or business exist to reinforce oppression, she has automatically earned the status of “empowering”. It does the same thing to sexual empowerment. So long as someone affected by misogyny willingly participates in casual consensual sex, they are empowered, regardless of how much time they spent altering themselves and their experiences to cater to the male gaze.
The cup-of-tea video and others like it make arguments about the nature of rape culture itself. They assert that the crisis of sexual assault can be accredited to not knowing how to ask for consent. They assert that it can be remedied without even addressing the nature of patriarchy itself. They assert that politeness and social etiquette are strong enough forces against centuries of power dynamics deeply woven into the basis of society. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. These empty slogans and allegories do nothing but reinforce rape culture because they make us think that sexual assault is an individual problem, rather than a product of something systemic.
I used to think that patriarchy and my sense of self under it was something invisible that I could not touch or feel or even put into language. All I knew was that there was an inarticulable feeling in my gut of disgust and hatred towards men and myself in relation to them, a crippling inability to say no to people, and as much as I hated to admit it, a burning desire to make my own body more digestible. And I think that’s why it makes it so difficult for me to wrestle with what it might look like to genuinely teach consent. I used to believe it was possible to categorize men as good or bad. But I’ve come to realize that there are no categories when it comes to people being socialized under a given political and material order. No individual or relationship of two people is freed from the structures of the world in which they exist by a three-minute video graphic. No amount of feminist slogans or reminders to just assert yourself can erase that disgusting feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I think about myself in relation to men.
Patriarchy is not invisible or inarticulable. It replicates and reinforces itself every day, not just through laws or financial inequalities, but in romantic and sexual dynamics where the domination of men over women is presupposed. Rape culture is an instrument that maintains this. And the more I come to understand this and my place in it, the more I know that consent cannot be taught as something that can come separate from the destruction of patriarchy.