This piece discusses themes relating to sexual assault and consent.
We all know what fear looks like. We've seen enough well-acted shows and films that depict it well. We've seen Elisabeth Moss put in a spectacularly horrifying situation as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale. We've seen the look on every cast member of Game of Thrones when they clap eyes on a White Walker. Perhaps even in your own face when you accidentally open the front facing camera on your phone and contemplate your existence momentarily. Or the truly fearful woman on the phone illustrating this post. We also see fear, in some capacity and on some level, every day of our lives.
Wide eyes, shaking, frozen still, unable to speak, skin getting paler. Fear may not always look identical but it is always recognisable. Your body enters a state when you're scared; you enter fight or flight as your brain detects an external threat which you must be prepared to fight or flee from. So, you might start to feel sick, your heart might race, palms might get sweaty, you might start to feel lightheaded. These elements all contribute to that nice little package of fear swimming through our society that we all acknowledge as a basic emotional state, and one that emerges frequently in sexual situations and discussions of consent.
And therefore, this is not an excuse: "But they didn't say no". Yes, they did. With every fibre of their being. We constantly intuit nuanced micro-expressions and minute details from our fellow humans, part of the allure of reality TV is watching the cameras pan on someone's face who are trying and failing to mask some sort of emotion that we see straight through. You can always tell when someone's disappointed in a Christmas present, you can tell when a stranger on the train has had a crap day and I can even tell when my dog is scared of a firework. Falling somewhere into that ball park is knowing when someone isn't exhibiting sexual excitement or comfort in an intimate situation.
Someone in a seminar once said to me; "consent is black and white, there is no grey area", and I definitely flew into some degree of banshee rage, but that's for another time. Consent is not just loudly and proudly declaring "YES, LET US BONK" or "NO, I SIMPLY DO NOT WISH TO PARTAKE IN INTERCOURSE WITH YOU, THANK YOU". It is far more complex than that. It is pressure, and social convention, and fear, and inability to say no, it is blackmail, or manipulation. Consent is not about the spoken word, it is about the wider knowledge of if the other person both can and wants to engage in this union. That part is not complex.
There are countless other ways to clearly not give consent to something, and fear is only one of these. But, when it comes to fear, don't be the person who wilfully ignores the clear signs they are getting. Whether you met them an hour ago or have been married for fifteen years, it doesn't matter, you know if they are scared. Don't mask the truth with excuses, feigning naivety that because they didn't say no, they must have wanted it. We know what fear looks like, but most of all we know what fear feels like and if someone feels it solely at the hands of you, there is absolutely no excuse to continue. Don't fool yourself that there is.