As #MeToo discourse continues to ripple out, well past the hashtag, we’re hearing a lot of discussion about a “grey area” of consent. From the viral New Yorker story Cat Person to Babe’s controversial reporting of an unnamed woman’s date with comedian/TV auteur Aziz Ansari, coerced (though not technically unlawful) sexual encounters have been thrust under the spotlight.

Vaguely described as “sexual misconduct” or “bad sex”, these experiences have many grasping for understanding. If it’s not assault, but it’s not a positive, comfortable sexual experience either, then what is it? How can we place it in the current debate, if we can’t settle on a name for it first?

“I’ve always found this a really difficult area,” says Carolyn Worth, Manager of the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault. “We do get phone calls from people who have had a really bad sexual experience, and they’ll ring up and say, ‘Was I raped?’ The answer is, ‘No, you just had a bad experience’. Of course, we put it more tactfully than that.

“Bad sex isn’t rape, it’s just that: bad sex. But it’s a really tricky discussion. And it’s not our job to sit here telling people how traumatised they are. Our job is to help them get on with their life after something unpleasant has happened to them.”

Helen Campbell from the Women’s Legal Service New South Wales takes a similar stance. “There are always grey areas and potential to improve language, culture and understanding,” she told Crikey. “I think women are adults with agency and capacity to make mistakes and have regrets. [Bad sex is] not the same as being pressured into doing something we don’t want to do.” 

[What Babe’s Aziz Ansari story means for the credibility of sexual assault reporting]

There’s a little more flexibility outside the world of law and crisis support, however. Deanne Carson, a sex and relationships educator and co-founder of Body Safety Australia, is passionate about what she terms “consent culture”.

“One of the first things I notice is that often the conversation turns to what is the legal definition of sexual assault and rape and consent — and often that then gets framed by ‘What can you get away with doing before you’re actually charged?’ That is just nowhere that we ever want the conversation to go,” Carson explains.

“To date we’ve been framing the conversation around, ‘What is rape? What is sexual assault? Don’t rape. No means no.’ And I think what we need to do is actually frame the conversation in a more positive light, and say what we actually want — instead of saying what we don’t want. What we actually want is a culture of consent. And that’s for every single human being, every single time, to turn up and be making sure that their interactions with other people are wanted.”

Carson has a reasonably shrewd idea as to why the culture of seeking explicit, enthusiastic consent might be backfiring on women in these “bad sex” experiences.

“Children are socialised to be compliant — and particularly girl children. So, you’ve been training girls to do all of these things to make other people happy, and then all of a sudden we expect them to go into very vulnerable personal physical situations and have a loud voice. How can that be? We’ve never taught them to do that, or we’ve never given them permission to do that. We’ve never made it safe for them to do that.”

Dr Chloé Diskin, a lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, has a similar take on the matter. She theorises that the linguistic methodology of “conversation analysis” in social interactions has a role to play.

“What seems to be happening with this whole debate around consent is we’re expecting people to be as explicit about sexual consent as they are about other things,” Diskin said, “even though in our everyday language, we don’t say things so explicitly.”

“A lot of the time when people are refusing something, it’s actually something that we inherently believe to be impolite, or what we call ‘face-threatening’. So what a lot of people do when they turn down sex is they do it indirectly. And that makes a lot of sense, because when we refuse people — refuse an invitation to a party for example — we do these kinds of things all the time.”

“I think what seems to be the problem with this whole language of consent is that we’re expecting women — in most cases — to be explicit about when they’re giving consent, which goes against all the other ways we don’t give [verbal, explicit] consent or don’t accept invitations.

“It seems like a very unnatural thing for someone to do. It’s like ‘consent equals lack of dissent’; what people interpret as giving consent is just that they haven’t said no, rather than having said yes.”

So, is there a need for refinement in the language around consent? “That kind of ‘just say no’ mentality, it’s quite ineffective because generally we don’t like to say no,” said Diskin.

As #MeToo debates rage online, it’s painfully clear there is some disconnect between all of us when it comes to what consent means, what sexual encounters are appropriate and how mutual respect in sex even works. A more nuanced understanding and application of language and communication may be a good place to start.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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