Consent and violation

  • In The Waste Land, a typist living alone in an apartment has a man over for dinner:
    He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
    A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
    One of the low on whom assurance sits
    As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
    The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
    The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
    Endeavours to engage her in caresses
    Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
    Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
    Exploring hands encounter no defence;
    His vanity requires no response,
    And makes a welcome of indifference…
    Bestows one final patronising kiss,
    And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .
    She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
    Hardly aware of her departed lover;
    Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
    “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
    There are three persons here: two in the story and the reader. The reader can’t miss that something wrong and perhaps even criminal has happened, but neither person in the story seems aware of the violation. The woman is resigned and in shock, and sees the act as something to be suffered though,  escaped, and left behind. The man leaves with a patronizing kiss, perhaps partly in remorse, partly in annoyance that she wasn’t more into it, partly in an attempt to control her feelings and turn everything that just happened into something loving and interpersonal. Or at least non-criminal.
    Most common law and statutory accounts of rape turn on consent, but when we try to discern this in the story we end up in aporias. If “consent” means the accused took reasonable steps to discern consent then it’s hard to see the act as anything other than rape, but if being “without consent” requires actively non-consenting or refusal then the description frustrates an attempt to characterize it as rape. These two definitions are difficult to cordon off from each other, however, and the dialectical push and pull between them makes me want contrary resolutions.
    On any account of consent some actions will be rape, but the number of them will be dwarfed by acts of sexual degradation and violation where consent is either problematic or irrelevant, especially in societies that maximize the domain of sexual activity. It seems like our conceptual apparatus is too crude to capture all these modes of violation – it is not clear that “rape culture” succeeds in being an adequate label, and “harassment” seems to be a good first step in describing a behavior but is clearly not adequate to describe what happened in the Waste Land. We seem to want a solution to all of this that will leave sexual freedom intact but it’s not clear what this is supposed to be. What do we want? New laws? Trial by media? Counteracting sexual exploitation and power with the fear of accusation? What exactly (or even roughly) is the standard of chastity-cum-justice that one must meet to produce a movie, perform stand-up comedy, or run for office?
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