When the record sale of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation at Sundance Film Festival was announced, I was ecstatic. It sounded like the kind of dynamic and bold storytelling I love and aspire to create. I was cheering him on, cheering on another creative, another storyteller. And then in the last week, I had to reconsider what kind of storyteller he really was.
In 1999, Nate Parker and his roommate, Jean Celestin, were accused of rape. In their version, the sex was consensual. The woman, an eyewitness, and the prosecution say she was unconscious and therefore, very much unable to consent.
I’ll leave speculation about his guilt or innocence (he was acquitted by the court), the future of Nate Parker’s career, and the potential success of his movie to the rest of the internet. I care more about what women consent to and what we don’t.
We’ve been talking for the month of August about sex, about whether or not celibacy is a good idea, how romance novels shape our ideas of sex, lessons on sexiness from old school movies, and how much we should really tell about our sexual past. It’s all been trying to embrace a phrase I believe in: “sex positive.” That sex shouldn’t feel shameful whether you have a lot of it (with or without a partner) or whether you’re not having it at all. You should be able to do you (and any others that you choose).
But sex is not all positive, especially for women.
I have never been raped. I have been cajoled, shamed, and bullied into taking a sexual situation further than I wanted. I have been more intoxicated than was ideal during amorous encounters. I’ve known men who I would generally consider good guys who have viewed sex as theirs by right and have employed methods to claim it.
Call it rape culture. Call it patriarchy. None of it is good.
Most women will admit they’ve been street harassed, but fewer of us will say that we’re victims of rape or assault or molestation or the very real pressure to be sexual in a way we have not fully chosen.
In life and especially in our sex life, it can be hard, traumatizing even, to reconcile all of who we are. The positive and not so.
Even in the best of sexual situations, saying yes to sex is rarely simple. Is it too soon? Is it not soon enough? Am I comfortable with my own body? What will my partner think of my body? Am I healthy? Is my partner healthy? What will having sex mean? What will it mean if I don’t have sex? Am I really attracted to my partner? Is my partner really attracted to me?
And those questions are just the ones that could be going through your mind when you’re only making out. The physical realities of sex and sexual pleasure multiply the possibilities.
Into all of that–the thoughts before, the thoughts during, the thoughts after–I have sometimes wondered, have I chosen this? In a way that has nothing to do with courts or violent and dangerous sexual situations, still, it’s important to ask: have I given consent?
It sounds as though the woman in Nate Parker’s case was never given a chance to consent. And if so, she was far from alone.
We know (or should know) when consent has not been given. We also need as owners of our bodies, owners of our desires, owners of our choices, to say yes in our sexual lives. It’s why No Means No has changed to Yes Means Yes, to make the affirmative choice when it comes to our sex encounters.
Every single sexual situation should be full of consent. Yes to the person. Yes to the place. Yes to the time. Yes to the position. Yes to the pleasure. Yes to its place in our sexual history.
More yes. All yes. All the time.