Determining whether a specific incident meets the legal definition of rape can be complicated. The concept of rape, however, is quite simple: unless all parties consent to sex, it’s rape.
If someone says no to sex either verbally or physically (e.g., pushing someone off, backing away), there’s no consent. If someone says yes at first, then says no, there’s no consent. If someone doesn’t say no because they’re too drunk or otherwise incapacitated to make the call, there’s no consent. The lack of a verbal no isn’t the same as consent; not fighting back, or not fighting “enough,” isn’t a sign of consent either.
That doesn’t mean consent is the only standard. A teacher sleeping with their fourteen-year-old student is committing statutory rape even if the student freely consents. Someone cheating on their partner is in the wrong even if they and the person they have sex with both consent. Manipulating or pressuring someone into consent (“You say you love me. Prove it.”) isn’t acceptable. But consent always matters — except not to a large part of the right wing, particularly the religious right.
It doesn’t matter before marriage because all that matters is that women aren’t supposed to have sex. Misogynist Matt Walsh, for instance, says if a woman feels traumatized after date rape, it’s “not because you were raped but because you allowed yourself to be degraded for the sake of cheap and fleeting pleasure.” After marriage, according to Phyllis Schlafly and multiple other conservatives, it isn’t rape: “By getting married the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.”
Of course, every straight male conservative understands the importance of consent if they walk into a gay bar. But when men want to have sex with women? Forget about it! Consent doesn’t matter, only “are you married?” matters.
“You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, so long as there is one element,” Rush Limbaugh said in 2016. “Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it’s perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police.” Well, yes. If there’s no consent, then it’s rape. Calling the police is the appropriate response, though a lot of police won’t give a crap.
Antifeminist Jordan Peterson dismisses the feminist concern for consent as a taboo, equivalent to conservative taboos against premarital sex. That’s a telling choice of words: “taboo” implies an irrational, arbitrary standard with no real logic behind it. Requiring consent before sex isn’t irrational, it’s extremely logical.
Pennsylvania Republican Tom Smith said in 2012 that learning your daughter is pregnant and unmarried is just the same as learning she’s been raped; she’s damaged goods, whether she consented doesn’t matter (that’s my interpretation, not his statement). That’s a common message in abstinence only education where girls learn premarital sex makes them worthless as used chewing gum. Consent isn’t discussed so even rape victims think they’re used chewing gum. Of course, the rules are supposed to apply but as Christian feminist Samantha Field says, guys aren’t really expected to deliver their snowy white virginity as a wedding night gift to their bride.
Field says conservative Christians don’t value consent because they assume fallen human beings have no sexual morals. If we don’t confine our lustful natures within marriage we’ll jump into bed with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Conservative David French makes a similar point: if consent is all that matters, why shouldn’t men hit on all attractive women everywhere, even in Bible study or a business conference? She might say yes, so there’s nothing wrong with asking (which ignores, as I said, that consent isn’t the only standard in play).
Walsh and others insist that’s why “no sex until marriage” is the superior standard — it avoids all the complications of figuring out whether someone consent or not, and it’s unambiguous: every man knows that trying to talk an unmarried woman into bed is wrong.
This is a bullshit argument: even if we start from the premise “sex before marriage is a sin,” it doesn’t follow “therefore it’s acceptable for a man to force a woman to have sex.” Nor does “marital sex is godly” mean marital rape is washed in the blood of the lamb and morally acceptable. Nor does believing, or at least giving lip service to “sex only after marriage” really protect women. It’s never been a standard universally embraced or enforced; lots of men have been told no means yes or that suing for sexual harassment means she’s into you.
And of course, a lot of people dislike consent standards because they make it harder to get laid. If you have to worry about whether the woman wants it or respect her no, that means less sex! Limbaugh, that late and unlamented misogynist was very big on “no means yes” and how guys can always tell (spoiler: no, they often can’t). If you weigh rape trauma on one side of the scales and a man’s orgasm on the other, for a depressing number of people the scales should tilt in the man’s favor.
Consent matters. Be wary of people who don’t think it does.