The Decade Before Consent

*Trigger warning*

Screenshot from A Different World "No Means No"

Screenshot from A Different World “No Means No” episode

The week of August of 15, my news feed was filled with damning articles and opinions about Nate Parker and support of his acclaimed film Birth of a Nation, now that news has resurfaced of a rape he was acquitted of 15 years ago.

As I interrogated my own feelings about the dilemma of supporting black art that I think is important and supporting a man whose past actions and attitudes are misogynistic at best, criminal at worst (and perhaps even worse, ignorant of the intersections of racism, patriarchy, and violence), I wondered, “Is it possible Nate Parker doesn’t know the definition of consent?”

Several days after asking myself that question, I concluded that the answer is yes. Or at least, it was probably yes in 1999. And days later, in an interview with EBONY.com, Parker confirmed my suspicions. Speaking about how he thought when he was 19—and still never using the words “rape” or “sexual assault—Parker told the magazine:

“It was simply if a woman said no or pushed you away that was non-consent. Let me be the first to say, I can’t remember ever having a conversation about the definition of consent when I was a kid. I knew that no meant no, but that’s it.”

And when I was 19, I thought the same thing.

In November 1998, one year before Parker and his friend and co-writer Jean Celestin allegedly raped one of his classmates at Penn State, I was a freshman in college. In August of 1998, I attended freshman orientation. Somewhere in the flurry of week-long activities, an upperclassman who volunteered for the campus sexual assault hotline spoke to residents of my dorm.

I can’t remember if she defined rape for us, but I do remember she highlighted the relationship between alcohol consumption and sexual assault. She said alcohol decreases inhibitions, making both parties more likely to behave in ways that perhaps they normally wouldn’t, leading to actions they regret. She said that sometimes you might get too drunk to walk or talk, and at that point, you might not be able to verbalize a “no” to sexual intercourse. She said that’s why our campus had a policy: any reported sexual assault that also involves intoxication doesn’t need a disciplinary hearing. If it’s impossible to give consent, it’s rape.

That was the first time I had heard the concept of consent attached to rape. I wouldn’t hear it again until 2011, when I thought I was going to enroll in a graduate program, and admissions required every incoming student to watch a 30-minute video and then take a test about sexual assault. The video presented several scenarios in which sexual activity, sometimes intercourse, took place between two people, then asked the viewer whether what happened was consensual and why or why not. The video’s actors explicitly explained that sexual assault is not defined by the presence of threats or force, but rather the absence of consent.

I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know that definition, and I was 31 when I saw the video.

When I was growing up, the absence of consent wasn’t the defining factor in the popular depictions of rape that I recall. I remember the “No Means No” episode of A Different World. Dwayne asks Walter for some clarification: what do you do if things are heating up and the girl suddenly says, “time out”—do you stop or “help her give it up?” Walter is unequivocal. “If the woman says no, and you don’t listen to her, it’s rape.”

Later in the episode, Freddie screams, yells, “Stop it, please!” and tries to push away the star athlete attempting to rape her before Dwayne appears and helps her escape. The episode debuted in 1989. I was nine.

I remember Lawrence Alamain on Days of Our Lives laughing as he described his wife Jennifer Horton, “screaming no as [he] made love to her.” I think eventually he was charged with spousal rape. I was 10 when I saw that episode.

I remember watching a fictionalized Take Back the Night rally on Beverly Hills 90210. Laura, a character feeling jilted after a one-night stand she thought would be more, was going to name the man who she considered her assailant. Kelly, another character, didn’t think it was rape. Besides, the accused was her friend. Kelly had survived an attempted rape (in another episode). She screamed, she fought, she said, “Stop,” repeatedly, she escaped. At the rally, she took the microphone and said something like, “There are times when I never said, ‘Yes,’ but I never said, ‘No.’” Laura left the rally without speaking. I was 13 when the episode aired.

I remember the made-for-TV movie She Fought Alone. High school students. The new girl had sex with the most popular guy in school. Soon after that, the guy’s friend came over to her house. She was friendly. She let him in the door. Though she said “No,” and “Stop,” and told him to leave, he forced her into a bedroom, ripped her clothes off, told her not to scream or her little sister, who was also home, would be “next.” She cried softly as he raped her. The movie premiered when I was 15.

I remember the show Sisters. The character Cat rejected a date’s sexual advances. Later in the episode, the camera showed Cat running alone on a track the next evening, then running away from someone viewers couldn’t see, then her terrified face, her mouth repeatedly saying, “No,” her fists in a flurry against someone on top of her, then her head banged against the pavement. Her rapist, who turned out to be the man she had rejected, went to trial. All that was in season four, so I was 15.

No, stop, don’t, threats—these elements were ubiquitous in televised dramatizations of rape in the 1990s. As I went through my brain’s catalogue of memorable television scenes depicting acquaintance rape or attempted rape, I could remember only one episode of one television show ever addressing consent: Picket Fences, season 2, episode 14, year 1992.

The episode opens with Kimberly and her date, Dewey, saying goodnight on the front porch, then kissing goodnight, then fondling goodnight. At every escalation, Dewey announces to Kimberly what he’s about to do and asks her if it’s okay. This annoys Kimberly, but Dewey insists. He learned in the school’s “Seminar on Sexual Correctness” that it’s never okay to assume.

Ironically, I think the show’s writers assumed viewers would know Dewey was alluding to sexual assault when he talked about acting responsibly and avoiding “misunderstandings.” Neither character ever explicitly says “rape” or “sexual assault.” When I saw this episode at age 12, I didn’t make the connection.

My memories are by no means a scientific survey of 1990s dramatizations of rape and sexual assault. Someone who watched more TV than I did in that decade will read this and point out one hundred examples in which sexual assault was dramatized with the influence of alcohol or the absence of verbal refusal and was still called sexual assault by the show’s writers. Someone else will argue that I know nothing about the television shows Nate Parker watched in his pre-pubescent and teen years.

I won’t argue with those people. I presume they’ll agree that popular culture influences how we see the world, ourselves and moments in our own lives. I know that in the 90s, pop culture led me to believe rape required a woman’s verbal and physical refusal of a man’s sexual advances. If the situation lacked either of those elements, it was like Kelly said: maybe you didn’t say yes, but if you never said no, it wasn’t rape.

And if you were drunk or so intoxicated you blacked out? Well, you didn’t say no.

This is what I think Nate Parker might have thought in 1999. This is what I think he may still think when he insists–infuriatingly–that the sex with his classmate was “unambiguously consensual.” He is thinking of the presence of No-Stop-Don’t in rape, and the absence of it in his case.

Society and pop culture have learned to think differently over the past few years. In 2014, country music gave us a song about Twitter photos of a date rape after too many drinks at a high school party—a narrative songwriters lifted from Steubenville, Ohio, where two high school boys committed the same crime Parker and Celestin committed (yes, I purposely neglected to include “allegedly”) in 1999. In 2013, rapper Rick Ross lost an endorsement deal with Reebok after his lyrics endorsed drugging a woman and raping her (though he referred to it as having “enjoyed that”) while she was unconscious.

Today, I can’t imagine an executive producer approving a script in which, “but I never said ‘No,’” is uttered at a Take Back the Night rally, and if such a script was approved, the EP would face change.org petitions and threats from advertisers. Today, I would expect pop culture to teach girls and boys that “No means no,” and “Stop means stop,” but also that their bodies are theirs and theirs only, and no one has a right to their bodies unless they say, “Yes.”

I don’t watch enough television these days to know if the industry is meeting my expectations, but I’ve seen enough “misunderstanding” about consent to know more depictions of it are needed.

Having said all that, I must concede, ignorantia legis neminem excusatNot knowing something is illegal doesn’t excuse a person’s actions in a court of law. It also doesn’t excuse that person from consequences outside the law, nor should it. Despite my ignorance at age 19, I know that if I had been the victim of a gang rape or any bodily assault I couldn’t refuse because I was unconscious, I would have felt violated, and my sense of justice would have felt offended. So what if you don’t know that rape is the absence of consent? So what if you didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head or if no one screamed or fought? You know when you’ve been hurt, and everyone should know (should learn before kindergarten, in fact) how to stop before hurting another person, how not to start down that route at all.

Note to readers: As you read this you might have thought, “Isn’t everyone done talking about this?” Well, yes, but I wrote this more than a month ago and managed only to get it rejected by several editors/publications. The normal waiting time for every publication has expired, so I accepted my defeat and decided to share this essay another way. Sorry it’s so late!

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