Op-Ed: Consent and power

Sunday, November 19, 2017 - 11:41am

Over fall break, my roommates and I went to a nightclub in Toronto. It was a great night, but the one major downside was the men. Every few minutes, another man would ask one of us to dance. When we told them no, they would continue to lurk near us and watch us, even going as far as to follow us when we moved across the dance floor in an attempt to avoid them. We quickly learned we had to be unapologetically blunt. We had to look them in the eyes and say, “You need to fuck off.” Sometimes we told them, “We don’t want to dance with you because we’re super gay.” All night, those were the only two lines that worked.

Another time, I went to a house party with my friend. She and I talked to two boys, and eventually she started dancing with one of them. The other boy then asked me if I wanted to dance. I said, “I’ll pass, but thanks!” He said he understood, and within seconds, he disappeared into the crowd. I didn’t see him again for the rest of the night. 

Both of these scenarios are consistent with a culture that breeds sexual assault. Of course, the men at the nightclub bordered on harassing us, while the boy at the house party demonstrated decency and respect. However, the two scenarios have one critical similarity: Saying no was my responsibility.

Whenever there is a situation requiring consent, saying no is a woman’s responsibility. Men traditionally ask women on dates, initiate during sexual situations, propose marriage and, of course, ask to dance. Though it’s becoming more acceptable for women to “take charge,” relationships traditionally move forward because the man decides he wants to initiate the next step. 

The responsibility of women to say no becomes even more troubling when coupled with the fact that a woman’s financial, academic and career success is often dependent on men. A  2014 factsheet said that men compose 85.4 percent of executive officers, 91.9 percent of top earners and 95.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. In 2017, they hold 80.4 percent of congressional seats in the United States’s largest 100 cities. We live in a culture where men are in power, so it’s disturbing that it’s considered fair and safe that women should carry the burden of saying no to them.

It seems that every day, another sexual assault allegation surfaces. Woman after woman after woman has come forward with a story about being harassed by Harvey Weinstein. ABC News journalist Mark Halperin has been accused by several women of sexual assault. Countless other actors are currently under scrutiny for similar allegations. And, of course, every woman on your Facebook newsfeed has a story to share, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement.

I cannot speak to the legitimacy of every claim that has been made; of course, it’s possible some were made up for attention or money. But the number of sexual assault allegations I have heard lately does not surprise me. In fact, it would surprise me more if they didn’t happen.

I am not surprised because I have experienced the imbalance of power firsthand. Men ask women to do things. Women are forced to decide whether to please them. Imagine if the men in Toronto — who already feel as though they have some inherent right to dance with me — were given direct control over my career success. The power imbalance would move from disturbing to downright reprehensible. As Brit Marling said in The Atlantic, “consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it.”

I am not saying men should stop asking women to dance or asking them on dates or proposing marriage. These are symptoms of the problem, but they are not where the problem lies. Instead, our culture must become aware of this power imbalance, especially situations that require consent. On a micro level, we can adjust our view of consent by asking ourselves, “Am I doing anything that would make this person feel uncomfortable saying no?”

Many people are already doing this, like the boy at the house party who respected my decision to say no. However, there is much room for improvement, but this time on a macro level. In order for women to truly feel comfortable saying no to men, we need to eliminate the culture in which men hold almost all power. We need female CEOs, female government leaders. Women can almost guarantee that at some point in their lives, a man will hold the key to their success, while men have a decent chance that they will never be dependent on a woman. Until women hold the same amount of power as men in public, women will not truly have the power to say no to men in private.

Hannah Harshe is an LSA sophomore.

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