Dear Benjamin and William,
You won’t understand this yet—you’re still young, full of running through sprinklers in the summery green grass and plastic dinosaurs and bubble baths, so I’ll save it until you’re ready. When you do read this, you’ll probably remember echoes of this same conversation, the times when I talked to you about listening to your brother or your friend when you were playing around or annoying them and they asked you to stop. The times when I talked to you about respecting another person’s body, another person’s right to say no to anything, be it your attempt to steal a chip from their plate at lunch or a pillow fight that got a little too rough.
You’ll remember the word consent, because I’ve been using it for years.
But let me back up a little. Because this letter is about much more than asking and listening for no. It’s about much more than consent.
It’s about recognizing another person’s humanity.
You may grow up to like girls. You may grow up to like boys. You may grow up to like both or neither, but no matter who you find attractive, it comes down to the same thing—humanity.
I’m going to talk about girls right now, because I am a girl and because I speak for girls and because no matter who you end up loving, I want you to fight for girls, because chances are, you will be in a position of power over a woman at some point in your life, be it sexually or in a friendship or a job or simply passing a woman on the street. As much as I hope this is not the case when you become teenagers, that all people regardless of their gender or lack thereof will have attained true equality, I have to prepare you for a world in which that is not true.
A world like the one we currently live.
I’ve spent a lot of years, a lot of energy, a lot of tears thinking about why. Why do you some men hurt women? Why do they feel the need to exert power over them? Why do their own bodies negate the autonomy of a woman’s? Why do they feel so entitled to women?
Let me tell you, my loves, you are not entitled.
The most important thing I want you to know, to make sure you never ever doubt, is that you are in no way entitled to a woman’s body. To her mind. To her opinions. To her ideas. She is not yours, no matter how much she might love you and you might love her. She is always her own. Even if she chooses to give you parts of herself, her heart, her affection, she is still her own. You are not entitled to the women who are your friends. You are not entitled to the women whose names you do not know. You are not entitled to the woman you met at that party and who chooses—or does not choose—to have fun with you for only a night. You are not entitled the woman in the bikini, the sweatshirt, the tight tank top, the hijab, the baggy jeans, the plaid shirt, the short skirt, the apron, the halter top. You are not entitled to the woman who gets drunk at a party. You are not entitled to the woman you’ve been dating for six months. You are not entitled to the black woman, the white woman, the Korean woman, the Muslim woman, the Latina. You are not entitled to the naked woman, the fat woman, the disabled woman. You are not entitled to the woman in your bed or in your arms. You are not entitled to the woman other men tell you you are entitled to.
You are not entitled to her.
I hope, on the day you finally read this, that you read the above paragraph and think Of course I’m not entitled to her, god, Mom! I hope you are appalled that I would have to say those things, that you are sickened that there are men in the world who believe they are entitled to every person who identifies as a woman.
I sincerely hope that.
But, even if you are appalled, there is probably that part of you, way in the back of our mind, that is not so shocked. Because chances are, you know men like this. Chances are, some of your friends have this attitude around women, even though they’d never say it so explicitly. Chances are, you’ve laughed at a crass joke or two at a woman’s expense. Because it’s everywhere. That laughter. That attitude that women are silly, sexualized objects, fodder for witty banter and a good time and displays of power. It’s in the jokes, the reports of sexual assault, the quiet favoring of men over women. It is both subtle and violent, an angry shout and a quiet laugh. It is in the silence.
And I’m telling you this because I do not want you to laugh. I do not want you to be silent. I want you to be the man who calls out that laughter, who fills the silence with respect and truth and who knows silence is needed so the woman’s voice is the loudest. Who realizes that women are not a punchline, women are not only bodies to be ogled and touched, women are not only soft skin and breasts and vaginas.
That women do not exist for men.
I want you to be men who speak for women, alongside women. Who refuse to be that man who makes a woman nervous. Who refuse to showboat for his friends when a girl bares her midriff or drinks a lot of vodka cranberries.
I want you to be men who ask.
I’m going to talk to you about sex now. I know, you’re probably cringing, but if I’ve raised you the way I’ve intended, I’ve been talking to you about sex for a long time now. I’ve probably already slipped boxes of condoms into your bedside table drawers. Sure, you’re probably still wincing a bit—I am your mother, after all—but hopefully you already know that sex is a part of many people’s lives. That sex, if it’s what those involved truly want, is wonderful and fun. You already know that when it comes to sex, there’s a lot power involved, for everyone. You already know about consent and you are already men who respect and value women and their autonomy and their humanity and their voices.
If I’ve done my job, none of this will be new information. But, part of my job is writing this letter to you right now, so let me say this again—You are not entitled to a woman’s body in any way. You’re not entitled to catcall her on the street, to keep trying to talk to her when she’s asked you to stop, to touch any part of her unless she has asked you to or said yes when you’ve asked.
Yes, that brings us to that word again—consent.
Consent isn’t complicated. It’s really not. It’s really quite simple and I’m going to lay it out for you right here.
If a girl has been drinking and can’t stand up, can’t form a complete sentence, can’t stay awake, can’t focus on looking at you, can’t stop laughing, then she cannot consent anything. Kissing, touching, sex in any form, nothing. There’s absolutely nothing that should be asked of her. Just take care of her. Get her some place safe, find her friends who can get her home, call her parents or her sister or brother or whoever you have to call to get her home or in a safe place. Alcohol isn’t the enemy here. It does not entitle you or other men to anything. If something happens to a girl while she’s intoxicated, that act is not her fault. Let me repeat that: If something happens to a girl while she’s intoxicated, that act is not her fault. Intoxication does not mean a woman deserves to be violated in any way.
Don’t equivocate on this. It’s wrong, plain and simple. Just take care of her, not because she’s a women and can’t take care of herself, but because she’s human being who needs some help, who deserves to be safe. Take care of her like you’d take care of one of your male friends if he couldn’t stand up or get home on his own.
Two, if you’re with a girl physically, get consent before taking things further. Simple as that. Even if she’s your best friend and you’ve been together for years. It doesn’t have to be the is huge event where you stop all the kissing and whatever you’re doing and have this in depth conversation.
It’s as easy as one word: Okay?
That’s it. A one word question before you go any further. Of course it might take various forms. This okay? How’s this? You all right? Can I? It could be anything you’re comfortable with. It can be playful. It can be sexy. Consent is sexy. And if she’s the one who wants to take it further, she should ask you as well. Please don’t think for a second that it’s always you, that girls have zero interest in sex and only do it for some emotional connection. Not true. Sex is not only about you. Don’t make it only about you. That’s why it’s important to ask.
And if she says no…STOP.
If you’re uncomfortable…say no and STOP.
Sometimes, questions aren’t asked, but the girl (or boy) never says no. Sex, or something else, happens and it wasn’t what that person actually wanted and they didn’t know how to say no. They were scared. They wanted to be liked. To be loved. To be desired. They didn’t want to disappoint. But they still didn’t really want it to go that far.
This is still rape. Yes, it absolutely is.
That’s why it’s important to ask.
I’ve talked to men before, good men whom I trust, who’ve said that they have a fear that they’ll accidentally rape someone. That things will get so heated that they’ll reach some point of no return and things will happen that they didn’t mean to take so far.
Well. To that I have a few things to say—one, I don’t believe in a point of no return. Men are not uncontrollable animals lacking all inhibitions. That’s perpetuating a dangerous boys will be boys mentality that, frankly, is bullshit. Don’t buy into that for a second. You are capable of self-control. You are capable of humanity in the most heated of moments. So no, boys will not be boys. Boys will be human beings who respect other human beings. Who respect themselves.
Another thing I’ll say about that is what I’ve already said twice. This is why it is important to ask. If you ask, if she asks, if you make sure that the next step you take is something you both want, then that next step will be so much better than something you’ll doubt later on.
My loves, if you’re with a woman, chances are, you’re the one with more power. Culturally and socially, maybe even physically, you just are. And I don’t say that as a good thing or as something to bolster your ego. I say it as an undeniable fact, but as something that should be changed, should be challenged. That is why I first wanted you to know, to know and own and believe and absorb down to your bone marrow, that you are not entitled to any woman. Ever. If you know that, the girl you’re asking won’t fear you. She won’t be afraid to say no. She’ll know she can trust you. She’ll know that if she says no, you’ll stop and it’ll be okay.
And she’ll know that if she says yes, it’s because she really wants to say yes, that you really want to say yes.
She’ll know that you’re a man who will stand beside her, for her.
She’ll know that you’re a man who will let her speak for herself, who won’t devalue her experience because you feel threatened.
She’ll know that you’re a man who will never well, actually her.
She’ll know that you’re a man who will speak out against sexual assault, against rape, against the culture that teaches boys that they are entitled to women, instead of remaining silent while women shout and shout and shout at a world that won’t listen to them.
She’ll know you are a man she never has to fear.
And that, my sons, is what I hope for you. It is what I hope for the women in your life. It is what I hope for us all.