Consent: Is a Woman’s Right

As women leaders and activists from around the world gather for the 63 Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week I thought, it would be fun to share a little story with you, to get us all thinking about the current status of women around the world, particularly as it relates to sexual harassment or sexual and gender based violence.

Recently there was a near fist-fight at a local pool. The source of the conflict being my hair (pictured above). A man jumped out of the pool while I reclined on a deck chair reading a book On Beauty. My back was behind him so I didn’t see him as he slid his wet-chlorinated hand over my head while his fingers brushed through my hair.

“Nice hair,’ he said brushing past.

I looked up and about, surprised.

“Thank you”, I mumbled wondering why it was necessary for him to offer a compliment so intrusively when just his words would suffice. But I decided to let it go. The man was already standing over a barbecue he’d been preparing with his friends, far away from where I was. I did not think his actions warranted any further reaction from me.

So I turned my eyes back to the book I was reading; I was making an effort to follow the conversation about the arts, beauty and intellectual stimulation without any success, when one of my girlfriends who’d been sitting diagonally across from me asked sweetly.

Jedi, do you know that guy?

No, I said.

Oh, she exclaimed surprised.

I thought you knew him because of the way he touched your hair, she inquired.

I don’t know him, I told her. I just didn’t want to make a fuss about it. She shrugged, and continued rubbing lotion on her arms and legs. Ten minutes later the same man returned. This time he was facing directly at me and without slowing down he lunged towards me – with both hands reaching for my hair. Instinctively I raised my arms and legs to block him from going any further. What are you doing? I asked incredulously.

“Please, please, just let me touch your hair?.” He said pushing my hands to the side.

No! I screamed stretching my arms and legs even further to prevent him from reaching my head. “No, please,” he continued “I won’t do anything to you, I just want to feel it”

I was disarmed by his approach and felt defenceless as his body hovered over mine. In that moment I felt completely vulnerable and exposed with my legs and hands still up in the air. The tug of war continued for about five minutes in the company of my friends – I struggled with a stranger. His hands were trying to grab mine and mine were trying to push his away from my head or away from the vicinity of my hair.

Perhaps to a distant observer this may have looked like a playful tug of war between a “loving” couple. But it was not the case.

Please, I just want to run my hands through it, I don’t want to do anything to you! He said impatiently.

No! no! no! I screamed.

My throat let out some laughter, incredulous. Bewildered. Stammering, laughter. 

As this is taking place, the only thought running through my head was: is this man serious?

It turned out that he was because he would not give up. He was still trying to touch my hair which made me even more hysterical with laughter.

Until one of my female friends interjected, realising that I was in trouble.

“Excuse me sir, she said, ” she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, can you please leave”

“I don’t want to do anything to her, I just want to touch it” he protested.

Please sir she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, please go. My friend insisted

Reluctantly the man returned to his Barbarque. Claiming innocence;

“I didn’t want to do anything to her okay?? I just wanted to touch her hair. What is the big deal man?” he said walking away in protest.

Jedi, do you know  this guy?

My friends asked in unison.

I don’t know him, I said.

So why does he want to touch your hair?

I don’t know, I said, shrugging. 

Did you want him to? 

No. 

But why were you laughing?

You seemed to be enjoying it!

They said.

No. I repeated. No. I was not enjoying it at all, I was trying with all my might to stop him from touching my hair. But all I could manage was to laugh and say no.

When confronted by my friends, he was unapologetic. His defiance created a loud argument at the pool side drawing everyone’s attention. A woman who’d been sitting across from me tanning, saw the commotion and signalled to her friend that trouble was brewing. She packed her things and swiftly stepped out with her leaving me alone on the same chair I had been sitting on when the man approached me. I hadn’t moved since.

I watched as his hands flailed wildly as if he’d been possessed while my friends who had been poking fingers at him began flexing their muscles and clenching their fists ready for a fight which seemed both imminent and unavoidable.

From where I was sitting I couldn’t always hear what was being said by who and to whom but soon punches were flung across the air between two human shields who were trying to separate them. Security was called in.

Every now and again I heard cuss words being thrown around. “Bitch” being the most frequent. The man was now pointing in my direction.

I wondered why I had chosen to sit back while my friends were engaged in a fight which was ostensibly on my behalf. But If I did go, what would speaking to him achieve when he had previously disregarded every no I had uttered when he was ‘innocently” trying to touch my hair? What would my presence there do? Would it calm the situation or escalate it even further?

Ultimately I decided that my presence there would not make the situation any better – so I sat back.

“I don’t even know this bloody woman, I have never seen her in my entire life before!” said the man.

“Exactly!” one of my friends responded. You don’t even know her – why do you think you have a right to touch her hair, when she clearly told you no?!! They screamed back.

Because a woman’s no, does not matter, I thought to myself.

After a while management was called in. It became apparent that the man had threatened and grossly offended someone very important during the arguments and if he didn’t apologise soon the consequences of his actions could be dire.

The man eventually succumbed and offered an apology to my friends which I did not hear but they were well pleased with it.

Consent Without Consent

I have been thinking a lot about this incident in the past few weeks trying to process my thoughts around it; from wondering why this particular hairstyle made men and some women who had never attempted to touch my hair before in all the 11 months I had known them suddenly became unable to “help it” because my hair is simply “asking to be touched”. I wondered where I had gone in the discussion.

One of my male friends offered an explanation ” it’s all about the objectification of black women” which I agreed with in part. But what stood out for me in all of this was I had to defend my decision not to allow anyone to touch my hair. My friends, sadly, were no different from this audacious stranger who insisted on touching my hair even when I said no. They were also of the opinion that I should allow them to touch my hair simply because they were friends, people I was familiar or close with. Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? they demanded. I was made to feel wrong for refusing them permission to touch my hair. And in fact who was I to refuse?

The idea that their persistent requests to touch my hair was making me uncomfortable or that it indicated their total disregard for my personal boundaries was something which never crossed their mind. To such an extent that at times I have found myself consenting to my friends especially, allowing them to touch my hair so that I am not labelled a self-entitled, “bitch”.

So even though I may have given my “consent” it was still an unwanted capitulation induced by a level of coercion and verbal harassment from friends and strangers alike. While none of these incidents can be defined as criminal in any sense, they do shed some light into the sometimes polarising nature of debates or discussions around Sexual and Gender Based Violence as seen through the #Metoo movement and other SGBV testimonies in the media recently.

They behaved as if I owed them. As if touching my hair would validate me in some way; their touch would be a sign of “approval” or “disapproval” depending on what their fingers found.

In her 2008 paper on Law, Sex and Consent paper, Professor at Law at Georgia University Robin West explains that the “historical reliance on consent as a demarcation between rape and sex are misguided as they falsify the degree of coercion imposed upon women by men in their ordinary sexual lives”. She goes further to suggest that while she is not advocating for new forms of non-violent sexual crimes to be re-defined and included in law, it is nevertheless important for “law makers, scholars and feminist theorists to focus more on harms caused by consensual sex and their relation to the law, in the intimate sphere no less than we do in our political and economic lives”.

Her ideas are not far from that of Prof Noam Chomsky and his long time critique of the different forms of “consent” which continue to be imposed on people in the public, political and economic spheres. In his 1999 book on, “Profit over People” which is a critique of the global political and economic system Chomsky notes that politicians often use a concept named “consent without consent” by imposing their authority on the people who are being governed because the imposition is for the highest good. Just like a parent stoping a child from crossing a busy road, or forcing the child to comb their hair, or eat – the child may not agree at first but ultimately these interventions are good for them. The idea here is: you may not consent now because you don’t know what is good for you, but once you know what is good for you, you will consent to it.

I think this theory applies well to this pool side “can I touch your hair, by force if necessary please story”, because embedded in the question itself is the tacit implication that it would be beneficial for me and the person who is asking, if I called them touch my hair. Touching my hair then, in this context would be good for humanity. Since it is a “harmless” request, the assumption is I must consent to it. The fact that I may not want my hair touched (for whatever reason) was discounted as a mask to “hide” something or to lie.

My friends and I continue to laugh about this hair story today. It has moved from being a source of conflict to a source of humour with many of them continuously asking me; “But Jedi, Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? Don’t you know that by refusing you will invariably cause us to want to touch it more, even by force? Who do you think you are not to be touched? What are you hiding?

All things considered it would have been so much easier for me to allow this guy to simply just touch my hair in an attempt to avoid conflict. If had been alone by the pool side this man could have easily overpowered me in broad day light. Everybody would hear me laugh, scream and push. But all people would see is a woman enjoying or pretending not to enjoy the attentions of a man. They would say she wanted it. She enjoyed it.

This experience made me see how sometimes consent is not always a meaningful marker between autonomy and coercion. According to Robin West “consent (touch, sex, money, economy et al) when it is unwanted and unwelcome, often carries harms to the personhood, autonomy, integrity and identity of the person who consents. The harms are often unreckoned by law and remain more or less unnoticed by the rest of us, even in the #Metoo era.

I think it’s time we took another look.


Consent:

Noun: Permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.

Verb: Give permission (allow) something to happen.

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TRUE LIES: MANUFACTURING CONSENT

It took a small and seemingly innocuous incident with a roving photographer to bring Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman’s: Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) to mind. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how we all could benefit from re-reading the text,  particularly those of us who are still involved in the practice of  journalism.

The Personal Case

I was sitting  at a table next to a window facing the street at Bread and Roses, a cafe bistro  in Melville at the corner of 7th Street and 4th Avenue, typing away when I looked up to find a woman with a camera facing me. I was just putting up my head to think away from the screen as one does, when at that very moment our eyes met and  she smiled sweetly at me and asked if she could take a picture.  As usual, thinking this would make her go away I asked why? She replied that I was beautiful. I rolled my eyes thinking that if I earned actual money each time someone told me that I would be a very wealthy woman today, beauty as it turns out, does not solve many problems.

But before I could say something, she had already taken several pictures of me. So I asked feeling  less nonchalant this time, what the pictures were for? She responded looking rather annoyed herself that it was just for her own  personal use.  I wanted to ask her for her email so I can have a copy too when she started walking swiftly away followed closely by a male colleague with more cameras strapped around him which then made me think that that picture could not have been just  for her own personal use.  I was still focused on what I was doing and so I did not have the energy nor the time to run after her and ask her to delete my pictures since they were taken according to my understanding, under false pretenses.

But the picture had already been taken and she was gone.

I realized then why wildlife safaris are so popular among those who say they love and adore animals. You can take as many pictures as you like and the Giraffe will never ask why? What is it for? or What’s in it for me?

Later as I sat with an old friend, a photographer, I told her of what had just happened. I was wondering why they were taking pictures of people without any real explanation.  She said “ They’ve been doing this all day, but you know” she continued ” it’s a true lie. It’s it’s true that you may have looked beautiful sitting there working on your computer, but maybe it just made a nice picture overall not you personally, just the picture composition you know the lighting , colour etc. so it’s true but it’s also a lie.”

In short I was duped by my own vanity

So the “truth” of my supposed beauty as I typed away by the window of a trendy coffee shop in Melville masked multiple lies. The picture was not only for her personal use. I did not consent to my picture being taken, there was just not enough time for me to make a well thought out decision and if the photographer wanted that beautiful picture as she saw it  right then– she needed to act quickly, say something to distract or  placate me  so it seem  as though I have given my consent.

So what does this example have to do with manufacturing consent and the political economy of the mass media? Everything. It was economically expedient for her to lie to me about what she will use my picture so I won’t make any claims on whatever commercial gains she might make on my image in the future, it was politically expedient for her to lie about my beauty so she can get what she wanted.

This is may be simplistic but it is often  exactly how the ideological propaganda works. It is a delicate mix of truth and lies which are meant first to confuse, then to divert your attention from asking the appropriate question or probing any further. It’s that moment when someone pays you the nicest compliment as preparation for an attack meant to coerce you into doing  what they want or to believe what they say. It’s a form of psychological manipulation which is hard to pin down, identify, much less  prove.

There are many forms of deception – the local version

Let me pull up from the minutia and give you a wider angle with an example more relevant to most of us.  Let’s go back to the Marikana Massacre on the 16th of August 2012.  To say I was shocked by the public response to the incident is an understatement of the century. If I was mad, I regained the full use of my mental faculties on that day. Many people applauded police action justified by statements such as this one which littered Twitter and Facebook saying: “yeah, I mean what you would do when confronted by a mob of spear wielding men?” “I’d shoot”. Some even congratulated the police for doing a good job in defending themselves and more generally the country. This despite the fact that the previous night video footage of the murders were shown on both the privately owned E-news Channel and publicly owned SABC news broadcasts. Police were shown clearly shooting at the miners who were fleeing the Koppie. Trauma specialists and or psychologists might tell you that sometimes when people are faced with traumatic or tragic events they go through a period of denial, it didn’t happen. But despite the many interviews we conducted with journalists, union leaders and the bereaved, the official story was that the police had done their job well on that day.

Which is  true, but it is also a lie.

To drive the point home of who exactly was the guilty party, the police arrested more than 200 striking miners. The miners were wrong, they didn’t listen to instructions not to strike, they didn’t want to leave the Koppie so they had to be shot.   Soon after, a ban on interviews with those linked to the mining incident such as the bereaved was instituted at the public broadcaster for “legal considerations” including all original footage showing how the shooting happened was barred from the news on both channels, even on radio for natural sound.  Deputy President Cryril Ramaphosa came in for an interview with Xolani Gwala on SAfm – AM Live, to explain himself and his involvement in the whole saga. The wider public believed that the police were doing their job, until the documentary on the incident Miners Shotdown proved otherwise. Now almost four years later the veil has been lifted. Those who have seen the film can only cover their wide open mouths with the palms of their hands.

Who are the worthy victims?

Let’s not forget about the most important story. The terrorists attacks in the Ivory Coast in which 22 people died following an explosion at a beach front resort in Grand-Bassam. Lifeless black bodies, of men mostly filled my Facebook timeline, arms and limbs flayed and twisted with heads buried face down on the sand. Those images caused one to look away. The one person of European descent known to many South Africans of the “political class” meaning artists, filmmakers and cultural managers, remained human even after her death. We didn’t see pictures of her lifeless, bullet riddled or mangled body buried in the sand, we only saw pictures of her radiant smile and several pictures of her while she was still alive in the Ivory Coast surrounded by artists whom she so loved. Even news reports of the incident had images of her while she was still alive and the rest of the pictures were of black bodies discarded scattered on the beach like flies.  The only image that proved that there were white people killed in the incident was a picture which only zoomed on the feet of the dead while the rest of their bodies were fully covered. You may ask why is it necessary for me go into such detail. I want to illustrate the subtle yet powerful messaging contained in these  images, how people are treated when they are dead, shows you whose life is important, which life matters most. One news outlet even went as far as saying, 22 people including Europeans were killed  at a beach front hotel in the Ivory Coast. Who will you remember?

So who knows what is  actually Going On?

Today in South Africa we’re all so preoccupied (the political class) with the Guptas and their undue influence on the President of the country. When so much worse is happening to our people.  Daily, workers are being systematically dehumanized by the thousands herded like cows or sheep into taxis every morning or made to wait while angry and arrogant taxi bosses divide the loot among themselves in Johannesburg, or kill each other in Durban.   This while those who are opposed to mining  explorations in many of the country’s rural areas are  being killed, forcibly moved from their homes, starved of land, livestock and any way to make a living. Water is cut off from river streams and what is left is for coal.  Humans drink from the same polluted, stagnant waters with dogs and wild animals, because their taps have run dry. This as the Reserve bank increases the interest rates by 25 basis points making the cost of borrowing money exorbitant (more than ten percent interest on every rand borrowed). While the Rand loses currency making it so much easier for  foreign investors to take, sorry, to buy whatever they like fulfilling former president Nelson Mandela’s promise to avail the country’s public enterprises to global capital.  The coup is happening if it’s not already finished.  This as cabinet ministers with smalla-nyana skeletons in their respective closets, watch on.

No one has the courage to say: we’ve been conquered. That one vote, that one yes in 1994, meant yes to everything that is happening now.

A lie, which is  also true.

Of course there are a  million ways in which  my words can be contradicted, proven to be false,  this is after all not a monolithic argument or position. Life is infinitely more complex and more nuanced  than we could ever imagine. But it is also just as simple. Nothing is ever what it seems.  At best all the examples I have made here, serve to remind us  that we’ve all been co-opted  at some level or another into our own self-deception.  We either choose not to see  the truth because it is completely inconvenient for us right now or we just don’t have the energy to say or ask for more. Because we’re just too tired, too exhausted by the sheer physical exertion required  to get from A to B in order to  just put food on the table. So when we get home, we just want to sit down, relax ,watch some good TV and then just as the show gets really interesting  wonder why the lights, suddenly,  go off. At least this way  there’ll always be someone else to blame.

Pictured: Henrike Grohs  one of an estimated 22 people killed at the Ivory Coast terrorist attack on the 13th of March 2016.  Picture Credit:  The Goethe Institute. Johannesburg. South Africa.