Britni Danielle, a great writer/editor that I’ve always looked up to, conducted an absolutely awesome interview with Nate Parker this weekend. While there have been other great pieces about consent surrounding this topic (such as April Reign’s incisive dissection of the case) it was necessary for me to get an idea of what he thinks today, in his own words. What stood out most to me in the interview was his perspective on consent. Truthfully, I have no idea on whether or not he’s actually changed or just learned the activist buzzwords surrounding sexual assault, but I feel like what he knows now about rape and consent is more than what he knew then. This part jumped out at me:
This part jumped out at me because it was very honest. In 1999, the year Nate Parker allegedly raped a woman at Penn State and the same year I lost my virginity, consent wasn’t framed anywhere close to how meticulously it is now. In understanding affirmative consent, we realize that the absence of a “no” doesn’t equal a yes, and that being intoxicated or unconscious isn’t grounds for some continued concept of previous consent. While that may seem like common sense today, those ideas were not so commonly understood just under two decades ago. But while many believe our definition of consent at that time was predicated on simple ignorance, the truth is a lot mustier than that. In reality, the a progressive definition of consent was killed by Mike Tyson.
In 1992, Mike Tyson was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison for raping Desiree Washington, with four of the years suspended. Throughout that trial, consent was a HUGE part of the national discussion. Although it wasn’t framed in the same manner it would be framed today, the basic conversation devolved into “did she really want it or not?” And I vividly remember that the number one defence many pro-Tyson people would utter was, “if she wasn’t down, then why did she go up to his hotel at 1 AM?”
For many people, the topic of whether or not she was raped had little to do with Tyson’s behaviour throughout the course of the act, but rather her behaviour leading up to the act. In truth, the voices that made that point were ROUTINELY beat down by the loud chorus of folks who believed that her interest in him during the pageant rehearsal, on the date, and leading up to entering the hotel room, equates a ‘flowing, non-stop consent.’ In my community, Black men and women alike both loudly berated anyone who was “stupid enough” to suggest that Mike Tyson could’ve raped a woman that showed a semblance of interest in him. It was in that moment that any progression on how we viewed consent was thoroughly obliterated. If “she’s down, she’s down” became ‘common sense’ for an entire generation.
Yet, in 1995, a few years after Tyson’s rape conviction, there was an attempt made to challenge that newfound regression, in the form of a movie called ‘KIDS’ which displayed brash scenes of teenage sexual ideology and behaviour such as this:
And so many parents, adults, educators and other social groups were so concerned with the language and the graphicness of the movie, that they attempted to get it outright barred from being seen by anybody. even likening it to “child pornography.” Lost in the fray was how writer Harmony Korine and director Larry Clark created a film that not only presented an unfiltered look into the lives many young folks were leading, but candidly expressed the problematic nature created when intercourse occurs without affirmative consent in the most pivotal scene when Casper rapes an unconscious Jennie. The shocking nature of the film became more of an issue than the commentary about consent, and the “if she’s down, she’s down” logic continued unchallenged.
I reject the idea that men like Parker were confounded by simple ignorance. I truly believe they are the remnants of the lost-battle over progressive consent that exploded in our community during the Mike Tyson case. Instead of that trial becoming a teachable moment for young men regarding rape and the illusion of continuous consent, it became a moment dudes used as an opportunity to feel victimized. Words like ‘lured’, ‘tempted’, and ‘inconsistent’ got wantonly thrown around and suddenly women found themselves being trapped in the idea that showing any sexual interest in a man is grounds for him to take as much as he wants, whenever he wants it.
Although Tyson was sent to jail, the national conversation didn’t switch to demonizing men who didn’t respect consent. In fact, I’d argue that Tyson has been allowed to survive so prominently in pop culture, over a decade past his last fight, because many just don’t see him as a violent rapist, regardless of his conviction. He’s allowed to be the loveable character in goofy comedy movies because many of us still collectively hold antiquated, patriarchally-induced conceptualizations of consent.
If, in 1992 after Tyson was convicted and sentenced, the entire nation had come together to hold a moratorium on women’s rights and progressed the conversation about consent, maybe a young Nate Parker could have learned important, life-altering lessons before that tragic day. Maybe if we lived in a society where our compassion outweighed our desire to maintain systems of power and privilege, we would have attempted to find common ground with victims, instead of criminalizing them in the court of public opinion.
Maybe we could’ve progressed to this point a lot damn sooner.