Consent

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me you think it’s your fault?”

On the side of the brown filing cabinet was a newspaper article I had read at least 17 times–bringing awareness of sexual assault to the masses, one campus group at a time–but I read it again anyway because what else was I going to do but tell her the words that she wanted to hear and I didn’t want to say?

“Seriously.” M had a way of leaning in her office chair that made it look she was sitting in front of the television at home and watching Netflix. Her arms draped over the armrests of the chair as she fiddled with her glasses, cleaning them on the weave of her sweater. 

“No.” I had a dream that saying what she wanted me to say would get me out of her office a few minutes sooner. No such luck.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me why.”

M knew me too well. “Tell me why not,” I retorted, drawing the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and shoving a freshly unwrapped Hershey Kiss from the candy bowl into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to say anything else for at least the next sixty seconds.

“Did you ask for it?”

“Did I say no?”

*

A year or so ago, I met this great girl named Fern. Greenish yellow eyes that seemed to change when I looked into them, reddish orange fur, a great pink nose, a beautiful wagging tail. Yes, a dog. The first thing you see when you come to Fern’s house is how low to the ground she gets as she wiggles up excitedly to get pets. You don’t notice her ears that are cropped ridiculously short in an attempted effort to make her look ferocious, because you’re too busy watching as her army-crawling front end struggles to keep up with her bouncy butt. And then you sit on the couch, and Fern sits on you, and as you pet her (because let’s face it, you have no choice in the manner) you realize that she’s a pit bull and that that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because she defies all your preconceived expectations of her breed.

Fern’s beginnings don’t lend themselves to the dog she is now. She started out in a junkyard in Pennsylvania and came to the animal rescue with a fear of men and the world and a collar embedded in her neck. She was scared of everything even after she was freed and with a loving family. The Fourth of July came in her new home, and she was scared of the loud noises and the fireworks and wanted nothing more than to stay inside.

*

“Did you say no?” M parroted back.

“Do you always have to answer every question I ask with a question?”

M stayed silent then, waiting me out.

“No,” I finally caved, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have an answer to that question.” And I didn’t, not really. It seemed inappropriate to ask her if she would have said no if she thought she was going to die. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no.”

“Well, you’re the English major. So you tell me. Does the absence of the word no signify consent?”

*

See, to look at Fern now, it’s quite apparent that she didn’t ask for her past. She didn’t say “chop off my ears and chain me in a yard all alone and do whatever abuse you want to try and make me ferocious and mean.” Fern did not say yes, but Fern did not say no either, because Fern is a dog–and dogs do not say no because dogs don’t speak. 

I probably know less about Fern’s former life than many, but no one knows precisely what she went through. I can make some guesses, based on the opposites of my positivity training. If you want a dog to be well mannered and friendly, you treat them in a loving and respectful manner. But if you want them to be scary and angry and hate people, I assume it would be the opposite. Dogs respond to the way they’re treated. And in that vein, I can make the following leaps–Fern was previously owned by a man. He probably yelled a lot. Maybe banged things to scare her to where he wanted her in the yard or to keep her from approaching him or just plain banged things around the junkyard (and really, that’s all the same, because who wants to listen to loud banging sounds while confined to a chain 24/7?). He may have hit her, kicked her, in an attempt to teach her that humans suck so that she’d go after any trespassers. 

Again, I don’t know these things. I don’t want to think about these things. But if the secret to reversing her skittishness of people was her loving home, then isn’t the opposite true?

Fern did not ask for the things that happened to her, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. 

*

I shook my head so that my hood slid back down my then-lengthy hair and unwrapped another chocolate. I sat chewing it for so long, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth, that the ticking of the desk clock started echoing in my head. I hated the silence. “Do you think…” My voice trailed off, and I went to finish the thought with yet another chocolate and found the bowl empty. 

“Yes?”

“Maybe…we do what we need to do to survive.”

“Did you ask him to do what he did?”

“I didn’t say no.” The words were starting to sound lamely flat the more that I said them. 

“Did you say here I am, come get me?” M put her glasses down gently and pushed them away from the edge of the desk. 

“Excuse me?”

“Here I am, come get me? Is that what you said that night?”

I fumbled under the sofa bench I was on for my purse. “I’m going to go,” I said, standing up. 

She grabbed my wrist, gently, but she grabbed it. She had never touched me before. I sat back down, but she didn’t let go. “The fact of the matter is, you didn’t. You didn’t say that. You wouldn’t say that, because you didn’t want it. The absence of consent is not consent. You did not say yes. He had no right to take what he did from you.”

*

Fern’s a great dog. She always was, but her first owner clearly never saw that because he wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Now she’s one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met (love and respect will do that, I promise, try it and you’ll see). She’s a little skittish at night sometimes, but it’s understandable. I’d love to actually study PTSD in dogs, because I really do believe it’s a thing. Give me a few weeks of uninterrupted time and see what will happen. But Fern works as a therapy dog and visits people in nursing homes to bring them comfort when they’re feeling lost and lonely. I imagine that Fern understands somewhere inside that she too was once lost and lonely, and that no one should have to feel that way. I believe she fills the world with as much joy as she can because that way, the two plus years where she had no joy are way in the world past where they belong.

*

“I think,” M continued, “that until you accept that none of the fault for the rape is on you, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

My brow creased as I looked at her. I had asked her never to use that word. I never used that word. 

She read my expression instantly. “The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist.”

When I didn’t see it coming, when I should have seen it coming, when I should have done something, when I did nothing, when I did not ask for it in the first place so none of the fault was on me. 

“The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist,” I echoed. 

*

Dogs like Fern are the perfect example of my therapist’s law of consent. Like I said, dogs can’t speak. But spend five minutes with Fern. Heck. Spend one minute with Fern. Did she ask for her sour beginning in life? Did she ask for what happened to her? No. But she absolutely did not say yes. 

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