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What #MeToo Is Teaching Us About Consent

flyer designed by event organizer, Kristin Walker
a flyer for an event on censent held in Springfield back in December

Since October, the viral spreading of #MeToo - a campaign that actually started much earlier with Tarana Burke - has led to more public discussion around issues of sexual assault, harassment and violence.

A recent example concerning actor and comedian Aziz Ansari sparked a debate about consent. An accountfeatured on Babe, an online publication, alleged that Ansari made a woman uncomfortable on their first date by his insistence that they escalate their sexual encounter. Afterward, writers at publications such as The New York Times and The Atlanticsaid the woman's account threatened the #MeToo movement by putting forth a story they did not believe represented sexual assault. 

Youth of today are increasingly concerned with discussing consent, which could represent a split from previous generations, observes Shelley Vaughan, head of the Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault (PCASA) in Springfield. She said a sexual consent workshop at DIY venue Black Sheep generated meaningful and educational dialogue among younger people.

While some say consent is nothing less than the enthusiastic verbal validation in each step of a sexual encounter, others say that's expecting too much. Under Illinois law, parties must consent to each progressive step in a sexual scenario and they are allowed to withdraw that consent at any point in time, according to Shauna Kalaskie, legal counsel and advocacy program manager for PCASA.

Kalaskie and Vaughan sat down for a conversation about the definition of consent, and how to make sure relationships, casual or otherwise, are healthy for all involved. Tune in:


OTWELL: I'm Rachel Otwell for NPR Illinois. Back in October, the “Me Too” hashtag when viral, anyone with a social media account is likely to have seen it repeatedly over the past few months. Now, those interested in preventing sexual assault and violence are looking at what's next. One way the conversation has shifted has to do with consent and how to have healthier sexual encounters. I sat down with two Springfield women who have been doing this work for years to learn more.

VAUGHAN: Hi, I'm Shelley Vaughan, the executive director at Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault.

KALASKIE: Hi, I'm Shauna Kalaskie. I'm the advocacy program manager.

OTWELL: And so the Me Too movement, if we're going to call it that, has brought about - a lot of different accounts ... including one ... I'm not going to get into the play by play, but an anonymous woman told an account to a publication called Babe that had to do with her recollection of a date with Aziz Ansari, a very popular comedian, in which she alleges that throughout the evening there were some sexual encounters that she was not comfortable with. And there was this debate that kind of cropped up that said, you know, maybe she's being harmful for the movement because her account doesn't paint a picture of clear sexual assault violations. And so I think it might be interesting to try and clear that up for people - as far as what is consent in a legal sense. And so we have Shauna here to do that for us. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

KALASKIE: Well, the law in Illinois pretty clear. It's a freely given agreement to the act of sexual penetration or sexual conduct that is in question. So lack of verbal or physical resistance doesn't constitute consent. So it has to be a clear verbal agreement to every single act.

OTWELL: So what you're saying is as, as things progress step by step, consent needs to be given along the way by both parties.

KALASKIE: Correct. It needs to be a communication between both parties who are engaging in the sexual act of what they like, what they're agreeing to do, and what they're not agreeing to do.

OTWELL: And what role does intoxication play into this?

KALASKIE: Under Illinois state law, if a person is intoxicated, they can not consent to anything, whether that's sex or signing any kind of an agreement, a contract. So the law is very clear that if you are intoxicated you are not able to give consent.

OTWELL: And so Shelley, some of the conversation around the Aziz Ansari debate in particular had to do with a lot of people saying, "I relate to having experiences like this. I don't necessarily see it as being assault." But it became very clear that for a lot of people this is kind of normalized. And my take on it was ... that the female might have felt objectified. Tell us more about how to have healthy consensual relationships regardless of the legal implications.

VAUGHAN: Well, I think it's just about communication and respecting each other. Just because someone wants to kiss you does not mean that they want to have sexual intercourse with you. During sexual intercourse you can change your mind at any time. So I think it's about respect and listening to the other person and when there's not a clear consent of “yes” or a clear “no," you might want to stop just because you might find yourself in a very uncomfortable situation such as this. But I think we have been brought up not being real communicative or even talking about sex or talking about healthy relationships. And I think especially with our young generation, they want to know more about this. They want to have more open conversations and I think that's a healthy thing to do and we have to start with kids when they're very young. Whether it's when we're in the schools talking to the little kids, little preschool kids about good touch, bad touch - have a voice. This is just a learning experience and this should be a wake-up call to know it's OK to talk about that during sexual intercourse or in an healthy relationship - saying, “Hey, what do you feel comfortable with, what don't you feel comfortable with?”

OTWELL: And then Shauna, as far as the legality here - is there anything that you feel needs to be cleared up for people, especially those who might be, you know, single and out in the dating world. Things to keep in mind?

KALASKIE: Well I think, like Shelley said, it's OK to say "no" at any time and it needs to be respected.

OTWELL: You know, a lot of times when we frame these conversations about sexism itself and in the current conversation about sexual assault, females are painted as the victims and a lot of men are left saying, “What can I do to help? How do I fit in here?” But this seems to be bringing up how sexism can be harmful, not just for women, but for men in the sense that a lot of times, there's that desire to be macho or to fit that role and that might include trying to really push for a sexual relationship. Can you speak to that at all?

VAUGHAN: That's a good point. What they call it now is the "man box." So we're trying to deconstruct that because society has placed certain expectations on both males and females. So (we want) to let males know that you don't have to be a certain way. We've been taught about gender roles. We often don't think it's macho if a boy or a young man shows emotion ... we want to let them know that it's OK ... And it's a two way street. I think it's the way that we raise our kids. I mean, we can do that to the best of our ability, but it's also about the other influences that we have, even out in the media and our society that we really have to address these social norms and change that for the better. We all can be who we want to be, but we have to learn to respect each other and we have to learn some healthy communication. Don't have those expectations. Even if you're taught growing up that, you know, women are less or men or more.

OTWELL: So it sounds like the work to be done here is not necessarily just addressing individuals so much as systems of power and the structures that society has kind of normalized.

VAUGHAN: Right. That's why it's really important to have these conversations just like today, and with our prevention education, we're going more community-wide to have these conversations as a whole and to educate people and get people on board to say, “Hey, we want a safer community. We want to be a part of this mission to end sexual violence.” And that's a big order. But I think that's the only way we can do it, to have people to come together and say "No," and to believe survivors. I mean with this Me Too movement - this has been such a great platform and a strong platform for survivors, both men and women, to come forward. The number one reason that people do not report is because they don't think they'll be believed. And I think with this movement, it's really hard to ignore it.

OTWELL: I'm wondering in the context of your career, Shelley, does this current moment feel like we're really reaching an apex here and conversations are going to continue or you know, you hear the people who are saying, "Brace yourself for a pushback. People are going to think this has gone too far." What's your feeling as far as the environment now?

VAUGHAN: I really feel strongly that it's been a shift to the positive. I haven't gotten or heard a lot of pushback. I've seen support from men and women. This can't be a trend, so it can't be just a trending hashtag. It has to be a conversation that we want to continue, and to empower those that are coming forward to first and foremost, believe victims. It's not our job at Prairie Center to say whether it happened or not, but it is our job, because we're a victim center, to say ... “I'm going to listen to you and I'm going to guide you to where you need to be to seek justice.” So I don't think it's something that's going to go away. And really at Prairie Center we are really trying to keep the conversations going. So we welcome, you know, any of these interviews or people to come out to some of our events and be volunteers, and make our communities safer for everyone.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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