Imagine hearing any one of these lines out of context:
“We won’t be able to compliment women soon without worrying about being arrested.”
“You SLAG! Your speaking pass is revoked.”
“I just assumed those following me would understand my intentions.”
“Jesus, that top is only ever worn just to be taken off again by a bloke in half an hour.”
“When you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything... grab them by the pussy.”
All of these phrases taken out of context are damaging to developing understandings of consent. Is there a difference between your friend mocking your sex life and the President of the United States telling the world it’s okay to grab women so long as you’re famous or important? Of course there is. And therein lies the problem - in our everyday lives, when are jokes just jokes, and when are they damaging to the effort to create a world where consent is not a question but a guarantee?
In March, British presenter and YouTuber JaackMaate came under fire from co-creators for tweeting that “with the way the world is going” he could get accused for assault just for masturbating to the thought of a woman. It was in reference to a satirical article on telepathic rape, where just such a phenomenon was being ironically described, yet Jack did not make this connection clear. The stand-alone Tweet dismissed modern feminists and consent activists as overreacting and vindictive. Singer-songwriter dodie (@doddleoddle) responded, along with many others:
Jack defended himself by claiming that it was satire, although he did apologise for any offence and for assuming people would understand his joke, so I’m not attempting to claim that he genuinely holds the opinion that feminists and consent activists are scare-mongering, but is the damage already done? Social media has a habit of taking offhand comments and escalating them wildly. People who saw Jack’s original tweet before it was deleted, who already disliked the consent movement, might take it as further confirmation that their own negative views on feminism are correct, and be even less likely to engage with the consent conversation in future.
Anyone with an audience online is responsible for how they present themselves. This is increasingly beginning to include the general public as well. A friend can make a casual comment about my outfit (see above) and I will spend the rest of the day worrying that my appearance is sending a message I neither anticipated nor intended. But to them? It was a joke. Nothing to get bent out of shape over.
Of my initial collection of examples, the last is the most well-known. The “grab them by the pussy” phrase is generally agreed by most to be aggressive, damaging, and sickening - very few would accept Trump’s team’s claims that it was a joke taken out of context. Does this then place Jack’s tweet in the same category as Pussygate? Are the comments made after four pints in the pub just as damaging? Where does the line need to be drawn?
The answer lies in the impact. Trump’s comments rank higher in the hierarchy of problematic trash because he didn’t intend for people to hear him, he has a history of assault allegations, and he speaks with the voice of the US government. JaackMaate doesn’t have the context of any of these things, but his albeit smaller online audience still holds him accountable for even obviously satirical jokes, as he himself conceded.
With an issue like consent, where so much is still badly misunderstood by so many and awareness is still spreading, having a consistent message is important. Maybe satire will become a helpful tool in discussing consent in the future, but that day is not now. Satirizing consent perpetuates the view of those few who still claim that victims asked for it, that victims should have just said something, or any of the host of other problematic views that still dominate societal norms, and let’s be honest - these views are the last ones that need any more airtime.