Leaving begins with "Yes"

So, if you’re like me, you have been both moved and shaken by the stories that have come out in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal–particularly the powerful Tweets of women sharing both #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft.  Personally, I don’t think it is for any of us to judge any woman, particularly for a decision to “stay,” especially in light of the complex economic, emotional, physical and practical realities that are involved in ending any relationship, particularly an abusive one.  But I will say that I do think it is our job as a society to create a climate in which all women [and men] know they have both the permission and the possibility to get out of an abusive situation, including established and reliable safety nets through which that can actually happen.

This is especially critical for the church, I think:  was any other Christian mortified by the number of Tweets in the “Why I Stayed” category that included fears of religious condemnation, or the counsel from a pastor that divorce is a sin?  The church is doing something very, very wrong if it is conveying the message that an institution is more important to God than an individual, and obedience is more important than personal safety and well-being.

All of that was in my head, then, when I read about the new bill that just passed in California, forcing colleges to adopt new standards while investigating accusations of sexual assault.  This is the deal:  “Universities will now have to apply a rule of ‘yes means yes’, meaning that consent for sexual activity must be affirmative, conscious, and voluntary, and must be ‘ongoing throughout sexual activity and can be revoked at any time’.”  What I love about this is that it puts the burden of proof where it belongs, on the perpetrator and not on the victim:  too many raped and assaulted women have been humiliated by charges that they didn’t say “No” convincingly enough, or strongly enough, often enough; or that because of what they were wearing or how they were acting their “No” wasn’t believable.  Or, even more appalling, that the simple fact of intoxication meant “Yes.”

Not surprisingly, men’s rights groups “have expressed concern that the bill is confusing and impracticable.”  Why wouldn’t they be confused, since men have been led to believe that without a definitive “No” all women are fair game and must “want it.” In its extreme form, it’s the presumption that women are property, without rights of their own, available for the taking to whomever can force them into submission.  In actuality, it’s not confusing at all and never has been:  if you don’t get a clear “yes” from a woman, back off and leave her alone–and as soon as she hesitates or resists, hands off.  And if you are watching all this from the sidelines and you don’t hear a clear “Yes,” get involved.

Somehow, then, as I was putting all this together, I realized that in many ways, leaving and abusive relationship begins months or even years before the relationship starts, with being able to say “Yes”:  “Yes” to one’s own inherent value as a human being; “Yes” to one’s own right to determine what happens to one’s body in a relationship; “Yes” to determine for oneself one’s future, and “Yes” to walk away from a situation where any of those “yeses” are compromised.  A society that demands respect for a woman’s voice–and does not presume to act in the face of her silence–will go a long way to creating a climate where no one has to make that terrible choice of leaving or staying in the first place.

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