Consent: it’s a piece of cake
Being guilt-tripped into eating baked goods is not a matter for the police.
The latest campaign to educate the masses about sexual consent has a cute slogan, ‘consent: it’s as simple as tea’, and a cute video with animated stick figures to illustrate the idea. (The video, based on a blogpost that went viral last March, was made by Blue Seat Studios; there’s also an uncensored version with swear words.) The UK Crown Prosecution Service used the clip last month as part of its #ConsentIs campaign; now, Thames Valley Police have used it as part of their own YouTube public-service announcement. AdWeek calls it ‘brilliant’.
Rule of thumb: If we’re told that an issue widely viewed as complicated is actually incredibly simple… it’s probably not that simple. Mind you, the principles explained in the tea-and-consent clip should be obvious to the average 10-year-old. Take the following: ‘If you say, “Hey, would you like a cup of tea?”, and they’re like, “Uh, you know, I’m not really sure”, then you can make them a cup of tea, or not, but be aware that that they might not drink it. And if they don’t drink it, then – and this is the important bit – don’t make them drink it. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to watch them drink it. And if they say, “No, thank you”, then don’t make them tea. At all.’ Also, just because she said she wanted tea last week, that doesn’t mean she wants it now. And no tea if she’s unconscious. Got that? Piece of cake.
Speaking of which, tea is fine, but if you’re going to use a gastronomic metaphor for sex, shouldn’t it be cake? Cake has connotations of sin, temptation, forbidden pleasure and guilt (at least for the weight-watchers among us). Google ‘sex is like cake’, and you’ll get over 8,000 hits. Google ‘sex is like tea’, and you mostly get references to the ‘tea and consent’ video.
So, let’s say you’re visiting a friend and she asks if you’d like some cake and you say, ‘You know, maybe I would’. So she puts the cake on the table, cuts off a slice and puts it on your plate, and then you think of all the extra calories (or maybe you see that it’s a kind of cake you don’t like), and say, ‘You know… thanks, but I don’t think I should’. No one needs a consent class to understand that if your friend grabs a piece of cake and starts forcibly shoving it in your mouth, they’re committing assault. Shoving cake in someone’s mouth is generally a no-no, unless you’re at a wedding and that person is your newly minted spouse. Ditto for threatening someone with bodily harm unless they eat the damn cake. That’s illegal, you know.
But suppose your friend says, ‘Oh come on, just one slice. It’s really delicious!’ And you say, ‘okay, sure’. Or maybe you keep saying, ‘No, I really don’t feel like it’, and your friend keeps pushing, coaxing and wheedling you until you finally say yes. Maybe she uses guilt: she slaved for hours baking that cake just for you, or made the rounds of a dozen bakeries trying to find the perfect cake! Maybe she tells you you’ve ruined her whole evening, or just sulks and pouts visibly. Finally, you agree to eat the damn cake just to get her off your back. And maybe then she badgers you into having another slice. Or two.
Is your friend being obnoxious? Sure. No one would blame you if you weren’t in a rush to visit that friend again, or complained to mutual friends about how annoying her behaviour was. On the other hand, if you suddenly decided that what your friend did was no different from grabbing you by the nose and forcefeeding you cake when you opened your mouth to breathe, or forcing you to eat the cake at knifepoint… well, your mutual friends would be likely to think there was something wrong with you. And if you walked into a police station with a story about being guilt-tripped or pestered into unwanted cake-eating, they’d laugh in your face and probably tell you off for wasting valuable police time.
When it comes to sexual assault, though, respectable mainstream studies are increasingly relying on definitions that include ‘arguing and pressuring the victim’ into unwanted sex, or ‘using guilt’. On college campuses, there are educational posters asserting that ‘if you have to convince them, it’s not consent’ (obviously, someone doesn’t get the dictionary meaning of ‘convince’!), and ‘if they don’t feel free to say no, it’s not consent’. In the media, we have rape narratives that boil down to ‘I kept saying no but he kept trying until I went along with it’.
And then, of course, there’s the alcohol issue. We can all agree that if you’re passed out or semi-conscious and someone shoves cake in your mouth, that’s assault. But let’s say you have a little too much to drink while at your friend’s place and then you polish off one slice of cake after another. Then a few days later you get on the scale and don’t like what you see. You may be annoyed at yourself for eating all that cake. Maybe you’re also annoyed at your friend because she kept offering you more cake. But are you going to have a sudden epiphany that you were actually forcefed the cake because you were drunk and in no state to make an informed, sober decision to eat it? No, you’re not, and your diet counsellor isn’t going to suggest such a thing, either.
So, to recap:
If someone offers you cake and you say, ‘Oh, I’d love some!’, that’s consent.
If someone offers you cake and you don’t really feel like eating it but say, ‘Sure, I’d love some!’, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, that’s also consent.
If you say, ‘Thanks, but I don’t think so’, and they convince you to change your mind, that’s also consent. It doesn’t matter how many times you said no. It doesn’t matter if your friend was being an obnoxious, guilt-tripping, sulky, passive-aggressive pest. (Well, it matters. It may be a reason to reconsider your friendship. But it’s certainly not a reason to go to the cops.) As long as you were free to refuse the cake without risking some tangible harm, it’s up to you to grow a spine.
If you’re drunk (but sufficiently in control of your faculties to eat cake…), that’s also consent. If you weren’t thinking straight and ate so much cake you were sick the next day, chalk it up as a valuable learning experience.
Now, somebody make the above a public service announcement. I even have a title for the campaign: ‘Consent: it’s a piece of cake.’
Cathy Young is an author and a writer for Reason, Newsday, RealClearPolitics and the Daily Beast.
Picture by: David Clow.