ColumnTerry Richardson’s long history of sexual predation is repugnantly, exhaustingly common. But it provides the occasion for us to explore the murky, complex issue of consent – and its deep implications for your sex life.
Men like Richardson often get a pass (until some get their collective comeuppance) because we don’t like to talk about the use and abuse of power. This power is everywhere all the time, lurking in your interactions with friends, family, co-workers – and lovers. Because it can feel so toxic and impolite to bring it up, and because we’re so afraid of being left and/or rejected – we tend to keep our concerns to ourselves until they blow up in our face.
Our deeply unhealthy relationship with power allows the usual suspects — white, heterosexual, cisgendered men — to wield it with impunity. The question posed by the title of last week’s New York Mag article: “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” offers a patently false dichotomy. It is not a measure of whether he’s an artist OR a predator, but rather a question of whether he can be both. Can famous male artists be predators? Of course they can. Any guy can be what he is (entrepreneur, waiter, freelance writer, accountant) and still be a predator.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen Richardson out around New York City a number of times, and he’s always got a very unsettling look in his eyes as he scans the room, presumably, for victims. His energy is not unlike that of (the recently fired) Dov Charney or Vincent Gallo. If you dig behind the headlines, you’ll often find that manboys like this manipulate people because they felt powerless as children. The article seems to want to excuse Richardson because of his difficult childhood – which is absurd, but again – achingly common in response to stories like this. Boys will be boys, goes the stock phrase.
Richardson certainly doesn’t think he’s a predator – he believes he’s an artist and a thumbs-up fun guy who knows how to dish up the subversive side of life. He justifies his behavior for the art – saying it pushes people’s boundaries. His modus operandi: shoving his penis in model’s faces without warning and coaxing them into faux and real blowjobs during and after photo shoots – that’s “just for the art.” Simply because he can get away with it, Richardson doesn’t have to think about his power, born of his white-guy artist privilege – he just works it. It’s all about casual entitlement.
This story is not just about whether meaningful consent was given in Richardson’s notorious photo shoots, and whether he’s guilty. (Of course he is.) It’s about whether we understand the meaning of consent at all. Because sexual agency for girls who will become women is so very fraught, we are completely confused about how to say no, and what it might mean for us when we do. Teen girls who say no are shamed as prudes, barred from being popular. Those who say yes are slut-shamed. (Note that these are usually weak yeses and noes – not the kind we’re aiming for.) The internalization of the Madonna-Whore complex sadly starts around puberty, and unless we do something about it – each of us individually, in our own lives – the cycle will never end.
Why are so many women afraid to say no to men like Richardson? I’m not just talking about models whose careers might be at stake. Why are we so often scared to say no to the men we meet, go on dates with, take home, or don’t take home? Why are we sometimes afraid to say no to our live-in partners? I would argue, in part, that this is because we’ve never been taught how to properly say yes.
Here’s why we often say nothing when our instinct says NO. Because when you rebuff them, men like Richardson will claim it’s because you’ve got sexual hang-ups. If you refuse to succumb, you’ll be called a tight-ass. He’ll suggest, or tell his friends, that you don’t know, or even want to know, your own sexual self. He’ll claim his interest in your body is a gift, a form of liberation and leadership – he just wants to show you the way. But you don’t need to be taught “the way” – your sexual self-knowledge is built on you finding your own way.
Warning: these men aren’t just tattooed hipsters with requisite muttonchops. They come in various stylistic guises. Watch out in yoga class – Richardsons are commonly wannabe gurus – they hang out at Burning Man, too.
Part of the reason we’re conditioned this way is that sexual assault is so common that it’s become a kind of morbid rite of passage for girls and women – I know few who haven’t been violated in some form. We still think of rapists as the men who might grab us in a dark alley, for whom we must have our mace and rape whistle ready. But the far more common kind of rape – date rape – regularly goes unreported and unremarked upon, simply because it’s so ubiquitous. This is yet another reason we’re so often paralyzed between our yeses and our noes; there is a continuum of assault and mass confusion about consent.
The dictionary defines “consent” as: to permit, approve, or agree; comply or yield.
Even as we’re not quite sure of how to define our boundaries, we couch our concept of consent mostly in terms of no. Being surrounded by enabled predators will do that to you. But what if young girls, right around the time of their first period, were offered an entirely new rite of a passage — one that put pleasure at the center? What if we taught them that it’s not just boys who want and need sex? What if we were honest about their body’s capacity for world-rocking, shame-free orgasms? What if we showed them a map for being the subject, not the object, of desire?
Before we can get to the healthy, full-throated “yes” that will improve our relationships, our sex lives, and our self-esteem — we have to understand why and when we first learned to say no. Because our first no was likely weak and based on fear, not desire, we have a lot of unlearning to do. So even if you’re twenty years beyond your first period — you can still own this rite of passage. Part of the map for adult women is exploration of the concept of enthusiastic consent – popularized in the book “Yes Means Yes.”
Our culture heartily endorses the Richardsons of the world. Because, in fact, they mostly run the world. They at least run the world of advertising, which is a kind of mental matrix for all of us, as we’re exposed to it 24/7. When it comes to warped images of female form and function, it’s hard to distinguish if it’s real or if it’s Memorex. So it takes work — an intentional rewiring of your brain.
Predators like Terry Richardson are everywhere. But you don’t have to define your sex life by their distorted standards – you can create your own. In doing so, we can eventually create a level, healthy, safe and pleasurable playing field.
Keep in touch with Stefanie on Twitter: @ecosexuality
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Image: Disrupting Dinner Parties