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What Terry Richardson Tells Me About the Grey Line of Consent

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Years ago, a college friend set me up with one of his friends, on the suspicion that we would hit it off, and – more significantly – that this gentleman, being a nicer sort than my usual paramour, would be “good for me.” Within fifteen minutes of meeting my friend’s friend, I knew we were not destined for anything long term, but figured that – as the alcohol was free flowing and my apartment just next door – we might as well make a night of it. As it were.

After a few attempts at sex with a condom, seemingly rendered unsuccessful by that old demon whiskey dick, my gentleman caller made the unilateral decision to attempt some condom-free sex with me. To be blunt: without my permission, this nice friend of a friend jammed his unsheathed dick inside of me.

In a perfect world where I was a perfect victim, I suppose I would have thrown a fit and kicked him out. But I didn’t. I asked him to cease and desist, and then I probably engaged in other activities before going to sleep and having brunch with him in the morning.

If I seem fuzzy on the details, it’s largely because this is not an isolated incident: in my many years of dating, this has become a repeated refrain, a nice boy doing a not nice thing. At first it’s shocking and upsetting but, because the mind can only take so much violation without shutting off the part of you that cares, I’ve found it to be ultimately soul deadening.

To be a woman who interacts with men is, far too often, to put up with bad behavior in pursuit of some other goal, because it’s easier or because you were socially coached to or some mix of the two. There is a reason, after all, that the phrase is “Boys will be boys” and not “Girls will be girls.”

This morning I read the New York Magazine Terry Richardson cover story, and what I felt, honestly, was not outrage or anger or anything so much as exhaustion. Scrub away the celebrity flourishes and tales of bukkake parties, and what you have here is nothing more than an everyday, banal sort of story about a man who probably is quite friendly and amiable who – repeatedly and aggressively – makes the common male mistake of projecting his desires and ideas of fun onto everyone else, of confusing consent by attrition with the enthusiastic, full-throated variety.

I do not think that Terry Richardson is a criminal, any more than I think that the number of nice young men who’ve subjected me to less than consensual sexual acts deserve to be in jail. I think that Terry Richardson is a powerful man who benefits from a system that privileges protecting the reputations of men over promoting the safety of women, even young women far too vulnerable to truly advocate for themselves.

We have this idea of rape, or sexual assault if you prefer, as a black and white sort of transgression involving an evil, cartoonish villain who defiles an innocent waif. We have this idea of rape, or sexual assault, as something that is incredibly clear in the moment, of something you know when you see it, of something that isn’t tangled up in all the vagaries and grey areas of every day life: as though rape, alone and by itself, manages to be the one thing in life that’s a very clear matter of right and wrong.

When I think about the men who have done bad things to me, more than often I get a lump in my throat. They are not bad men, really: some of them were, or are, my friends, or friends of friends, and it is hard not to feel that I am culpable in the actions that occurred. I consented to some things, absolutely, and wasn’t that not a suggestion that other things were consented to as well? I said no, sure, but I eventually gave in out of exhaustion, and isn’t that like writing a blank check and offering it up? For everything I know about feminism and theory and the retractability of consent, still and all it is hard not to feel like everything that has happened is, in some way, my fault.

There is a thread of, well, let’s call it victim-blaming, that runs through many of the discussions about Terry Richardson and his prey. These girls – teenage models, many of them, and egged on by agents who promised them star studded careers – should have known what they were walking into, should have made an effort to be better informed, should not have been surprised when the man behind Kibosh placed his dick in their hands. And in some ways, yes: they should have been armed with the knowledge of who they were about to shoot with and what it might entail, but more than that they should have had the actual ability to turn down the shoot and not have it be a career killer. And maybe they should have been able to go on to a set where hesitation wasn’t seen as an invitation for further persuasion, where anything other than an enthusiastic yes is cause for a full stop, no questions asked.

There is a kind of person you meet at parties, one of those sorts who is often referred to as the life of the party. If you, like them, are an outgoing sort of person, they can be a catalyst for an incredible evening of wild, amazing fun, where they encourage you to explore new levels of debauchery you’d never have gone on your own. But if you happen to be the quieter, more mild-mannered sort of person, they can come across as an aggressive bully, wheedling you into doing shot after shot in the name of fun, in the name of a good time, leading you into an uncomfortable evening and ultimately a morning after of pounding headaches and regrets.

Terry Richardson is, I think, that sort of person: and to the Lady Gagas and Alex Bolotows of the world, I’m sure that hanging out with him seems like a grand old time. But we should not let their positive experiences cloud the fact that there are many young models for whom Terry Richardson’s antics aren’t a wild and amazing party; and that we’ve set up a system where saying no comes at a cost — a cost that, in the moment, can seem even higher than the threat of sexual assault.

Or, to be more direct: if I, a grown woman armed with feminism and theory and lectures about consent, have frequently found myself in a position of being badgered into situations I wasn’t comfortable with, of playing nice the next day because it’s how you’re supposed to act, then why are we surprised to learn that numerous young models — with far more on the line than just an uncomfortable conversation with a friend of a friend — couldn’t advocate for themselves against the wishes of Uncle Terry? And, more to the point, why do we still think that it was their responsibility to do so?

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.