In the endless debates over sexual assault in this country, there is one thing most people seem to agree on: If you have sex with someone after they've said "no," it's rape. Except in North Carolina.
The law there dictates that once someone has said "yes" to sex, she cannot change her mind afterwards. Not if she has a cramp, not if she's tired, not if it hurts, and not—as was the case last week with one teenage victim in the state—if her partner becomes violent.
It defies all logic: Who else besides a rapist would continue to have sex with an unwilling partner? Are we really telling women that after they consent once, all bets are off?
[pullquote align='C']North Carolina's standard on consent is not just an unfortunate reminder of the misogynist way women used to be viewed, it's a reflection of how America treats them right now.[/pullquote]
After the tremendous progress Americans have made on sexual assault issues in the last decade—from "yes means yes" legislation to increased awareness and protests—laws like this one can seem like an anomaly. But North Carolina's standard on consent is not just an unfortunate reminder of the antiquated, misogynist way women used to be viewed, it's a reflection of how America treats them right now.
We cannot lull ourselves into believing that common-sense ideas about rape are also commonly-held.
We live in a time when a man accused of sexual assault or harassment by more than 20 women can be elected president. Or when a celebrity accused of raping over 60 women—a man who has admitted to drugging them—can walk free.
Shonda Rhimes Reacted to Bill Cosby's Plans to Teach Seminars on Avoiding Sexual Assault
Campus Confidential: How Colleges Continue to Keep Rape Cases in the Shadows
All the Chilling Parallels Between 'The Handmaid's Tale' and Life for Women in Trump's America
After Bill Cosby's sexual assault case ended in a mistrial, one juror suggested that he doubted the accuser because her stomach was showing at the time of the alleged attack. "Let's face it," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer, "she went up to his house with a bare midriff and incense and bath salts. What the heck?"
It's easy to forget people still believe this. They believe that if a woman wears a skirt, or shows her stomach, that she's sending a message about her sexual availability. They believe that if you say you want sex one time, that means you always want it.
Not just our thinking, but our laws, too, are mired in old-school noxiousness. An appeals court in Oklahoma, for example, ruled just last year that oral sex with a victim who is unconscious is not rape because such an act does not constitute "force." Somehow, the inability to fight back is actually a legal boon for rapists.
And like North Carolina, Maryland had a law until 2008 that said a woman couldn't revoke sexual consent after it was initially given. (Just as shocking was the reasoning behind the law: It was based on a 1980 court ruling decreeing that after penetration—what they called the "de-flowering" of a woman—"the damage was done.")
[pullquote align='C']That continuing to have sex with someone who says "no" is wrong should be obvious and inarguable.[/pullquote]
North Carolina's law is also based on a decades-old decision, and a state legislator is trying to amend it to make clear that consent can be withdrawn. But in the meantime, multiple women have been unable to prosecute their rapists. In 2010, for example, charges against a high school football player were dropped because of the law; this year a woman was unable to follow through with a rape case against her husband for the same reason. And now, a 19 year-old woman has gone public—revealing her name and story—after finding out that she couldn't prosecute her alleged attacker. The young woman says she willingly started to have sex with a man at a party, but told him to stop after he became violent.
"It's really stupid," she told a local newspaper. "If I tell you 'no' and you kept going, that's rape."
There are certain things most of us know are wrong, no matter what a law says. Continuing to have sex with someone who says "no" is one of those things. It should be obvious and inarguable. But being right isn't enough—not until this country and culture stop giving rapists the benefit of the doubt at all costs. Until then, we're all wrong.
Jessica Valenti is a contributing editor to MarieClaire.com—read her weekly column here.
Jessica Valenti is a columnist and author of five books on feminism, politics, and culture. Her latest book, Sex Object: A Memoir, was a New York Times bestseller. Valenti is also editor of the ground-breaking anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and the founder of Feministing.com, which Columbia Journalism Review called “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” She has a Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker's Love "Will Continue to Run Deep," Tarot Reader Says
The newlyweds just shared photos from their wedding.
By Iris Goldsztajn
The 15 Best Comedy Movies on Hulu
For when you just need a good laugh.
By Megan DiTrolio
The Spring 2022 Handbag Trends to Get Excited About
The humble bucket bag is back.
By Sara Holzman
The Supreme Court's Mississippi Abortion Rights Case: What to Know
The case could threaten Roe v. Wade.
By Megan DiTrolio
Sex Trafficking Victims Are Being Punished. A New Law Could Change That.
Victims of sexual abuse are quietly criminalized. Sara's Law protects kids that fight back.
By Dr. Devin J. Buckley and Erin Regan
My Family and I Live in Navajo Nation. We Don't Have Access to Clean Running Water
"They say that the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Why are citizens still living with no access to clean water?"
By Amanda L. As Told To Rachel Epstein
30 Ways Women Still Aren't Equal to Men
If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, show them these statistics.
By Megan Friedman
Today, on Human Rights Day, the U.S. Must Abolish Child Marriage
In all but six states, American adults can marry people aged 17 and younger.
By Saryn Chorney
Cory Booker and Rosario Dawson's Relationship Is No More
After three years of dating, the power couple have decided they're better off as friends.
By Marie Claire Editors
Education for Women and Girls Is Crucial for Climate Justice
In an excerpt from her new book, 'A Bigger Picture,' Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate discusses the impact educated African women and girls can have on solving the climate crisis.
By Vanessa Nakate
It’s Time to End Equal Pay Days and Pass the Equal Rights Amendment
The passage of the ERA is a chance for our country to prove it truly values women.
By Hala Ayala