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Why consent is critical: HB 1079

Published on 3/5/2022

What if Bobby Knight’s 1988 words to Connie Chung — “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it” — had been uttered in 2018? Would they have killed his career and his legacy? Those words provide a lens into misconceptions about rape. It is not often violent. It has little to do with sexual pleasure, and everything to do with power or control, and it happens far too often, more often than is reported.

Consider the national statistics. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network) reports shocking averages for the past five years: more than 463,000 women above the age of 12 have been victims of rape and sexual assault in the USA annually. Six of every 10 women will experience a rape or attempted rape. One of every 10 men will have the same experience.

At the heart of the problem is where we set the bar for appropriate and legal sexual activity. When there is minimal protection for victims, then attackers feel free to coerce unwanted sexual intimacy with their targets.

If Indiana passes HB 1079, our state will join nineteen other states and the District of Columbia to ensure that partners consent each and every time they engage in sexual activity. Currently, level one felony rape in Indiana means the attacker used force or the threat of force, or the victim was too mentally disabled or deficient or had been unknowingly given drugs or controlled substances. This definition allows attackers the freedom to coerce their targets, use stealth in sexual encounters and force intimate partners into non-consenting activity.

Sara, whose last name is withheld for her privacy, explained that her first child was the product of non-consensual “stealthing” — the practice of a partner removing a condom intentionally to have unprotected sex. She knows many women who have been coerced into encounters to which they did not agree. In fact, many women know of wives forced into sex. Consider one wife who woke up night after night for years to find her partner penetrating her or using her body for his pleasure, even when she said no. Women have been groomed by male relatives who then compel them to engage in sexual activities. Women in college have been stalked to their rooms or cornered in a space where they’ve been assaulted. Because they were under the influence of alcohol or because the attacker paid for dinner, they are coerced into non-consensual sex. Some of them consented to one kind of activity to find themselves forced mid-way into another activity that they feel is degrading. Some have consented one time and find themselves targeted later because the attacker feels that a one-time “yes” applies forever.

Consent should be normative, baked into our culture, from education at home and in sex-ed to the legal system. Passing HB 1079 signals the shift. No longer is a shrug or involuntary physiological response proof that sex is something given freely and intentionally. Requiring consent changes our culture for the better.

For Sara’s generation, consent has framed how they parent. “Consent is a major foundation in how I parent. If someone doesn’t want to be touched, you don’t touch them. It doesn’t matter if it’s tickling or what. You respect people’s bodies,” said Sara. She noted that we operate in a culture that approves of wearing people down. “If someone has a crush and asks you out, you say no, then other people tell them just keep asking. You will eventually give in because you feel sorry for them, not because you want to.”

She and other women experienced this in their monogamous relationships. One of Sara’s previous partners threatened to kick her out while she was a stay-at-home mother, so she felt she had to give in.

While this law is important to women, reporting sexual assault and rape is complicated for victims. Sara regrets that she didn’t report her attacker, though she knows that for her and most victims the process of reporting is fraught with shame and more bodily invasion. To report, women must submit to having a rape kit gathered for evidence within twenty-four hours. They will face months and years of reliving the humiliation, eventually on the stand, putting their lives on hold while revisiting the trauma. Nevertheless, they support the law.

RAINN reports that only 310 of every 1,000 assaults are reported to police, and only 50 of those lead to an arrest. A mere 28 will result in a felony conviction, and 25 of the perpetrators will be incarcerated. Indiana’s present code 35-42-4-1 doubles the injury, requiring victims to have proof of and recount the use of or threat of force or unwitting use of controlled substances. If the fulcrum is “Did you get verbal consent?” then the law rebalances the power, giving it to both partners, not just one. While it won’t prevent rape by perpetrators who see themselves as stronger, richer, more connected, and protected, it will change the culture around sexual coercion, ensuring sex is something partners consent to.

Indiana’s legislative season ends in two weeks. Call your representatives and ask them to support HB 1079.