Consent Workshops and What a Rapist “Looks Like” | Vol. 2 / No. 51.5

Well a lot of rapists look like you, so...
Well a lot of rapists look like you, so…


I recently reread Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” for roughly the billionth time. As always I was struck by the simple but profound underpinning of the piece: oppressors don’t always realize they are oppressors. Those with privilege are, in fact, carefully trained to remain unconscious and oblivious to the many, many things that happen in their life that give them advantages over another group. They have the privilege to live in ignorance of their own privilege. At a certain point, you start to feel like the kid from the Sixth Sense: “I see [privileged] people. They don’t even know that they’re [privileged].”

Most of the time, these blissfully ignorant people go about their lives being blissfully, but quietly, ignorant. Maybe they’ll be lucky enough to have someone talk to them about intersectionality and white/male/wealth/etc. privilege, and maybe, if they’re a good person, they’ll listen. However, in the same way that a poltergeist decides to be a ghost, but violently so, some people decide to be violently, and loudly, ignorant of their own privilege.

Enter George Lawlor.

George is your average, everyday student going to university in the UK. But unlike his fellow students, he is angry. Angry that anyone, anywhere, could believe that people in this world are not aware of consent. And angry that anyone would dare to send him an invitation to a consent workshop. George Lawlor, incidentally, is now what we should think about whenever we hear the term “male privilege,” because he is vigorously defending his right to not have to think about the things that women have to think about every day of their fricking lives. After being merely invited to an “I Heart Consent Training Session” event via Facebook message, Lawlor threw a misguided, obscenity-laced fit in an editorial. Among his chief complaints:

  • It’s insulting to acknowledge that anyone is capable of being a rapist. The very fact that he was invited to the event was a “massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face. To be invited to such a waste of time was the biggest insult I’ve received in a good few years. It implies I have an insufficient understanding of what does and does not constitute consent and that’s incredibly hurtful. I can’t stress that enough.” Hear that everyone? It’s very hurtful for anyone to imply that he is capable of rape. Hurtful. Probably not as hurtful as actually being raped, but it’s apparently been years since anyone has even approached being hypothetically critical of him.
  • Everyone totally already knows about consent, and therefore we should never talk about it again. Lawlor, in particular, has no need to be taught anything about consent: “I don’t have to be taught to not be a rapist. That much comes naturally to me, as I am sure it does to the overwhelming majority of people you and I know. Brand me a bigot, a misogynist, a rape apologist, I don’t care. I stand by that.” Okay dude. Your words, not mine. But yeah, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the young man who calls an invitation to a consent training event a “bitchy slap in the face” is a misogynist.
  • Consent is totally clear, even when it isn’t: “I also know about those more nuanced situations where consent isn’t immediately obvious as any decent, empathetic human being does. Yes means yes, no means no.”
  • He doesn’t look like a rapist. He is holding up a sign that says so, and then plaintively asks, “Do I really look like a rapist?” We’ll get back to this question later, but the short answer is: yes. That is the point of consent workshops. Also, it’s super funny, because there was that thing where women held up signs that said “This is what a feminist looks like” and now he feels attacked by feminists so he’s holding up a sign that says…. No, you’re right, it isn’t funny, it’s stupid.
  • The only people who will go to a consent workshop are people who already know what consent is, so it will be an “echo chamber” of people who agree that consent is a good thing. The horrors.
  • The people who are running the workshops are totally wasting their time doing this one concrete thing to try and address rape culture, and they’re totally only doing it to make themselves feel better. They should be spending their time in better, ambiguous ways: “They could be making a difference by actually going out and campaigning, volunteering and caring for other people. Instead they selfishly make themselves feel better by indulging in the delusion that all that’s needed to save the vulnerable from foul predators is to point out the blindingly obvious.”
  • Anyone trying to teach a consent workshop is an arrogant, selfish monster who has no faith in their peers. Also, the best way to establish how mature and capable of understanding of consent you are is to curse at activists: “Next time you consider inviting me or anyone else to another bullshit event like this, have a little respect for the intelligence and decency of your peers. You might find that’s a more effective solution than accusing them of being vile rapists-in-waiting who can only be taught otherwise by a smug, righteous, self-congratulatory intervention.”

….Kay. Um. Couple of things.

To address Lawlor’s question, yes, he looks like a rapist. Because there is no one way a rapist “looks.” The idea of a rapist being a weirdo lurking in the shadows waiting to prey upon unwary girls (or as Lawlor puts it, a “foul predator”) is largely a myth. Roughly 80% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. The rapist is often a friend or acquaintance of the victim, and sometimes it’s even a family member. About 50% of rapes occur within a mile of the victim’s home, or even in their home. About one third of the time, the rapist is also intoxicated. One of the major purposes of the types of consent workshops that Lawlor is so huffy about is dispelling the myth that rapists are all creepy strangers and are easily identifiable. A lot of rapists are young, white, average looking males…. like Lawlor. This isn’t to say that Lawlor is himself a rapist, but to say that holding up a sign saying “this is not what a rapist looks like” is a really freaking dumb thing to do because yeah, that’s what a rapist can look like.

To address  Lawlor’s point that he believes that he, and the majority of male humans, perfectly understand consent and have no need for a workshop because they are naturally empathetic, decent human beings…. ha. Hahahaha. No. One of the biggest problems with rape culture is that most individuals have a very narrow understanding of what constitutes rape, and a lot of the “grey area” stuff that is still, in fact, rape gets classified as “non-rape” in their heads. One study (with an admittedly small sample size of 86) of college-aged (American) men found that 13.6% of men would follow through with “intentions to rape a woman” if there were no consequences attached (which is freaking terrifying enough) but that 31.7% said that if they wouldn’t be punished for it, they would pursue their “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse.” That means that an extra 20% of men admitted that they would rape a woman if it is not called rape. Essentially calling rape “surprise sex” should not result in a tripling of the amount of men willing to partake in it.

On top of the inherent linguistic/psychological problems of men not being able to connect the idea of “forcible intercourse” with “rape,” young men rarely, if ever, are spoken to about consent or even generally how not to be raped or be rapists. Conversely, if you ask any woman you know what she has been told about “how not to get raped,” I can almost guarantee that the woman in question will have at least one tip that she received about how to avoid rape. When YoungFeminist!Elle was tasked with an examination of “close to home” gender norms and decided to ask her family members about rape and rape culture (because I have always had super uplifting ideas for research projects) my mother was able to recite a laundry list of things that she had been told, or that she told me, about how to avoid abduction and/or rape. I was able to come up with even more that my mom had told me from basically the ages of 5 on, starting with “don’t wear clothing with your name on it or strangers will pretend like they know you and take you away,” rounding the curve of my teenage years with “walk to your car with your keys splayed out in your hand so you can defend yourself if you’re attacked,” and finishing up in my college years with “never accept a drink that you didn’t personally see get mixed. Carry a spare Dr. Pepper in your purse if you have to.” So basically, I was supposed to go through life as a low-budget Wolverine with an obvious Dr. Pepper fixation and an aversion to T-shirt airbrushing stalls at the county fair. When I asked my dad and (former) stepdad what they had been told about how not to be rapists or how to avoid being raped, their answer was “….um, nothing.” Basically, it went like this:


I know that personal anecdotes about how the perception of rape and consent is sometimes tricky are not replacements for facts and data, but lookie, I have some of those things, too! A 2007 study by Terry Humphries found that men were more likely than women to read areas of ambiguous consent as being actual consent, and were more likely to prefer assuming consent was present and continue on with sexual activity until told otherwise, while women were more likely to prefer to obtain consent before sexual activities took place (312). A 2006 study by Debra L. Oswald and Brenda L. Russell found that both men and women were unlikely to rate scenarios of sexual aggression within a dating relationship as particularly aggressive even when physical force is used, indicating that these behaviors are seen as “normal” in a dating relationship (93). Meanwhile, a 2008 study found that programs aimed at improving college students’ understanding of consent were most effective when students were able to participate in discussions of sexual consent and to explore real-world implications of sexual consent policies, and that the programs were also more effective when some of the focus was on promoting positive sexual behaviors, such as the “importance of consent to healthy relationships” (86). Now, if only there were some kind of program that seemed to encourage active discussion of sexual consent and emphasized positive aspects of consent… maybe they could do a workshop, and call it something friendly-sounding, like “I Heart Consent”…. It would be great if something like that existed, wouldn’t it?

The purpose of consent workshops is not to convince all of the participants that they are “vile rapists-in-waiting.” The purpose is to elucidate what can honestly be a pretty confusing topic, one that is made worse by the combination of alcohol, hormones, and shoddy sexual education that is fairly common among college students. The fact that George Lawlor is offended by the idea that he might need a lesson about consent shows how little George Lawlor thinks about consent in his daily life. He has the privilege to go through life willfully ignorant of the serious effects of misunderstood sexual consent. He’s not the victim of a hateful attack, he’s an example of what happens when you grow up thinking that the only experience and the only voice that is important is your own. George Lawlor is the type of person this workshop was meant to address and help: people who don’t consider themselves to be rapists, but think that consent falls into a simple “yes means yes, no means no” binary.

So I’m going to ask Lawlor to follow his own advice. Instead of  wasting his time writing a “smug, righteous, self-congratulatory” letter about how he knows sooooooo much about consent and how these poor little activists are wasting their time, he should be “making a difference by actually going out and campaigning, volunteering and caring for other people.” Maybe if he volunteers for a rape crisis center, or campaigns to address the UK’s abysmal rape conviction statistics (there are only about 1,070 rape convictions in the UK each year, despite an estimated 12,000 men and 85,000 women being raped in Wales and England each year) then he could put all of his supposed expertise in the realm of consent to good use.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain the value of consent workshops to the privileged, she studies gender in popular culture.