The Fabric of Consent

Note from General Director Mark Streshinsky - Jolie O’Dell is our resident hair and makeup designer. Mark asked Jolie, a former professional writer who now writes extensively about the issue of consent, to assist him in the direction of Breaking The Waves in an effort to get this, one of the most difficult themes of the opera, just right. We asked Jolie to write about this issue as it pertains to the opera both to spark conversation and to give survivors an idea of what to expect when they come to a performance.  Warning: Jolie writes very frankly about her experiences.

Many victims of sexual assault live through violent rape. Many do not. Many victims live through grooming and coercion. Many are inebriated, unconscious, or mentally ill at the time of their assault. Many victims do not speak a clear “no”, and some may even have given a clear “yes”.

Take, for example, the character of Bess in Breaking the Waves. She gives verbal consent to Jan and to a string of men on her island before finally submitting herself to the sadistic acts that lead to her death.

But, in art as in life, current understandings of assault and consent leave vast swaths of gray area that are, in many cases, anything but ambiguous.

“Oh come on, it’s not like I held her down and raped her.”

In the fall of 2000, my rapist spoke these words to anyone who would listen. And they were true. He hadn’t forced himself on me violently. Technically, I had consented. I had no bruises on my arms or neck, no visible signs of a physical struggle. 

I was an incredibly sheltered first-year conservatory student. The day before classes started, I had followed my rapist to his hotel room to watch a movie. He locked me inside and proceeded to berate and manipulate me. He left the room to smoke cigarettes, standing outside the door like a sentry each time. When he returned, the volley would continue: “Everyone saw you leave with me. Everyone already thinks you’re a slut. You might as well just say yes and get it over with.” I sobbed and begged for him to let me go back to my dorm. After about six hours of this unrelenting psychological barrage, I muttered “okay”. I left in the morning, tear-stained, numb, and confused about how “consent” could be so unwilling.

The State of Rape in Media

My rapist and I had shared a common understanding of consent as a sort of lightswitch: it’s either on or off, yes or no. Once both parties have said “yes” or anything close to it, consent is legally and indelibly granted, and rape cannot coexist in the same space.

In typical media depictions of rape, we see this understanding of consent played out ad infinitum: boy says “fuck me,” girl says no, violent struggle ensues, and rape occurs. Maybe the girl gets away in time, maybe some Lancelot character charges in and saves the day at the last minute. This is a convenient formula because it’s legally clear. It’s also violent, exciting, and even erotic. It often plays out in media more like a fantasy or caricature of non-consent, than actual non-consensual sex.

In that lightswitch model of consent, Bess is never raped. She at various moments shows clear reluctance, a lack of desire, and a lack of intellectual understanding, but her verbal and physical consent is always present.

In cases such as mine, and in cases such as Bess’s, the concept of consent as a lightswitch is too simplistic and unhelpful. And the trope of violent rape as the only “legitimate” form of rape is equally unhelpful.

For art depicting sexual assault to be of value, it needs to honor the realities of survivors. With a portrayal of a richer, more accurate model of consent, we can understand the deep wounds created by non-violent rape and the needs of survivors.

The Fabric of Consent

If consent is more complex than a switch, perhaps it’s better understood as a fabric. A fabric can be strong or fragile. It can wear thin, so thin you can see the light through it. It can be robust, study, and warm. It can be examined for tears and frayed spots; it can even be mended. But it must be cared for properly, if its integrity is to be safeguarded.

The fabric of consent is woven in the psyche. Its threads are mental health, intellectual understanding, clear-headedness, desire, enthusiasm, reliable information about the world around us, our intentions and the intentions of our partners. Snag one thread from the tapestry, and you create a weakness. Pull more threads away, and the fabric disintegrates.

Awareness of the integrity of this fabric is the responsibility of all parties involved in any sexual encounter. We are the custodians of our own consent, but we also share an obligation to maintain the fabric of others’ consent when we wrap ourselves in their fabric.

When you see a potential partner getting too drunk, you are watching the threads of their consent slip away. When they are unconscious, when they are delusional, when they agreed to less than you want to do, when they begin to weep in the middle of a sex act, you risk becoming the sexual aggressor. You don’t have to hold someone down to rape them. You simply have to not notice or care that the fabric of their consent has worn down to a point beyond integrity.

Breaking the Waves: A Conversation Piece

Bess’s consent is worthy of our discussion. Every time she experiences a sex act, we can hold her consent up to the light, put ourselves in her shoes and in those of her partners. Where does her consent appear strongest? When is it weakest, and why? Does her delusional thinking change the integrity of her consent? If so, to what extent can mentally ill individuals be trusted to make sexual decisions, and what burden does this place on their partners?

These are nuanced questions that may lead to heated debates. And these are the questions we should be discussing rather than sitting silently in the theatre and allowing yet another violent, eroticized rape scene wash over us in the dark.

Rape is not a topic for entertainment. In the past, I’ve personally been opposed to any depiction of rape onstage. But in the midst of a sexual assault crisis in the performing arts and entertainment industry, I am beginning to feel that rather than omitting assault stories from the stage entirely, we owe it to survivors to portray assault thoughtfully and honestly.

It is the hope of our entire production team that this presentation of Breaking the Waves will inspire many conversations about the nuanced nature of consent. You will see Bess’s journey depicted with sensitivity to survivors who will be in the audience; the scene involving violent rape will be abstracted. But we invite you to also consider the rape that occurs beforehand as such; even in the absence of physical violence, there is deep psychological violence inherent in tearing through the fabric of another person’s consent.

Jolie O'Dellbreaking