I am interviewing Tara Mandemaker about the importance of sexual consent. Tara is 23 years old and has studied BA International Studies and MSc Latin America Studies at Leiden University. Last year, she started working at Rabobank, which she did not expect given her study background, but she likes her job. In her spare time, she likes to work out and go to the cinema. She loves to volunteer whenever she gets the opportunity to do so. Tara is interested in working as an activist at Amnesty International for the public campaign #LetsTalkAboutYES. With the campaign Amnesty wants to initiate a dialogue about sex and consent among young people and to change the law on rape. Now, if there are no signs of coercion or violence, a person has not been raped by law.
S: Tara, you have chosen this topic yourself for this interview. Why is it important to you?
T: Amnesty’s #LetsTalkAboutYES campaign is about changing the law on rape. The law as it was before, did not fully protect victims of sexual abuse and violence, because coercion was not explicitly mentioned, and the absence of violence meant that it was not seen as rape. In November 2020, a few months ago, Minister Grapperhaus criminalized “sex against will” in a new bill on rape. This criminalizes all forms of involuntary sex. I am happy with this, but the dialogue that needs to take place about the sex culture is still lacking. The law is about saying ‘no’, if someone has clearly said no then something can be punished. While the campaign focuses on saying “yes” and therefore giving explicit consent, because research has shown that involuntary sex causes a shock and freeze reaction. As a result, they do not say “no”. And with that, it becomes difficult to prove involuntary sex / rape. This requires a different way of thinking because the focus is not on finding out if someone does not want to have sex, but on whether the person gives permission and wants to have sex. I think it is important that the victims of sexual abuse are better protected by the law and that is why I want to commit to this. I also think it is important to change the law on rape so that it is in line with the European standard, which is based on consent rather than refusal when it comes to sex and sexual behaviour.
S: What problems are there now when it comes to sexual consent?
1. When it comes to rape, it is often assumed to be a “stranger jumping out of the bushes”, while women are often raped by a friend or partner. There is often no question of physical violence, which is why there was a lot of criticism on the old law. And as I just said, Amnesty has found that 70% of women freeze in a rape situation. They want to flee but cannot do so.
2. It is often assumed that men always want sex and therefore cannot be raped. I spoke to a friend about this, he has a brother who is homosexual. His brother once met a boy. He is small himself and not that muscular, but that boy was big and muscular. He did not want to have sex, but that boy did not let him go and forced him to have sex. How can you prove that that’s rape?
S: What does sexual consent mean to you?
T: That both parties say YES they want each other. And it is also important that you indicate that they are allowed to do this, and that the other person adheres to it. For example, someone saying “yes, I want to, but this is how far you can go”, basically the person indicates a boundary, and the other person needs to respect that. This must be mutual.
S: Why do women and men have difficulty giving sexual consent?
T: When I talk about myself, when I am busy with someone and somewhere in between I think “I don’t want to do it anymore” then I find it difficult to say that, because I have the feeling that it is already expected of me. I do not want to disappoint or hurt the other person. I do not know if that is also the case for men.
S: Yes, it could be that you feel like it, but you suddenly change your mind. You have already given an impression that you want to and at such a moment it is difficult to step over that threshold to say that to the other person. People often do not do that and just continue.
T: It happened to me twice that I did something that I did not want to. I had stayed with a boy once and he asked if I wanted to take off my underwear. I said that I would rather not. And then he said if you don’t then I can throw you out on the street. I didn’t want to be put out on the street, so I gave in. Nothing happened after that, but it was not a pleasant experience.
Another time I was cuddling with a boy and then he asked, what are we going to do now? I thought he wanted sex, but I wanted to keep cuddling and walking or doing something relaxed with him. When I proposed to go for a walk, he said “I did that yesterday”, and then I didn’t know at the time what else to suggest except for sex. Thinking he wanted sex and wouldn’t be okay with another activity, I gave in to that. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to. I was thinking and assuming a lot, so it’s important to clearly state expectations in advance. This way you can avoid situations where you seem to feel that you must do something.
S: How can it be solved?
1. I think the whole view of sex and sexual consent should be changed. You have to look at whether someone wants to and that is more pleasant for both parties anyway. Oh, this person wants me, and I want them too. That you really know from each other that you both want it and that it is explicitly mentioned. Otherwise, it is based on expectations and interpretations.
2. Most of the perpetrators are men. Men do not speak up about their emotions. There is a macho culture based on boasting. If there is no success, then they do not talk about it. In my opinion, people barely talk about consent with each other. I think that’s the pitfall. They don’t talk about it because it can be a bit uncomfortable or they don’t think about it. When they notice that someone doesn’t want to have sex, they sometimes stop, but they don’t talk a “failed” experience with their friends. Some men notice that someone suddenly no longer wants to have sex, but then they coerce to continue. They then prioritize their own needs. It is important that men hold each other accountable for inappropriate behavior and that they are held accountable for their inappropriate actions. One of my ex’s friends touched the buttocks of a girl he didn’t know during King’s Day. I thought that was really disgusting and I was also like, why don’t you say anything to your friend? Instead of laughing along, why don’t they call out on someone?
S: I have also indicated in previous interviews that it is important that men confront each other about inappropriate behaviour. If you say something about it as a woman, you are often not taken seriously.
S: What can women do about the problem?
T: I think saying whether you want or not want to have sex should be normalized at all stages. Women have to speak up about whether or not they want sex and that should be the most normal thing in the world. For men too, of course. As I said it has to be mutual, but I’m just emphasizing it for women now as the question is being asked to them. It’s okay to say no. Set your limits. And it is also important to keep in mind that you must also ask a man for permission for certain actions. I have often had that I was already busy and that I said if you don’t like it, then you should say it. But I didn’t ask in advance: do you want me to do this? This is also about a different way of thinking, from what you do not want to what do you want.
S: What is next?
T: We need to engage in the conversation about sexual consent so that more people are aware of their actions and their own perception. Make sure that you know that the other person wants to sleep with you, keep setting your boundaries and respect each other’s boundaries. Keep sex enjoyable and fun for everyone.