There has been a lot of talk about sexual assault since Harvey Weinstein’s 30-year history of harassment and abuse burst into public view earlier this month. Social media feeds sag heavy with a chorus of #MeToo. Our passion for dialogue is fresh, but these are not new issues.
In November 2016, I began documenting the making of podcast The Heart’s new mini season called “No.” It’s an exploration of personal boundaries, consent, and sexual coercion as told through host and creative director Kaitlin Prest’s own experiences. It wasn’t new territory for the award-winning podcast, which routinely delves into true stories of the searingly intimate, sometimes viscerally icky, terrain of sexuality and humanity, but something was different about “No.”
“No” explores the virtually universal (but rarely talked about) experience of having sexual contact that you don’t really want to have. In a culture in which questions of consent have historically been reduced to the seemingly unequivocal “no means no,” and where many a “no” has been policed for its volume and clarity, The Heart asks its listeners to consider the many ways a “no” may be distorted.
The mini season revolves around a confrontational interview between Prest and her friend “Jay” (not his real name), with whom she had a confusing and coercive sexual encounter three years ago. They were hanging out. He made a move. She didn’t want to do more than make out. He pushed. She resisted. He pushed harder. To end the pain of negotiating, Prest compromised her boundary. The two of them masturbated beside each other. She stayed the night (they were friends, right?), and then felt terrible in the morning. Later, when she tried to talk about it to their mutual friends, the story’s consequence seemed to dissolve into mundanity. It sounded like “almost nothing.” “Jay” described it as a “drunken night of masturbation failure” — no big deal.
But The Heart posits that nights like this are a big deal, precisely because they are framed as mundane, as if they’re somehow written into the fabric of our culture. Kaitlin connects what happened with “Jay” to a litany of episodes throughout her youth and early twenties, including coercive sex that Kaitlin accidentally recorded herself having with a man known as “Raoul.” The entire mini season amounts to a comprehensive description of the trauma that can echo throughout a lifetime of sexual contact, no matter how much time passes.
Prest does not consider the experience she had with “Jay” rape, and she’s not sure if it was assault. She leaves that question, and others, open to the listener. It turns out that, even with the advent of affirmative, enthusiastic consent that espouses the dogma that “only yes means yes,” there is still a lot of work to do.
“No” debuted in May, and you can now follow the making of the season in the latest episode of my web documentary series See Here Now. It’s the true story of telling a true story, and you can watch it above.
Recently, I caught up with Kaitlin over Skype, and I asked her about the feedback she’s received since “No” went live, what she thinks of the mainstream understanding of sexual consent, and all of the thoughts that linger after completing such a personal project.
Tell me about the feedback that you've gotten from listeners. What are people talking about?
“We've gotten tons and tons of emails from men. Straight, cis men have written a lot. Somebody wrote recently, ‘I went back in my head to experiences I've had and asked myself, Was that the right thing? or Did she ever say no?’... A lot of people want to talk, you know? A lot of people wrote saying they had similar experiences and saying that they felt relieved that we had given a name to something that they felt … I think that a lot of people relate to this. It's such a huge part of our sexual awakening. I think in places where they have great sex ed, it's still probably part of it, you know? It’s not just about people who cross someone's line, but also: How do you hold your own line? How do you even know what your line is? How do you feel entitled to your line? When do you feel entitled to it, and when don't you? Why?”
I know that there's a difficult line to toe in talking about sexual consent and boundaries and making it hetero- and cis-normative by default. How do you feel about the story you told — a fairly feminine-gendered story — months after having released it?
“There was a lot of investigation into gender and power dynamics that didn't really make it [into the final version of the mini season]. We ended up deciding to stick with the narrative — the story, the plot points, the scenes, and the things that were relevant to my ‘character.’ A lot of that higher level nerding-out over gender and power can feel really didactic and kind of annoying. What we're trying to do with The Heart is make people feel something to the extent that they are curious to dig deeper on their own.
“As much as this story is a coming of age story for myself, it's also the story of me realizing what it means to be socialized as feminine. I grew up feeling really strong and like the gender system didn't apply to me. This is the story of me realizing that it actually does apply to me. There are traces of this old power system still among us. There are still all these things just beneath the surface.
“Whether we're cis or not cis, whether we're gay or straight, we do posture these gender dynamics. I think, at the heart of it, equating masculinity with dominance and naturalizing that — that's the thing that's weird. It can be sexy to perform masculinity and behave dominantly towards a partner, but if we're going to do power play in sex, we should talk about it beforehand.”
What have you been thinking about since the podcast was released?
“Now I can I feel like I actually have perspective on the ‘No’ series in this way that I wasn't able to have when we were just finishing it. And since it's been out, a big thing that I've been doing is defending Jay — which I know people feel complicated about. People have just been texting me and calling me like, ‘He's such a fucking asshole!’ and all that stuff.
“This is what happens when you tell a story: You become a character. You become a plot point. The details of your life become in service of something bigger than you. [Jay] was the bad guy in service of this thing. Do you know what I mean? It just makes me sad that people feel such hate towards him. It bums me out. He did really make himself vulnerable for this [project]. He was down to record, and he was down to let me use the interview, even though he knew that he didn't come off good.”
“I wish he could have came off more complicated. Again, it's just this tiny slice of his person. He didn't rape me. We held him up as the example of all the people that we've been transgressed by, or felt complicated feelings towards.”
Has this project changed the way that you view consent and boundaries and coercion?
“Three years ago when I started working on this, I believed that it was my fault. And I was going to make this whole thing about how, Holy shit, listen to that tape of me trying to say no [to “Raoul”] and being a sex kitten. I suck. I don't even know how to say no. And then I one-eightied, and for a long stretch of the production cycle, I was like, No, man, it's all their fault. I was just getting so basic about it, and being like, Men: It's their fault. They're evil. In the end, I did actually end up landing on a much more nuanced, complicated feeling about it.
“The thing that I know now is that this is going to be something that I will struggle with for the rest of my life. I will always accidentally betray myself in favor of someone else's affirmation. I have to work every day to not do that. I was quite surprised by where we're at on the consent conversation. I was expecting more people to call me out and be like, ‘Oh, you're overreacting.’”
Why do you say that?
“I am often confused about how much progress we've made. Sometimes I find myself assuming that we've made more progress than we have, and I find myself disappointed to see how little progress we've made. And then, on the other hand, I'm pleasantly surprised to see that the response toward Jay sort of gaslighting me was that people were like, ‘That's gaslighting.’
“I don't actually know how people who disagreed with me responded, because no one wrote to me saying that they thought I was overreacting. But every time I got an e-mail, I was afraid of getting that.”
When you make work like this, do you think about what sort of social or cultural moment it's fitting into?
“Yeah, definitely. When I finally put this on the production schedule, I was feeling a bit bummed out, to be honest, because I was like, I wanted to do this project three years ago. It would have been such a groundbreaking piece of work three years ago, and I felt like the conversation around consent had come so far in three years. People are really talking about gender as it relates to consent. But Mitra [Kaboli, senior producer of The Heart] was like, ‘Dude, this shit is going to be a problem for a really long time. This isn't going to get old. This isn't going to get fixed soon. People might be talking about it more, but it's probably still going to be a problem in 20 years.’
“I feel like the general public is ready [to discuss] this type of gray zone, controversial, confusing area. I think people have the tools to go into that nuance. One of the higher-ups at [Public Radio Exchange] — he's, like, a 65-year-old man, you know. Straight man, married, and he was like, ‘Wow, this is The Vagina Monologues of the 21st century.’”
Was it news to him that this was something that so many young people go through?
“That's the thing — no. It sort of transcends generations in that way.”
I've seen this mini season as you adding more definition and identifying different qualities of the water that we're swimming in, so to speak. There’s an interesting thing that gets revealed in the third episode of “No” that you're helping people realize: More than anything, relationships are a negotiation.
“Totally. And I would love to do a piece about consent within relationships. So many people that I interviewed talked about consent within relationships and how confusing that is. When they think of ‘gray zone,’ they think of: ‘So many times my partner wants sex, and I don't, and I go through with it, and it feels icky, but I do it anyway, because they're my partner, and I feel like I should.’”
What surprised you about the process of making this season?
“I'll never forget the moment where I called Jay and told him, ‘I'm doing this story. I'm doing it about us, and I'm going to say everything.’ That was like the most terrifying thing I've ever had to do in my life, without question. I was ready for him to say ‘no’ to me using the interview. And I did tell myself that if he said ‘no’ to me doing a story at all that I would respect that. But I knew that I wasn't going to be asking him permission to be doing this. And it was so terrifying. It was so terrifying. He did give me his blessing, but, again, I know that if I had said, ‘Would you prefer that I not?’ he would say, ‘Yeah, I'd probably really prefer that you not.’
“I surprised myself in that moment. I felt kind of invincible, and I was like, Oh my god, I'm going to be able to stand up for myself all the time from now on.”
How long did that feeling last?
“Like a day — like, less than a day. I thought that I would be able to, with gravitas, confront all of the uncomfortable dynamics in my life, but that just did not happen. It's always going to be a struggle.”
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