Sex, Consent & Video TapePosted: March 27, 2012
If you’ve never heard of Tulisa Contostavlos, you’re right where I was 7 days ago. The 23-year-old, I’ve since learned, was a member of N-Dubz and a judge on the last series of The X Factor. I’ve also learned that, a few years ago, she and her then-boyfriend Justin Edwards made a video of her giving him a blowjob. This last detail became, according to the British press, newsworthy when said video was released online last Monday. Things actually got interesting on Thursday, when Contostavlos posted her response on YouTube. Describing herself as “deeply betrayed”, the star names and shames, accusing Edwards of releasing the footage, and categorically denies that she has done anything wrong.
While I’m generally not too concerned with celebrity sex scandals, I’d like to make some observations on the discourse around this episode. Firstly, I want to note my great respect for Tulisa’s reaction. I won’t go into this in-depth as Eva Wiseman’s done a great job of explaining its significance (and awesomeness):
“Sex tapes are not uncommon, but what is rare is for their female star to be unapologetic on their release. To discuss ideas of shame, intimacy, consent and privacy, instead of agreeing to a sad-faced interview in the Sun, pictured in polo-neck and natural makeup to denote modesty – that’s unusual. There’s no shame in happy sex, Tulisa asserts. The shame should lie with the person who uses it as currency against his partner’s wishes, who uses a record of it as a weapon. She’s not in the wrong for having sex, for enjoying sex, or for being filmed – her (until now anonymous) ex should be ashamed for betraying her, embarrassing her and attempting to damage her career.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself – so I won’t try. What I want to do is hone in on the issue of consent, and draw out some connections between the way this debacle has been discussed, and common rhetoric around sexual violence.
When the video was circulating, many tweets and comments condemned Tulisa as a “slut,” a “chav slut”, a “Dreadful girl […] and common as muck!” (analysis of the intersection of sexism and classism surrounding this story here). Some men felt entitled to critique the video as though it were porn made for their personal consumption (YouTube comments include: “5 out of 10 for your head game,try spitting on it more”; “boring … it was a waste of a wank”; “I’m surprised she wasn’t better. Surely she’s downed enough dinkle to get where she is now”). The world is full of haters. The internet is their playground. No surprises so far.
I was interested, though, in the supportive messages, comments and tweets of this nature: “I respect tulisa for posting that video and confronting the issue but I’ll never get why you’d let someone film that in the first place.” Online and in conversation, I’ve noticed this time and again: disgust that the video was leaked, sympathy for her embarrassment, and respect for her response – all underpinned by an implicit agreement that in making the video to begin with Tulisa was, if not in the wrong, then at the very least, foolish.
If I’m honest, I don’t understand why she made the film, but I also don’t understand foot fetishes. Sexual desire is profoundly subjective, and whether you get off on the same things as someone should not be a determinant for respecting their rights. We can only assume that Tulisa and Justin got off on making this film. They were two consenting adults, hurting no-one. In her video, Tulisa describes feeling “violated” by what has happened, and makes clear that she did not consent to the video being distributed.
The understanding that it was “stupid” of her to make a video that she didn’t want distributed implies that, when it comes to sex and violation, it is stupid for women to trust men. Men will violate women eventually, given half a chance; women should know better than to put themselves at risk. This premise is what connects the discourse around the Tulisa saga to deeply entrenched ideas about gender, sexuality and violation: ideas that shift blame from (male) perpetrator to (female) survivor.*
Why would you make a video like this if you don’t want it going viral?
Why would you work as a stripper if you don’t want to sexually harassed?
Why would you get drunk and lapdance if you don’t want to be a sex object for 9 guys?
Why would you fantasise about consensual group sex if you don’t want to be gang-raped?
Sometimes it seems that each time a woman consents to sexual activity, she is chipping away at the sympathy and credibility that will be offered to her should she one day be violated. I’m not saying that what happened to Tulisa is “the same” or “as bad” as what happened to these women. I’m saying, in this context, it’s hardly surprising that a woman who consented to make a sex video is subtly held accountable when it is non-consensually shared with millions of people.
Using the consent of all parties as the sole barometer for the acceptability of any given sexual act is a radical move, because it requires us to dispense of other moral frameworks. Carla Buzasi, of the Huffington Post, champions Tulisa as a “new feminist icon”, but writes:
“why should she apologise for making the tape? This wasn’t some seedy one-night stand in the alley behind a night-club, she was in a relationship with the man she thought she might marry, and who’s to comment what’s right and what’s wrong behind bedroom doors in that case.”
Hmm… In that case. Is it just me, or is Buzasi implying that if it’s outside of a socially normative (loving, committed, long-term) relationship, commenting on the right and wrong of someone’s sex life is fair game? And, furthermore, that Tulisa would have something to apologize for had this video been made in the context of a one-night stand? Personally, I don’t think someone needs to apologize for being sexually violated, whether it’s by a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, someone they’ve hooked up with in what Carla Buzasi deems “seedy” circumstances, or any other person.
The issue is not whether or not we approve of the relationship, or whether we would make that kind of video ourselves: the issue is that it was shared without her consent. By highlighting this in her video, Tulisa creates a position from which to name her experience of betrayal and violation while refusing the victim-blaming and slut-shaming discourses encircling her. I hope others can follow her example.
*Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that all survivors of sexual violence/violation are female, nor all perpetrators male. I’m focusing here on specific ways in which female survivors are held accountable for male perpetrators’ actions – which don’t always map onto sexual assaults with different gender dynamics.