Island Activist Pushes for New Definition of Consent

Long before the #metoo movement ignited a national public reckoning over sexual assault and harassment by men with power, Island advocate Joyce Short was writing and speaking about the issue of informed consent and the trauma associated with its abuse at the hand of someone close to you.

“Together we can shut down rape mentality,” says Short. “Define consent in our penal code as freely given, knowledgeable, and informed agreement, and contact your local legislators to sign it into law.”

On May 20, Short will present a TEDx talk entitled “When ‘Yes’ Means ‘No,’ the Truth About Consent” at a Catholic high school in Wilmington, Delaware. The 15-minute talk draws from her own painful experiences with the subject and argues for the need to create a national, legal definition of sexual consent. Last week, she offered Islanders a preview of the talk at the Roosevelt Island Senior Center.

Watch the TEDx talk.

Short’s advocacy for victims of sexual abuse started in 2013 after the publishing of her first book, Carnal Abuse by Deceit: How a Predator’s Lies Became Rape. The book tells the story of a romance scam Short experienced – one of three personal experiences she shares in her talk to describe situations not covered by traditional definitions of consent or rape. In her talk, Short describes discovering that everything she knew about her husband – from his age and religion to his past – was a lie designed to trick her into the relationship. Once the lies were revealed, Short, then pregnant, left the marriage, but a divorce took another 14 years.

“People have this knee-jerk reaction when I say ‘rape by fraud,’” Short says. But she sees the betrayal as exactly that. “I felt horribly defiled, and I needed to understand why.”

She began writing the book as a form of therapy. “Initially I wrote poetry to get through it. I’d be crying through the night and just wanted to give up. I’d force myself to sit at my computer and write,” she says. “As I made more and more sense of it, I realized that I had to write a book about it. The book helped me figure it all out. Writing forces you to put the pieces together in a logical fashion.”

Through the writing process, Short was finally able to put words to her feelings. “I remember the minute I googled the phrase ‘emotionally raped,’” she says. “That was how I felt but I didn’t know if it already meant something. I typed ‘emotional r’, and it filled it out for me. I knew if Google was filling in those letters, that it was a thing. And the tears were pouring down my face. It lifted that burden off my shoulders.”

The emotional center of her talk occurs when Short reveals her sexual abuse as a teenager at the hand of a close family member. She admits having some reservations about telling that very personal story, but says she felt it spoke to current events, including the wave of accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. “He was big; he controlled my life. I decided the [talk] wouldn’t have the same impact if I didn’t talk about that,” says Short.

Her second book, Combating Romance Scams: Why Lying to Get Laid is a Crime, published in 2016, advocates for changes in the law.

Short uses the two books, along with her personal stories and references to current figures – including Larry Nasser, Harvey Weinsten, and Bill Cosby – to illuminate the differences between assent, acquiescence, and consent in her TEDx talk.

Joyce Short rehearses for her upcoming TEDx talk. Photo by Irina Island Images.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, focused talks (18 minutes or less). Started in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment, and design converged, the group now hosts talks about almost all topics, celebrating locally-driven ideas and elevating them to a global stage. TEDx events are produced independently by local groups, based on TED’s format and rules, and look to promote local ideas to a wider audience.

In addition to her books, Short does a lot of advocacy work for victims of sexual assault, both on and off the Island. “I’m contacted by people from all over the world. They come to my webpage, I go to the police with some of them. I’ve gone to the police in New Jersey, in Manhattan; I see how the police deals with sexual assault.”

Short says many victims of sexual assault have trouble being taken seriously, especially when acquainted with the person who assaulted them. “I went with a woman over to the Midtown West Precinct. The first question they asked her was, ‘Did you know him?’” Short says the officers tried to chalk the incident up to just bad sex, asking the victim,“Did he pin you down? Did he force you?”

In Short’s view, this limited view of sexual assault is largely the fault of our laws. There isn’t a federal legal definition of consent, and in some states, Pennsylvania for example, there isn’t one at all. She says the issue was brought home recently in the Bill Cosby case. “What happened with the Bill Cosby thing should have been resolved the first time,” she says. “One of the alternate jurors stated that, in the original trial, Cosby said under oath in his deposition that, ‘I don’t know if I had consent.’ That should have been the end of that trial. But it wasn’t because, in Pennsylvania, consent is not defined. And consent is everything.”

Recently, Short has also been a vocal critic of how the Island’s Public Safety Department (PSD) has handled a series of public lewdness cases, accusing the department of suppressing crime statistics. She organized a demonstration on the subject in February. Ten days later, an arrest was made. While PSD and the chair of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association public safety committee, Erin Feely-Nahem, insists the two things are unrelated, Short considers that arrest validating.

“We pay PSD with our rent money. We are entitled to not just get NYPD mentality [around sexual abuse] here, but a mentality that’s over and above what we can expect from NYPD, and that’s not what we’re getting,” says Short.

Short is pleased that the recent #metoo and #timesup movements have focused the national conversation to sexual assault, but she believes we also need a solution. She says that standardizing the meaning of consent in our laws, so that offenders know that there is a specific definition that we will hold them accountable to, would solve the problem.

More about Short’s talk on May 20 can be found at Lunch and refreshments are included.

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