Can We Forgive Nate Parker for Learning Too Late What Consent Means?

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Nate Parker at the American Black Film Festival in June.Photo: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

“I gotta face my past, whether it be 17 years ago or 17 minutes ago,” Nate Parker told Ebony this week. He hasn’t had much of a choice.

Parker is the producer, writer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation, a Sundance-favorite turned Oscar-favorite film, set for release in October, about the Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831. Seventeen years ago, when Parker and his co-writer on the film, Jean Celestin, were wrestling teammates at Penn State, the two men were accused of raping a classmate after a night of drinking. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and served six months in prison, though his conviction was later overturned. Parker was acquitted. According to a civil lawsuit, Parker and Celestin undertook an “organized campaign to harass [the victim] and make her fear for her safety” after she pressed charges. She committed suicide in 2012. In the months since his film hit the festival circuit, Parker has been forced to re-examine this sexual encounter from decades ago. (Some have questioned the timing, suggesting that it’s part of a racially motivated campaign to suppress Parker’s film.)

Parker’s situation is highly public, but it is far from unique. Americans are woefully undereducated about the meaning of consent and how to obtain it, and still in denial about the fact that not all rapists are serial offenders who set out to commit a crime. Many of them are our family members and friends. Almost a third of men say that they would force a woman to have sex with them if nobody would ever find out. But only 13 percent said they would rape a woman. Apparently there are a lot of men who have no idea that those are the same thing.

Of course, such ignorance is no excuse for rape. But as the conversation about what really constitutes sexual assault moves into the mainstream, we can expect that more and more men will wake up to the real definition of consent, and realize that they haven’t had it in all of their sexual encounters. Even if we wanted to, we can’t go back and try each of these instances in a court of law. We can’t undo the damage on their victims. So what do we demand of people who have committed assault, were never convicted, and, years later, begin to feel bad about it?

Parker is an interesting test case. He has characterized the assault as a “painful moment” in his own life. He has also expressed sadness for the victim and questioned the morality of his choices, all the while maintaining that “the encounter was unambiguously consensual.” But lately he seems to be inching closer to acknowledging the incident was, in fact, nonconsensual. After a screening in L.A., he spoke to Ebony reporter Britni Danielle about his evolving awareness of toxic masculinity, comparing it to white privilege. Like most Americans his age, Parker describes growing up without much information about sexual boundaries. “I’m 36 years old and I’m learning about definitions that I should have known when I started having sex,” he said.

Presumably he’s talking about the definition of consent, which hasn’t changed since he was 19, but has certainly become more talked-about and accepted. If you believe a rapist is a rapist is a rapist — that a stranger who sexually assaults someone at gunpoint has committed fundamentally the same crime as a college student who fucks someone too drunk to give consent — it’s tough to have much sympathy for the Parkers of the world. “We have all made our fair share of bad decisions,” wrote Roxane Gay. “There is a canyon of difference, however, between bad decisions and allegations of rape.”

While there are some programs to address repeat sexual offenders, such as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (tagline: “Making Society Safer”), assault-prevention advocates don’t know a lot about the type of offender who may later claim ignorance about consent. “[Parker] now has an understanding of consent, understands the significance of his actions. And I think that is a category of individual that there is less understanding of,” says Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“If there is an opportunity for Nate Parker to move forward from this,” Palumbo adds, “it will require naming what has taken place as sexual assault, which he has not done yet.” If he truly doesn’t believe, with the benefit of 17 years’ hindsight, that the encounter was consensual, he should be making a clear admission that it was rape — not just a moral failing or a youthful mistake, as Parker has characterized it thus far.

Indeed, Ebony asked him pointedly, “So, how would 36-year-old Nate classify that particular incident with you, Jean [Celestin], and the girl?” He responded, “I’ll say this, I think that there are more things than the law. I think there is having a behavior that is disrespectful to women that goes unchecked, where your manhood is defined by sexual conquests, where you trade stories with your friends and no one checks anyone.” He did not say, “I didn’t have her consent, which is actually rape, and I’m sorry.”

After a clear apology, we should expect men like Parker to put survivors first. While he’s said that this isn’t about him, talking about it in terms of his personal growth gives the impression that it is. In his case, the victim is not able to express her wishes. But advocates say that it’s important to listen to survivors whenever possible — not prioritize the feelings of perpetrators looking to make amends. “Before there was this much attention to sexual assault, there were campuses that would consider something like mediation,” Palumbo says. It was a horrible experience for most survivors, turning the most violating experience of their life into someone else’s teachable moment. But, she says, there are also some survivors who may want to maintain a relationship with the person who assaulted them because that person is part of their family or social group.

Some efforts, like the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which confronts sexual violence against black women in the U.S., are working to develop “models for harm-doer accountability” within communities. “I think that people are ready to see models of accountability for sexual assault that is outside of the criminal-justice system,” Palumbo says. “It’s hard to say in a blanket way what that looks like. But I do think that there’s a core value in our field that survivors need to be believed and supported.” This is something that everyone — former perpetrators included — can do: say that they believe victims of sexual assault. This issue should be personal, but not in the way Parker has made it personal.

Palumbo isn’t sure how a figure like Parker would be welcomed into assault-prevention efforts, should he ever choose to take on a more active role. But an apology for his behavior 17 years ago would be a good start. After all, this is not in the past — it’s very much present for Parker and for all of the survivors who are reading his statements. “All I can do is seek the information that’ll make me stronger,” he told Ebony. If he really wants to own up to his actions, he’ll have to do much more than that.