The Semantics of Rape

I’m baaaack! Sorry it’s been so long, but with GISHWHES and a week on vacation without internet, there was no way I was going to be posting. I’m happy to be back in action though, and so I decided to take on a topic that I’m sure will piss some people off. Hooray! I want to give you a basic template for determining if a rape has occurred, and who is culpable.

Let’s talk about drunk sex.

Or rather, let’s talk about rape, because drunk people cannot consent and people who have sex with nonconsenting people are committing rape.

Or rather, let’s talk about what it means to “have sex with” someone. That phrase seems really simple, but it can obscure quite a bit. When you hear that phrase, do you imagine that one person is acting on another, or that two people are doing something together? Sometimes I hear it used to mean one, sometimes the other. That is a huge problem for dialogues around consent and rape, because the difference between those two parsings is the difference between sex and rape.

Most of the time we can tell if one person is the active participant or if both people are actively participating in sex. We don’t always talk about rape that way. We don’t necessarily talk about the things that the rapist did. We talk about the things the victim did: did they run away, did they fight, did they scream. But we don’t talk about who is initiating contact, who escalates from kissing to touching, who removes clothing, who initiates penetration, etc. Those are usually pretty good markers of who is an active participant in an encounter (there are obvious exceptions, particularly in BDSM situations, but those exceptions almost always require pre-negotiation or a pre-existing relationship that uses non-verbal and mutually discussed cues to indicate if someone is consenting).

Where many people get confused is when alcohol comes into play. How does consent work between two drunk people? Aren’t we all raping each other because pretty much all of us have had sex while drunk?

I think things are both more confusing than many feminists want to realize (it is not just as simple as “consent is easy, any time a penis touches a vagina while people are drunk a man has raped a woman”) and less confusing than most other people want to recognize (we can figure this out, I promise). It hinges on those two meanings of “having sex with.” Most people want there to be a single metric to understand if a rape occurred and who did it. Typically that is consent: who was capable of giving it, who gave it. When alcohol is in the mix, I think we need to have a two step process instead. Step 1: determine who could consent. Step 2: determine who “had sex with” whom. Rape is not just the presence or absence of consent: it is continuing to engage in sex without the presence of consent. So we need to determine both pieces. That can be tricky when we’re not willing to talk about the nitty gritty of what it actually looks like to be an active participant in sex, and who was being active.

A big disclaimer: this DOES NOT mean victim blaming. It DOES NOT mean that if a person was active up to a point and then stopped being active, they were “having sex” the whole time. It DOES NOT mean that any prior sexual activity is relevant. What it means is using the actual facts to determine who was the aggressor. He took off her pants and she did nothing? He was having sex with her. She pulled him upstairs and grabbed his dick? She was having sex with him. While it sucks for victims to have to relive what has happened to them, it is also important to know the details of what happened, and that is true of any crime. This is not an excuse for cops or other officials to act as if a victim is a criminal or to force them to recount it over and over. A victim should give a detailed account once, and that should be good enough, unless they have left out a detail, or someone is confused.

I will in a future post discuss how we teach young people to both be active participants in sex, EVEN IF one person is more assertive or you’re doing a sub/dom scene, or one person likes receiving. But for now, let’s accept that we do a shitty job of talking about mutual assertiveness in sex, and recognize that who is doing what is an important part of discussing rape.

Ok.

So step one: if only one person can consent and sex occurred, their partner raped them. If both people can consent, then great! Go to step two to help determine IF both people consented. Can neither person consent? This is the situation that most people seem greatly concerned about, especially in college campuses. What happens if both people are drunk?

Step two: was this a mutual encounter and everyone could consent? Great! You’ve had sex, and no one raped anyone!
Could everyone consent, but only one person acted while the other didn’t reciprocate? This is probably a red flag. It could have been negotiated this way, but encounters that are entirely one sided should probably get you to look a little more closely at them, whether they’re your own or whether you’re an official trying to decide if someone was raped or not. Get some more information about who says they consented.

Now we get to the one that EEEEEVERYONE is interested in. What if no one could consent? What if everyone was drunk? Here’s where it becomes incredibly important who actually actively participated. If only one person was active, then they are the only rapist. It doesn’t matter that sex involves two bodies, if only one person is making it happen, EVEN IF both people are drunk, then only that person is culpable. We cannot assume that that person was the man because that’s bullshit. We have to ask who did what to determine who was the aggressor. Many people get caught up on step one (which really isn’t that confusing) and forget about step two (which sometimes can be confusing, and is awkward to talk about, and really sucks for victims, but is necessary).

If both people are drunk and actively participating, then they both violated each other’s consent and are both culpable. We can discuss whether it’s possible for two people to rape each other or what the harm is in this situation, but it’s NOT the same as when one drunk person takes advantage of another drunk person. These are the situations that I worry are obscured when feminists use metaphors or parallels to other crimes that someone can commit when they’re drunk: most other crimes do not also come with a high likelihood of the criminal being a victim as well. When a feminist says that a drunk rapist is still a rapist, just like someone who drives drunk is still culpable, they miss that sex always involves two people, and that we do need to take the time to ask if both people were actively involved.

This is why we can’t just say two that two drunk people had sex with each other. That phrase obscures that sometimes it’s a one sided action and sometimes it’s mutual. That’s why many people are so concerned that their child or friend or acquaintance is going to be held responsible for a mutual encounter, instead of recognizing that the majority of the time we are talking about encounters in which only one person was active. In fact, it’s incredibly common for rapists to intentionally get their victims drunk and themselves remain barely buzzed so that they can use the confusion around the phrase to defend themselves. Those situations are the reason that feminists and other activists are so concerned with alcohol and rape. So please, if you find yourself wondering why one person is being held responsible for “drunk sex” but not the other, look at who actually did things. You might learn something.

 

 

Neurotypicality Is Not the Goal

Disclaimer: the person and tense in which I write in this post change throughout because I found myself fairly distressed trying to figure out who I was speaking to. Basically if you’re anyone who has any influence over someone who is neurodivergent and their treatment, pay attention.

Earlier this week I posted about some of the downfalls of ABA and was rightly called out on the fact that I forgot to include one that is incredibly important: ABA often pushes autistic people to behave more “normally” just for the sake of being less autistic.

This is a larger issue than just the autistic community. This affects everyone who is neurodivergent or mentally ill in any way. Because while the goal of therapy is ostensibly to help people live content and healthy lives, many therapists often forget that what they perceive as “good” or “happy” isn’t necessarily what their clients want. That means that acting neurotypical often becomes the goal. This is especially true for kids or other populations that can’t easily advocate for themselves, like people who are nonverbal.

Think for a second about treatment for people with autism. This is one of the easiest examples to use, because many “autistic” behaviors are very visual and obvious, but don’t do any harm to anyone. That includes things like hand flapping, spinning, or rocking. Many treatment plans include a goal to decrease these behaviors. Why?

Well there might be a few reasons. If someone is in school it’s true that these things can be distracting to other students. But NOT doing them is distracting to the student with autism. So why do neurotypical needs get prioritized over neurodiverse ones? And some stims aren’t even distracting but are still seen as bad because they make the person look different.

There should be one guiding principle in all treatment: has my client communicated that this behavior is something that makes their life worse? VERY occasionally this comes with the addendum that if a client can’t see that something is harming them you still might need to try to get rid of the behavior, but I can only see that applying in physically dangerous cases like self harm, extreme caloric restriction, purging, drugs, etc.

But the point of therapy isn’t to “cure” people. It’s to make them healthy. Healthy is not the same as normal, and often doesn’t mean living without any kind of mental differences. Healthy means that you can live your life in the manner you like and mostly achieve your goals. It means your life is the way you would like it to be, at least in the really big ways. Most if not all people who deal with any serious neurodivergence do that while also continuing to live with their neurodivergences, because a brain that is wired for anxiety or depression or OCD or a personality disorder doesn’t stop being wired that way. At best a person can hide it.

Hiding the way your brain works and trying to behave in ways that are counter to the way your brain works is painful and unpleasant. So again, let’s go back to the goal. WHY do you want to change a behavior? Is it because differences make you uncomfortable? Is it because you think that it must make the person unhappy? Is it because you think it’s making their life more difficult?

I have two words for you: communication and consent. I think many treatment programs forget to communicate with the client. Because that communication can help you find out why someone is doing something. What purpose does it serve? Do they like it? If so, leave it alone. If not, you still need to help them find a way to serve the same purpose. And if your client doesn’t want to change something then you don’t get to decide for them. Just because someone is neurodivergent or mentally ill does not mean that they cannot make their own choices, or that they don’t have preferences, or that they can’t tell you what upsets them and what doesn’t. Your perception of better or worse is irrelevant.

Being “normal” does not necessarily mean better. What is important is making sure that people are doing things that make them happy, that aren’t held back by their brains, that they aren’t hurting. It’s to give people the best life possible, which does not mean the most neurotypical life possible. It means a life that makes THEM happy.

Now of course for some people sticking out is unpleasant, and if they don’t like being different then by all means it’s no problem for their treatment goals to include looking more normal. But consent is the basis for all of this. Do not try to change someone’s brain without their consent. That’s called manipulation and it’s abusive and cruel and unnecessary.

The end goal isn’t neurotypicality. It’s happiness and fulfillment. It’s a life that someone with neurodivergence likes. What providers miss when they prioritize neurotypicality is that they might be actively hurting someone finds it easier to behave in a different way. If you need to stim and you can’t, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes painful. If you have extreme anxiety and socializing outside of your social circle is intensely anxiety provoking, it makes sense that you’ll want a small, close group of long term friends instead. If those people are forced to behave like “normal” people, they will be less happy and less capable of functioning.

This is why providers need to learn to ask questions more often: what do you want? Why? And then they need to learn to give their clients the time and space to give informed consent to their treatment. Even people who are non verbal. Even people you assume can’t understand. They still deserve the basic respect of having their desires for their life heard. Always. And your assumptions about what makes them happy are not more important than what they actually want, even if that means they’ll look autistic or anxious or delusional for the rest of their lives.

Arousal and Consent, A Story of Compromise

Heina wrote a great post the other day about the fact that genital arousal is not the same thing as consent, and that attraction is a very different question from arousal (this is something that gets talked about in the asexual community quite a bit: most asexuals can be aroused but don’t feel attraction, and are also capable of giving consent despite the fact that they don’t feel sexual attraction).

Heina uses a lot of great examples, like the fact that someone can be raped while aroused, or that some people may want to have sex but their parts just aren’t quite cooperating. I want to look at one other example here and in particular look at the conversations that surround a particular kind of sexual situation and its consent/ethical dimensions.

I have talked a lot about situations in which one partner has a higher sex drive than the other and the fact that no one owes sex to another person ever. One of the common responses I get from people when I say that I don’t want to have sex if I’m not aroused is that I need to compromise and if I just go with it then eventually I’ll get in the mood and it will feel good.

When someone is NOT aroused but is willing to compromise with their partner and engage in sex (consent, are attracted), most people are 100% able to understand that whether a person is hard or lubricated is not equivalent to whether or not they’re interested in having sex. It’s incredibly common wisdom (especially in conservative circles that often espouse the idea that men can’t be raped because if they’re hard they consented), it’s considered very normal advice to tell a woman to make herself available whether she wants sex or not.

This kind of situation sheds some light on the ways that we already recognize what Heina is talking about, but I think that what Heina is talking about can also be a helpful addition to how to handle differing sex drives and situations in which one partner is not immediately interested in sex. First, there are times when your body just isn’t going to respond in the ways you’d like it to. You might be distracted, anxious, sick, tipsy, or something else that means even if intellectually you really want to have sex, you just can’t quite make it happen. Heina brings up a specific example of not being to orgasm during certain times of the month. There’s nothing wrong with realizing that even if you love your partner and are willing to compromise about a lot of things, you don’t want to try to push your body when it really won’t respond.

But the second point that Heina really hits on that is an important addition to the conversation about differing sex drives is that communication is hugely important because each individual is the authority on their own body and what their responses mean. This is supposedly a very basic element of consent, but it seems to be overlooked fairly often.

A lot of people put different amounts of importance on what their body is doing, some people feel more capable of letting their body adjust to the situation. Everyone’s body is different and reacts to things differently and each person knows their body best. That means it’s part of the conversation and both you and your partner get to choose what your body’s behavior means to you. No one else gets to interpret it for you.

For me personally, trying to get in the mood to please a partner is a horribly anxiety ridden experience that usually results in resentment and a complete inability to get out of my own head. For other people it can be a great experience. But there is no right answer as to what “not turned on yet” means, just as “is physically aroused” doesn’t have a set meaning.

We all get to define our boundaries for ourselves.

Maps on the Body: Further Thoughts on Gray Consent

The conversation in the ace and gray ace community about the nitty gritty confusing areas of consent has been robust since Queenie first proposed that we begin discussing it last week. I contributed my own minor thoughts here, and I’ve really appreciated the ways that others have built off or challenged those thoughts. Mostly, these thoughts have circulated around the experience of ace or gray ace people (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that since this is a question that overwhelmingly affects that community), but today I want to touch on an element of it that’s probably more likely to affect allosexual folks. It’s not only ace people who sometimes deal with muddy, confusing, halfway consent, and I think addressing all the different ways this happens is going to be helpful for everyone as it will make conversations about consent more nuanced and help us create new models that can benefit anyone.

The last time I saw my therapist we were talking about asexuality. I’m still trying to figure out where on the spectrum I am, although at this moment I feel closer to allo than ace. I mentioned this to her and she said “Sometimes your body knows before you do. It might have been a sign those other relationships were over.”

Now if I were still actively identifying as ace this would have been a horrible thing to say, but since I’m in a fuzzy place it was incredibly helpful as a template to make sense of my experiences. I filed it away and didn’t think about it until a few days later when my partner tried to initiate sexytimes and I turned him down. I wasn’t really sure why and I felt guilty and weird about it (see: all the conversations from previous posts about compulsory sexuality and conflict aversion). He pushed me a little bit on why I was so quiet, and after some thinking I realized that we had left a previous conversation unfinished and I was still feeling uncomfortable about some of the requests I had made that he hadn’t quite answered. It was hardly a big deal or a fight, but I simply felt uncertain and off, and needed to talk out some relationship things.

I don’t know that I would have realized this if I hadn’t stopped and listened to the gut feeling that I wasn’t interested in intimacy at the moment. This is one of those times that a lot of advice blogs would have told me to just try to get in the mood because there was nothing in particular that was deterring me, I just wasn’t really feeling it. My partner and I would have lost out on some insight into ourselves and making our relationship stronger by figuring out some things that were stressing me out. My body knew before I did.

Here’s where I want to get real specific about what I mean. The purpose of emotions, in general, is to provide us with information. Fear tells us we’re in danger, sadness tells us we’ve lost something. Oftentimes we react emotionally to something before we can rationally sort out what an appropriate response would be: emotions are the immediate information (which means that sometimes they’re very, very off but that oftentimes they’re very helpful). Sometimes they put things together in ways we consciously don’t notice until we stop and pick at the emotion. It’s not completely off to suggest that sometimes we figure something out emotionally before we do rationally.

Bodies tend to be emotionally driven. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that emotions are often physical. Our bodies often express our emotions before we even really know what we’re feeling. It’s important to pay attention to what our bodies are doing because it can provide us with information about how we’re feeling, which in turn gives us information about our surroundings, our boundaries, and our safety. I’ve noticed this happen quite often when it comes to sexual situations because they require a lot of trust and vulnerability. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent that there might be a reason that you don’t want to be vulnerable with someone, but your emotions and your body tell you by just not being interested.

I’m concerned about many of the narratives that suggest we should compromise around sex and just try to have it if there’s no real reason not to. We don’t always know our reasons not to. We’re not always fully informed about ourselves, and this seems to be one more instance of ignoring the very important things about our bodies, like the ways that they’re intimately tied to our cognition and our emotions. Sometimes consent is clear and easy and we know what we want or don’t want. But sometimes consent requires time. I’ve almost never heard a script for “going slow” except in the sense of not having sex immediately in a relationship. What about one partner initiating some kissing and foreplay, and the other saying “hey, I’m not sure how I’m feeling, can we just kiss for a while?” and so that happens for a while. Maybe hands get involved, maybe partner two asks to back up a little, or maybe partner two says that they’re just not feeling it and they don’t know why. This opens the door for some conversation about how to make everyone feel more comfortable.

Now maybe some of you are thinking this is just basic consent. But it isn’t an on/off switch, as many people tend to think (even when they recognize that you can take away that consent at any point). It’s the process of figuring out together where everyone is and where their boundaries are at that moment, and maybe even why their boundaries have moved around. I don’t think it’s fair to either partner to expect each person to figure out exactly what they want on their own. It works a lot better if you talk it out a little bit. Maybe this is something like open consent, consent that you sort out together, consent when things aren’t clear but you don’t want to leave your partner with no clue about what’s going on in your head. To some extent the concept of negotiation covers this, but sometimes it’s not just about negotiating with the other person, but an internal negotiation as well.

Consent is often touted as a way to improve communication in sexual situations, and I’m all for that. What seems to be a potential problem is that if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want or need, it might scare you away from speaking up, as there isn’t good consent language for “I don’t know.” I’ve noticed that many people feel as if they need to have a clear answer yes or no before they say anything. I’m not entirely sure how many other people have this experience of embodied emotions, but it might be a nice way to talk about ambivalence: “my body isn’t really on board” or “I’m not sure why, but I’m just not getting turned on. Can we stop and talk for a minute?” It makes it less about whether you’re mad at the person, or what you’re thinking, and more about a simple fact that your body isn’t reacting.

“Withholding Sex” and Other Lies

You all might have seen the recent story going around about the man who put together an excel spreadsheet of all the times that his wife said no to sex with him. Niki has a great takedown of a lot of the issues with this, focusing specifically on the fact that no one can ever owe you sex. I’d like to take that idea one step further and look at the concept that seems to be encapsulated in this story, which is that this man’s wife was withholding sex in some fashion. After quickly google searching “withholding sex” and being highly disturbed at the huge number of advice columns about reasons women (always women) withhold sex, it appears obvious to me that there is a common trope in our society that this is not only possible to do but also something that happens on a regular basis for some common reasons.

 

Read this full article at Aut of Spoons.

Consent and Neurodivergence

Consent is at the heart of sexual ethics for many feminists and other progressive individuals. There’s talk of enthusiastic consent, and impaired consent, and power dynamics, and all sorts of things that might impair someone’s ability to consent. Those who promote consent can come down pretty hard on someone who has violated another’s consent (with good reason). More often than not, these conversations seem to give the message that consent is simple and anyone can figure it out. People can read body language, so clearly we can all tell when someone is not interested.

Unfortunately, what this type of attitude obscures is that for many people, consent is not easy or simple. Conversations that look to have some sympathy for those who are more than simply “socially awkward” but are neurodivergent get shut down as rape apologism. Some people repeat over and over that we can’t have any tolerance for those who violate consent, that nothing is an excuse, that we need to get serious about consent. And yes, it’s true that we can’t excuse bad behavior based on neurodivergence, but navigating consent and body language when you’re neurodivergent is simply different and far more difficult than doing so when you’re neurotypical and it’s time we talked about it.

For individuals who understand body language with relative ease and can communicate well, consent is just as easy as navigating any other social interaction. For those with autism or other forms of neurodivergence, it just doesn’t always make sense. There are two important sides to this question: one is those who have a mental illness that leaves them with cripplingly low self-esteem or other problems that mean they feel incapable of saying no. The other is those who need things to be phrased in a literal, clear way in order to understand them and who subsequently hurt the people they care for but don’t understand why or how.

Let’s start with the first. I have more experience here and I believe that these questions are a little more clear cut. The concept of consent assumes that all parties understand what they want and are comfortable with, and have the confidence to express those wants and needs. Unfortunately, many people (women in particular) have been conditioned to repress their desires, to hide them. It’s no secret that low self-esteem is a serious problem for many women. When someone doesn’t have a mental illness it’s hard enough to internalize the ideas of consent and to be open about what you’d like. Sometimes even learning to use your body language is difficult.

But what about those of us with mental illnesses? Say those who have learned that their emotions are always wrong and must be shut down, or that they can’t trust their emotions? What about those who dissociate and simply stop doing much when they become uncomfortable? What about those who have pathological fears of abandonment? We may be fully convinced of the importance of consent and still feel incapable of standing up for ourselves or expressing our wants and needs and boundaries because somewhere in the back of our mind there is a terrifying tape playing over and over that tells us we must follow the script or we will be alone forever. When an individual feels pressured to consent simply because their mind requires them to appease others, or they’ve got an unrealistic image of what might drive away their partner, consent becomes complicated.

To some extent, I question whether individuals who feel so enmeshed in a disease are capable of consent. If someone is incapable of seeing a situation realistically, can they ever be properly informed? I say this as someone who has been in these situations, thought that they were consenting, and realized later that I felt there was no other option. I am unsure whether anything can be considered consent if there is no possibility of saying no.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should never be allowed to have sex, but rather that consent is far more complex when one has to fight against a mental illness to get a clear picture of what one is consenting to and what the consequences of saying no are. It means that both parties who are consenting need to be fully aware of the situation. I also hope that the partner who is not mentally ill would take extra care to ensure that their partner knows they’re allowed to say no and will be valued regardless of sexual activity. In addition, I’m not suggesting that someone who is mentally ill is responsible for recovering or overcoming their mental illness in order to prevent sexual assault. That’s victim blaming nonsense. I am suggesting that they should be aware that their mental illness might obscure what they actually want and need, and that there should be an active and open conversation with partners (or at the very least with oneself and trusted support people) to determine what you actually want and need, and how to obtain it.

This points towards the fact that we can say someone did something wrong (misinterpreted the cues of consent and did something without another’s consent) without deciding that the individual is a horrible, miserable excuse for a human being. Thanks to my own choices to obscure my desire and boundaries, I have had partners violate them without being aware that they had done so. Often these were people who deeply loved me and wanted to never hurt me. I have begun to label their actions as inappropriate without then needing to decide that they were bad, hurtful people.

So what about the other side, those who may try to value and respect consent but find it difficult to identify when it’s present or absent? Consent is even muddier when someone has difficulty with reading body language or difficulty understanding social cues or difficulty when requests aren’t phrased in a completely literal fashion. If, for example, if someone has autism. I know that many people like to pretend that those with disabilities, including mental disabilities have no sex life, but that’s patently false. I personally have experienced some of the pitfalls of trying to navigate consent with an individual who has difficulty with social boundaries and social cues. This puts the partner in a difficult situation: how do you respect someone’s needs as a neurodivergent individual while still asserting your own boundaries?

I have never experienced it from the other side, but I’m sure it’s just as frustrating trying to understand how and why you appear to be hurting your partner. If you don’t understand that certain eye movements or body movements mean “no”, it can be extremely confusing to realize that your partner was trying to tell you no all along and you continued to push. You likely will blame yourself, right along with the other person, for something you have no control over: your ability or inability to read body language.

Particularly difficult is the fact that the community often has zero tolerance: if someone screws up one time they are officially a rapist and cannot be trusted. For those with autism, this means that they might misinterpret something and then lose much of their support system, even if they want to change, fix, or improve themselves so that it doesn’t happen again. Few people will take the time to adjust their communication habits, explain ways to read body language, or give the neurodivergent individual new tools to make sure things are better next time.

Part of the frustration here is that we don’t entirely know how to put the label “hurtful” or “unacceptable” on something without then imputing blame on the person who did it. We don’t know how to validate that someone is a survivor or was traumatized while also working to give positive options to the person who hurt them. While most rapists probably don’t need helpful hints about how not to rape, it’s straight out ableist to assume that the sex education that neurotypical people receive (which isn’t even sufficient for them) will be enough to help someone who is neurodivergent navigate the extremely tricky waters of sex.

Perhaps some of this is about the EXTREME need to find new scripts: I know that many autistic people work from scripts because that’s easiest for them. The scripts we have right now that surround sexuality suck. Providing new scripts might be the more useful way to take on these cases rather than shaming and cutting those people out of our lives. If we don’t create any new scripts, people will continue to behave in the same way. If we take the time to help them with a new script, they may have healthier relationships in future. This probably means putting more emphasis on verbal consent and making it ok to ask things like “do you like this?” or “do you want me to keep going?”

None of this is to say that neurodivergence is an excuse for sexual assault or harassment. I have seen people say “I’m autistic so it didn’t count” when told their behavior was unacceptable. That is deeply screwed up: you can still rape someone if you’re autistic. When someone does not show a strong desire to rectify what they’ve done, then by all means, blame away. These criticisms are pointed towards those who would vilify an autistic individual who deeply wants to make amends and improve their behavior for the future.

The important distinction here is excuse vs. explain. Explanations may be a plea for help to fix the root cause of a problem, while excuses seek to push away the responsibility. Different explanations for the same behavior require different actions to fix the problem. In the case of the neurodivergent, I wish there were more sympathy, more help, and more ways for the offender to demonstrate that they can learn and grow. Part of teaching consent is teaching people ways to say “no” and ways to navigate their relationship in a way that works for them. I am all for consent-based sexuality, but consent can’t be from one perspective. We need to open our movement up to those people for whom our current definition of consent isn’t working and doesn’t make sense.

I don’t necessarily have answers for how to balance these types of situations or how to improve them, but they are conversations that need to happen, and we need to recognize that one person’s version of consent may not work for everyone.

Sex is a Gift: Creepy or Explanatory?

Many times when people who are not of the fundamentalist persuasion hear the phrase “sex is a gift that you give your partner” we shudder. We cringe. It sounds objectifying and just kind of weird. It’s often code for the idea that you owe your partner your body, and that your body must be undamaged, or only for them. There are good reasons to dislike that phrase, especially in contexts that are promoting virginity and purity culture.

I recently used the wording of sex as a gift in a blog post at Skepchick, and some people found that unacceptable or wrong. I’d like to explore here why we should or should not view sex as a gift. What are the implications of that? How is it helpful? What does it clarify?

So first, what is a gift? “A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.” By “thing” we often mean non-physical things. You can give someone the gift of time, kindness, an event, an enjoyable experience…there are all kinds of things we gift on each other. Generally when you’re in a relationship with someone, you give them gifts because you like and enjoy them and you want them to be happy. You give them things you think would enhance their life, their pleasure, or their well-being. Sometimes gifts come with strings attached, but hopefully if you have a good relationship with someone or if you’re a kind person, you give your gift out of the desire to make someone else happy.

Now how does that fit into sex? Generally we have sex with someone as an experience of mutual pleasure and an expression of affection and/or love (or at least if we have a positive relationship to consent we do). Generally it’s not a good idea to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex. But if you aren’t that interested in sex, is it moral for you to “gift” sex to your partner: take your time, your energy, your body, and give those things to the other person for a time in order to show affection and make them happier? It seems to me that this falls directly under the definition of a gift as traditionally understood, and that we often do things like this with other experiences that we don’t wholly enjoy. I’ve done things like take my guy to a baseball game even though I despise baseball, or try foods that scare me, because it makes my partner happy. I doubt anyone would say that my partner had done anything wrong by accepting those gifts, and I certainly didn’t think I had. I enjoyed making my partner happy.

What is it about sex that means we cannot or should not gift it in the same way we might a different experience that we don’t enjoy? One element of “sex as a gift” that many people seem to find upsetting is the idea that you can have unenthusiastic sex without it being rapey or creepy. This is understandable. Because sex is so intimate and involves your body so intimately, and because many people feel uncomfortable saying no, sex without enthusiasm can often feel unethical. In addition, when people try to signal their nonconsent through being unenthusiastic, it is often ignored. Enthusiasm is an important signal to consent, however there are other ways to express your consent (like with your words).

However if we go into unenthusiastic sex with our eyes open, it doesn’t have to be unethical. If one partner decides for themselves that they want to have sex with an enthusiastic partner, communicates that to their partner, and they then proceed, I don’t see how that is unethical. And the best word to describe that situation is, to me, gift. One person is choosing to give something without asking for something in return. I will say that this type of situation is incredibly rare, and one must exercise extreme caution not to pressure or coerce one’s partner into consenting to sex despite their lack of enthusiasm. And as the partner consenting without enthusiasm, it’s important to take care of yourself: you have to pay extremely close attention to whether you’re feeling used, unwanted, hurt, or uncomfortable and take that into account when granting your consent. But consenting without enthusiasm, giving a gift of a good time to your partner does not seem to me per se to be unethical.

There is however another element to sex as a gift that is troubling, and that’s the idea that sex as a gift involves giving your body as a gift. This is somewhat objectifying. Your body is more than just a thing for your partner to use. It’s you. Can you really give yourself as a gift for someone else to enjoy? I do see this as a potential problem with viewing sex as a gift rather than an experience shared together. However I will say that we do often use the phrasing “giving the gift of time” or “giving the gift of company”. There are other times and places that we view being present and reciprocating something as a gift, and a wholly acceptable and good one. I think that including your body complicates things, but again, we might imagine someone giving their partner a massage as a gift.

Overall I think this language is complicated. It may work for some people and some situations and it can be incredibly harmful in others. When we do use it, I think it’s important to specify that we’re not giving our bodies to each other, but that we’re giving someone our time and energy and joy because we love them and want them to be happy, and because we don’t see it as harming ourselves. A gift given that harms the giver (and I don’t mean involves some small sacrifice I mean truly harms) is a bad gift. A gift is not the same thing as turning oneself into a martyr or a sacrifice. And particularly if you want your relationship to continue to function in the long run, gifts should not come at the expense of your physical or mental well-being. Just like any other gift you give in a relationship, you can’t break the bank.

So perhaps the language of “gifts” does make sense, particularly in relationships where people have differing sex drives and need to have a conversation about consent that includes meeting everybody’s needs without harming everybody. When it’s surrounding things like virginity and purity? Probably not appropriate.