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.

 

 

For The Last Time That’s Not What a Trigger Warning Is

I really love Brittany Cooper over at Salon. She’s challenged me to think about race and gender politics in new ways, and I almost always find myself informed in new ways when reading her work. So I was extremely disappointed to find this (admittedly slightly outdated) article in which she argues against the use of trigger warnings in the classroom.

Cooper says of difficult topics like violence and race “But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. And trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can.” But just a few paragraphs before she mentions “Those of us who teach about traumatic material – say, war, or the history of lynching, or rape and sexual assault, or domestic violence – usually alert students if they are going to encounter violent material.”

Perhaps I have drastically misunderstood what trigger warnings are (which seems weird because I spend a lot of time reading about them, thinking about them, and also getting triggered by stuff that doesn’t have a warning), but it sounds to me as if Cooper actually does give verbal trigger warnings to her students but is simply against labeling them “trigger warnings”. As I’ve said before (many, many times), a trigger warning is simply a heads up to a reader to let them know that there is potentially triggering content. By triggering, I don’t mean upsetting, new, uncomfortable, or difficult content. I mean content that causes someone to have an intense and uncontrollable emotional reaction, often with flashbacks, physical symptoms (sometimes exclusively physical such as a seizure for someone whose epilepsy is triggered), or impairment of their functioning. It usually involves a mental illness and the symptoms and difficulties associated with that mental illness taking center stage for the individual who is triggered.

A trigger warning is NOT censorship. It is not saying that the content is bad. It is very similar to a content note in that it alerts readers to what’s coming up. Generally it does so to allow someone who might be triggered to take care of themselves. Online that might mean choosing not to read the piece. But I know of almost no teachers who believe that trigger warnings exist to allow students to opt out of certain conversations. Instead, it’s there to allow the student to choose how they’re going to read the piece. Maybe they won’t do this piece of homework in a coffee shop, maybe they’ll give themselves extra time so they can engage in self care, maybe they’ll ask a friend to be around while they read it. If a particular trigger is especially bad, it opens the door for them to discuss with their teacher if there is another way for them to cover the same material. But in no way does telling someone “hey, take care of yourself” mean the same thing as “you don’t have to grapple with this issue.”

Cooper suggests that the way to handle these sensitive topics is to have a well trained teacher who can help students deal openly with their feelings. Hear hear! I absolutely agree that educators should be well schooled in how to address topics that might provoke intense emotions from students. But what that doesn’t deal with is the fact that students generally do the reading that contains these topics on their own, outside of class with no one to support them or walk them through a nuanced discussion.

I have yet to see a clear articulation of how a trigger warning impedes honest discussion and engagement with a variety of ideas. I have yet to see anyone point out how a trigger warning might keep a student from being exposed to new viewpoints or from dealing with difficult subjects and new concepts. Some have suggested that a trigger warning will give a student a preconceived notion of what the text will be like, or will label the content as “bad”, but again, this seems to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be triggered. Yes, I suppose giving someone a heads up on the content in material will give them some preconceived ideas of what will be in the text because someone has just told them what will be in the text. This seems no different from a teacher giving a short overview of what to look for or guided reading or discussion questions. And if the wording of “trigger warning” seems to imply something negative about the reading, a content notice would perform the same function nicely without any baggage.

I’m worried that the vitriol against trigger warnings is just another case of neurotypical needs being prioritized over those of people with different brains. Students should be given accommodations that facilitate their ability to learn, whether that means presenting material in a variety of different forms, getting extra time on tests, or helping them engage with material without sending them into a panic attack or flashback. If teachers really want to facilitate strong engagement with new ideas, having students who are absolutely flooded with emotions is not conducive to that goal. Speaking from experience, those are the times I am least likely to be able to process new information or calmly test out new ideas and viewpoints. While Cooper says that without trigger warnings she has been able to take her class through a variety of difficult pieces of media, I do wonder how many students felt they had to stay quiet or simply weren’t capable of speaking up because they were overwhelmed with emotions.

Again, from personal experience, when a triggering topic comes up unexpectedly, I am not able to speak up or participate in discussion. Ignoring the realities of triggers actively bars students from being able to participate in class when they are suddenly exposed to things that send them spiraling. It does a disservice to the vulnerable students in class.

So again, probably not for the last time: trigger warnings are not the same as censorship. They do not require anyone to change what they’re saying. They do not give students a free pass to opt out of difficult discussions. They simply let students take care of themselves while engaging with difficult material. And sometimes knowing that a topic is coming up is enough to keep it from causing serious distress and setbacks in someone’s recovery.

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.

She Said Yes: When Consent is Coerced

Apparently sex is just on my mind this week. Yesterday I shared with you a story about my personal experience of sexual assault, and today I want to talk about some of the ways that people manipulate each other in inappropriate ways into having sex. Any time you coerce someone, guilt them, or manipulate them in any way in order to get them to have sex with you, that is sex without consent. It is inappropriate and unacceptable. However from my experience and the experiences of those around me (yes, this is anecdotal, but no one has done a study on how many people say “if you loved me you’d do it), this kind of manipulation is common. So let’s take a look at some of the more common ways that people manipulate each other and what’s wrong with each of them.

1.”You must be a prude”

Let’s just say it straight out: shaming anyone for their sexual choices, whether to have sex or not have sex, is pretty much just a shitty and not ok thing to do. However if you’re trying to get someone to have sex with you just to prove that they’re cool, forward thinking, liberal, or liberated, then they’re not really consenting to sex with you: they’re consenting to a symbolic act that will keep them from being embarrassed. And what you’re really saying when you say this is that you won’t respect them if they don’t have sex with you. This is emotional manipulation, and if you coerce someone into having sex with you by convincing them that you will not respect them if they don’t, or that they have to do it to prove their liberalism, then you are not respecting their boundaries or their consent.

2.You’re punishing me.

Once again there’s a pretty basic myth underlying this statement: you are not owed sex by anyone. It is no one’s responsibility to give you sex. Therefore not giving you sex is not punishing you. It’s not taking away something that belongs to you. It is not treating you poorly in any way, shape, or form. When you say this, you imply to the other person that you require sex from them, that it’s a basic right of yours. You sound like a child throwing a temper tantrum. When someone says no to sex, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about their right to have autonomy over their own body. Their ability to say no to you doesn’t harm you. Get over it. When you say this to someone you imply to them that they owe you their body. That’s manipulative and creepy. It tells them they HAVE to say yes unless they have a really damn good reason to deny you your toy.

3.What if you never want to have sex with me again?

Oh my sweet Jesus the catastrophizing. Now first of all, someone not having sex with you ever again is still not the end of the world. It’s their right to say they don’t want to have sex with you anymore. Yes, if you’re in a relationship with that person it would suck and you would need to discuss it, but it certainly isn’t something to guilt someone over. In addition, let us repeat again that when someone says they don’t want to have sex IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. If your partner is saying no to sex or feels uncomfortable, the needs of your penis or clitoris are not priority #1 here, your partner’s emotional well-being is. Changing the subject from whatever is making them uncomfortable, or trying to put the entire weight of your sex life on them over one incident is upping the stakes so that if they say no now, it means more and could spell the end of the relationship. It’s a veiled threat of sorts: if you don’t have sex with me now, you won’t ever want to have sex with me and I’ll be miserable forever/break up with you. Veiled threats and emotional blackmail are not acceptable ways to get someone to have sex with you.

4.Are you not attracted to me anymore?

I understand why someone would feel like this if their partner turns them down for sex. It’s highly important to remember that the vast majority of the time when someone says no to something IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. If you suggest to your partner that you’d like to go to a baseball game, and they say they don’t want to go, it probably has more to do with their feelings about baseball or how tired they are or how busy they are than it does about you. Despite the intimacy of sex, this often is the case there too. When you ask a question like this, you imply that if your partner isn’t having sex with you, they’re making a statement about you or how they feel about you. You’re implying that they should feel guilty for telling you you’re unattractive. You’re setting up a kind of false dichotomy: either you have sex with me, or you’re telling me that I’m unattractive. You’re trying to take out the possibility that it’s totally reasonable and not mean at all to say no to sex. And it’s cruel to tell someone that their perfectly reasonable choice is actually mean and disrespectful to someone they care about.

5.You’re being selfish.

This is very much akin to the previous two but takes its own special tactic of nastiness. Saying no to another person, asking them to respect your boundaries, telling someone that they should not continue doing something that upsets you or makes you unhappy, is far from selfish. Particularly when that thing involves your own body. Again, this kind of talk tells you to ignore your emotions and ignore your discomfort because your body is public property, or at least your partner’s property. And this again activates major amounts of guilt, because it tells you that you’re bad, mean, wrong, or immoral for saying no. It paints the other person as the victim, which reverses the roles so that you’re apologizing for asserting your boundaries, when in reality your partner should probably be the one apologizing if they crossed them. Defending yourself is not an aggressive action, but this kind of statement turns it into one. It’s gaslighting to the max.

6.You’re taking away something that makes me happy.

Boo frickin’ hoo. Sorry, I should probably have more sympathy because yes it does suck when you can’t have something that you want, but let’s be PERFECTLY clear here: if you are going to prioritize the happy feelings of your genitals over your partner’s crystal clear right to say no, then you are a douche. They KNOW that it would make you happy to have sex with you. And you know that they know. So by reminding them, all you’re doing is making them feel like shit. In order to try to get them to have sex with you. Look, your partner is not taking away anything by saying no to sex. Sex was not your right in the first place so there’s no way they could have taken it away. Sometimes they consent to give you a part of themselves out of the goodness of their heart and that makes you happy. YAY! But that in no way means they owe it to you in the future to continue giving it to you. Your happiness is not your partner’s responsibility, and if you think it is then you’re setting your partner up for a lot of guilt, a lot of unhappiness, and a lot of ignoring their own interests for yours.

7.Well what if we just…

Compromise is generally a good thing. If your partner shuts down one thing but you’re super into it, it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like “Ok, we absolutely don’t have to do that. I’d be really interested in trying something else. What do you feel about ___”. But there’s a difference between that and the “what about” game. This is the game where every time your partner says no you try a different question, a different version. You wear them down. You make it sound reasonable to demand a blowjob because you aren’t getting sex. You paint your request as really not a very big deal after all, in fact something your partner really shouldn’t have any issue with because it’s so minute, even though it might be a sexual act that they don’t want to perform. And you do this until they give in because they’re going crazy trying to say no to everything and feeling like a jerk for shooting everything down. Sex isn’t haggling. Someone’s body isn’t for sale and it’s not up for a bargain.

8.Why won’t you think about my feelings?

Once again, this kind of statement prioritizes your feelings over your partner’s mental health and safety, and it tells them that they should be doing the same because if they don’t they are being unsympathetic and paying no attention to their partner’s feelings. It implies that if your partner cared about you and your feelings, then there is only one decision that they would or could make: giving you what you want. It’s another way of turning yourself into the victim and implying that your partner MUST owe you sex if they care about you. Let’s be honest, your partner already knows all about your feelings because you’ve made it damn obvious that you want sex and that sex is important to you. Our whole CULTURE tells us that having a healthy sex life is SO IMPORTANT so even if they don’t know about your feelings in particular they know about the feelings that you’re expected to have and so they already know they’re being “bad” by not providing sex. So reminding them one more time? It’s petty and you’re not doing it because you think they don’t know.

9.You’ve done this before, you should be able to do it again.

This is not how consent works. If someone consented to something yesterday and then does not consent to it today, their consent from yesterday is negated. Someone is allowed to change their mind about things! CRAZY! I may have wanted chocolate yesterday and not want any today, but that doesn’t mean I HAVE to eat chocolate today. When you say this, you’re trapping someone into thinking that they are being inconsistent, irrational, and overly emotional by changing their opinion. You indicate that once they have said yes they can’t rescind their yes without being completely crazy. This really makes it hard to say no, to react to one’s emotions, to take care of oneself. It’s not cool.

10.I don’t know how to understand you love me if we don’t have sex.

This is your own god damn problem. If you can’t understand multiple ways of expressing affection, then you are a significantly stunted human being and that’s something you should probably work on. Telling your partner that they have to bend to your whim once again indicates that your inability to communicate needs to be solved with their body. It’s a special kind of guilt trip because it’s the barely logical cousin of “If you loved me you’d have sex with me”. If you want to express love, then respecting your partner’s boundaries is the best way to go. Guilting them into thinking they have to have sex to prove their love for you? Not so much.

11.I just want you to feel good.

If you wanted your partner to feel good, you would listen to what they say they want. If they say something doesn’t feel good or they don’t want it, don’t do it. What this message is ACTUALLY saying is that your partner must be CRAZY for saying no because you only want what’s best for them. They must not be thinking clearly. And not only that, but they probably should feel good because that’s what happens when people who love each other get sexy, amirite? So wrong. Your partner is allowed to not feel good, and allowed to feel good in whatever way they so choose, not the way YOU choose.

12.What about now?

When your partner says no, let them have their fucking no. This question is essentially the battering ram of emotional manipulation. It’s not very sneaky and it’s really easy to say no to…the first fifty times. But eventually most doors are going to get broken down just because your partner is so fucking tired of saying no. Do you really want your partner to say yes just because they’re sick of going through the dance? Probably not, because that’s not really consent.

  1. “If you believed in true equality, you wouldn’t be afraid of men, so you’d meet up with me & try me out” (submitted from twitter).

Really? I mean reaaaaally. This is clearly from someone who thinks they’re super sly but doesn’t realize that trying to make someone feel like they have to prove their liberalism cred is a shitty way to convince them to get with you. We all know that equality doesn’t mean you have to like everyone or go on a date with everyone, but apparently some people want to convince you that if you don’t, you’re shitty, discriminatory, and mean. Again, not a very good way to obtain consent.

It Doesn’t Fit The Script: Assault and My Life

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape

I don’t talk about rape much. Or at least I don’t talk about rape and my own life much. I don’t think I have important stories to tell. I don’t want people to know about my sex life. Rape is very much a part of my life: most of my best friends have been raped, blamed for their rape, slut shamed…My most conservative friends become suddenly liberal when rape comes up because their friends and loved ones have been raped.

 

And I talk about rape culture, and I talk about how horrible these incidents are, and I tell people how upset I am. But I don’t talk about myself. I won’t ever label it rape, I don’t think. There was no penetration involved. He did stop, eventually. But I do have a story, and it’s not one that follows The Script. I think it’s time to tell that story because I am so sick of hearing what rape looks like or what assault looks like and never hearing my story.

 

I was assaulted slowly, wearing everything from underwear and a tshirt to sweatpants and a hoodie. It happened through words, with someone I loved, with someone I was dating, with someone I trusted. It was on a college campus, at all times of day and night, in public, in his room, in my room. It was in my home, in his home…it was without alcohol or drugs or violence. And it was still unacceptable, and it was still not my fault, and it was still without my consent. This is what happened.

 

When we first started going out I had an active sex drive. He was afraid of sex. I respected that, but encouraged him to stop thinking of sex as something scary, negative or wrong. I told him it was ok to want sex. Eventually he started to listen, and found that he enjoyed sex. However I have a bizarre sex drive: it comes and goes for months at a time at its own whim. And a few months into our relationship, it turned off. Completely. I understand that this is something that would bother a partner. I understand that it would be difficult to deal with, frustrating, disheartening. I did my best to explain how I was feeling, find ways to be intimate, express my love, and be there for him when I could. I tried to keep our relationship functional even when I found I couldn’t in good conscience consent to sexual activity.

 

Unfortunately, his response was to demand sex from me. My assault didn’t happen in a night. It didn’t happen in a week. It was a sustained campaign of emotional manipulation. Each night was a struggle: I would go to bed with pants and a shirt on and he would beg me to take them off, telling me he needed to feel close to me. Some nights he would succeed, others I would try to fall asleep as he lay petulantly beside me because I had chosen to keep my clothes on.

 

He would try to touch me and when I asked him to stop he would say I was making him feel unwanted. When I told him that I wasn’t interested in sex, he told me that I had led him on by telling him I wanted sex before. He would cuddle me and I would edge away. He would edge closer. He seemed to make it clear that my body should belong to him: that he could grab or kiss any part of it he chose whenever he chose. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he said he just wanted me to feel good. It made him cry when I said no. He told me that he couldn’t feel close to me any other way.

 

Sometimes I would listen to him. I would tell myself I owed it to him to do what he was asking because I loved him and he loved me, and I was making him feel unwanted and unloved, damaging his already low self-esteem. I worried I would make sex even worse for him if I didn’t give him what he wanted now. How could I be so cold and cruel? Why wasn’t I loving him? What was wrong with me that I could care about him so much and then withhold something that would make him happy?

 

Somtimes I would try to let him do what he wanted. I would try to kiss back. But I couldn’t fake the enthusiasm, and when I just lay there, letting him paw all over me, he became upset: “I want you to like it!” he would tell me, as if it were my fault that I weren’t enjoying his forcible fondling. He made it clear that he got off on my pleasure, and that I had to be enjoying whatever was happening. He would stop if I wasn’t enjoying myself, but not because I wasn’t consenting, because it wasn’t fun for him if I didn’t join in. I owed him not only my body, but my willing joy as well. When I did manage to fake some enthusiasm he ignored every possible sign that I didn’t want physical intimacy.

 

On top of the physicality, he emotionally made it clear that my body belonged to him. He became jealous and possessive. He told me that he didn’t like me wearing short shorts because “then other guys would objectify me”. He tried to forbid me from swing dancing because he thought it was too sexual and was on par with cheating. He kept asking where we could draw the line. What was so different about a hug, or a dance, or a cuddle than sex?

 

All of this was happening as he became more and more depressed. This was in the midst of my eating disorder and depression, and I could see him falling into patterns like my own. He would tell me that his parents thought it was my fault, that I had given him an eating disorder. I knew that was crazy, but I couldn’t help but think that his unhappiness was my fault, that I owed him some joy for all that I had taken from him. I could see him falling apart in front of me, and how could I not feel guilty for that?

 

And finally, I broke. I had been fighting with myself for weeks trying to continue to say no, to watch him cry after I told him no, to remember my own boundaries and my certain knowledge that I shouldn’t consent just because he wanted me to. But finally he told me that I had ruined sex for him, and that if I didn’t have sex with him right that very night, he would never have sex again. He would turn off that part of himself completely. I shut down. Mutely, I nodded my assent to whatever he was doing, but I couldn’t make myself do anything but lay there. I started crying, despite trying not to. I turned away from him so he wouldn’t see. He was kissing me and touching me, and he would ask me if I was ok, and I would blurt out a choked “It’s fine” and he would keep going, until he finally saw me crying. He rolled off of me and walked away to sulk. I don’t remember the details. I don’t remember what all he did. I don’t call it rape because I don’t know what happened, I just know he touched me and I was crying and he knew I didn’t want it.

 

Of course some people will tell me this was my fault, that I should have seen the signs, that I should have just left. That’s easy enough to say when you aren’t the one in love, when you aren’t the one hanging onto your own emotional well being by a thread, when you don’t think that if you leave he might kill himself. Yes, I had choices in this situation that could have ended it, but I did not choose to manipulate and terrorize another human being until they thought they had no choice but to give me their body in order to keep me sane.

 

This same kind of incident has happened in three of my relationships. It is not uncommon. But this is not the narrative of rape. If I were to report this incident, I would be laughed out the door. I pretend it didn’t happen for the most part, except when asking my current partner to be particularly careful about boundaries. This is considered normal in relationships. The idea that I owed him sex is normal in relationships. But it hurt me. It made me feel guilty for the fact that I felt violated and hurt. We need to be honest about how common this is, how manipulative it is, and how it is, in fact, assault.

I’m Coming Out As Sex Negative

When I first came across this article explaining why the author is a sex negative feminist and how the reactions to that are oftentimes ridiculous, I found myself with the sort of feeling that someone who realizes they’re gay for the first time might have (perhaps I’m exaggerating a tad. I don’t want to steal that experience from anyone). But I did feel like I had finally found an understanding of the way I approached and felt about sex and a word for it and a reason why I had always felt out of synch with the people around me and their attitudes towards sex. It was a little bit like coming home: I wasn’t dirty or bad for having some negative thoughts about sex. I wasn’t a prude. There may actually be legitimate reasons to criticize sex from a feminist perspective!

 

You see I’ve always considered myself a sex positive feminist. What else would I be? I don’t think that people should be ashamed for having sex, and I myself have felt so negative around sex for so long that it only made sense to me that I should try to encourage attitudes that would make sex more positive and enjoyable for everyone around me. Sex is a good thing, everyone knows that! Consent is great. Not shaming people is great. Obvious. Self-explanatory.

 

Until I read this article. And I realized that maybe some of the reasons that I felt negatively about sex weren’t just that I’d had bad experiences with consent, but that the very nature of sexuality in a patriarchal culture is one that is political. There is a good reason that I had felt like sex was always a battlefield and that I was barely getting out alive and that’s because in many ways it is. The author does a better job of explaining why sex negativity is a worthwhile position than I can, as I’m just getting introduced to the term, but there is something I want to respond to in her article. She asks why it’s considered taboo or prudish to label oneself sex negative, or why sex positivity has become ubiquitous with mainstream feminism. I suspect I have a few answers.

 

The first and biggest answer is that sex has been used to shame and control people for a very, very long time. Not enjoying sex (especially as a woman) has been the status quo…pretty much always. Of course it feels like a radical act to suggest that women should enjoy sex, and it feels liberating and wonderful. When someone says they’re sex negative, people automatically jump to the idea that people should feel ashamed, people should not enjoy themselves, or people should not strive for positive and open sexual experiences. Because of all the shit in the past of sex, people are terrified of going back. Understandably. Sex positivity feels like the strongest barrier against shitty sex.

 

Unfortunately what this doesn’t take into account is the fact that even if you’re enjoying sex, there might still be negative aspects to it (such as continuation of patriarchal power structures). We can give people choices and still ask them to make responsible choices or hold them to higher standards. This response to sex negativity misses that sex negativity is TRYING to make sex better for everyone and trying to make society as a whole better for everyone by criticizing the things that make it fraught with patriarchal meaning.

 

And hand in hand with this fear of going back to the shame that we used to feel is the fact that when you have good sex you want EVERYONE to have good sex. Let’s use a different example. Let’s say you’ve been eating shitty Hershey’s chocolate all your life. You kinda know it’s shitty and that it comes from bad labor practices and then you finally get some nice free trade chocolate and it’s delicious and you feel AMAZING. You start telling your friends about this new chocolate. You start promoting your new chocolate. YOU LOVE THIS CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S DELICIOUS AND TASTES AWESOME AND WHO DOESN’T WANT CHOCOLATE? It’s a fact of human nature that when something makes you happy you don’t really like other people criticizing it. Have you seen Steven Moffat fans when someone tells them he’s sexist? Point in case.

 

So anyway, you’re going around loving this chocolate and stuffing it in the face of everyone who mentions they might want chocolate and then someone comes up to you and says they don’t like chocolate because it made them puke once. Also even if it’s fair trade it might still be part of a bad labor market. Maybe they should give some of the money for that expensive chocolate to charity instead. And also chocolate is maybe more of a sometimes food.

 

This is not the best parallel in the world, but I think you all see where I’m going. Telling someone they should reexamine their sex life when they think their sex life is awesome and fun really feels like raining on their parade. You don’t really want to hear about it because you’re too excited and you don’t know why someone would want to criticize you for sharing joy. Even if the criticism is for the best possible reasons and completely valid, it still can feel really invalidating. Particularly when you’re enjoying something and someone else comes along and asks you to consider WHY you are enjoying it and whether or not your desires are really your own, it can feel as if they’re questioning your experiences and telling you that your enjoyment isn’t valid or real.

 

In addition, sex negativity questions an arena that many people think of as essential to human nature. I have heard many people say that everyone is sexual or that everyone should embrace their sexuality or they will not be happy. Sex negativity questions these assumptions, which are closely held for many people. It says that there might be people who are completely capable of getting turned on who choose not to because they don’t enjoy it. This is mind blasting for people who enjoy sex. Seriously. Many people cannot fathom the idea of someone who is asexual or even anti-sex. It’s like suggesting that someone might be anti-food. Because sex is so integral to personal identity, people who like it have a hard time understanding those who don’t (also vice versa, but liking sex is much more the default in our society). Questioning whether sex is a necessary part of human life is a really deep and personal philosophical question. It’s scary. Many people don’t want to get into it, and they feel as if their choice to be sexual is being attacked or shamed when others try to bring up other options.

 

And finally, many people don’t want to think of themselves as constrained by society or of their choices as shaped by society. People want to imagine themselves as autonomous, with free will. They want to think that their desires and preferences are their own. In many ways, that’s true, but desires and preferences don’t appear out of thin air. You may have some natural predilictions (no matter how hard I try I will never enjoy black coffee), but many of your preferences are shaped by the messages around you. That’s hard to hear. It feels like it takes something away from you. And perhaps it does, but in the end it gives you back the power to begin actively deciding what you want to do with the desires that you may not have chosen.

 

Overall, the immediate impression of sex negativity is that it wants to take away something really fun, take away your self-identity, and take away your choices. Many people have an immediate disgust reaction to this. I think we’d all be better served if we looked past the label and understood how sex negativity wants to give you back these things at the deepest level. It is not satisfied with simply saying that if something feels good you can do it. It wants to go a step further and give you more tools to explore and identify how you can make your choices positive not only for yourself, but for others in society and for future generations. Mind. Blasting.