*Trigger warning on the post and the comments*
We’ve all heard the “but he’s such a nice guy” defence trotted out to explain away sexual assault, but what about the “but she’s such a nice girl” defence?
It’s a question Pluralist raised in the Feministing community last week, and I’m glad she did. She tells the story of her best friend, who “(unknowingly) forced her boyfriend into sex”:
Apparently he had said things along the lines of “I’m too tired right now, let’s just go to sleep” and she had continued to proposition him thinking “welll, this will help you sleep better!” My immediate reaction was that there was no way she had coerced or pressured him into sex. After all, he should’ve just said “No really, I don’t want to do this right now” if she kept at it. It was his fault for not stopping the encounter.
And then I realised that had this been a woman in his place – not to mention my best friend – I would never have given this consideration. I was victim-blaming, basing my assumptions in tropes of male hypersexuality and female passivity. She didn’t handcuff him to a heater and force-feed him viagra. She’s a nice girl, she couldn’t have done that!
Female-on-male sexual assault is a subject people don’t talk about much. I assume it’s because heterosexual intercourse relies on the man having an erection, which to the less progressive, educated eye makes it physically impossible (never mind that a man can physically have an erection and still not want to have sex on an intellectual or emotional level). It’s also because – as I’ll discuss further in a moment – there’s a very real assumption that men always want sex, and conversely, that women need to be talked into it.
Now, I know at least one woman who has physically forced sex upon a man who had repeatedly told her he didn’t want to have sex with her and was pretty pissed off with her afterwards – rape in no uncertain terms, if the genders were reversed. But the situation Pluralist talks about is a little less obvious than that. It’s unethical, certainly, and inconsiderate, and you shouldn’t do it, but I’d argue it’s technically not classified as sexual assault (if you disagree, please debate it in the comments).
It’s also a darn sight more common than sexual assault.
While it’s not the subject of my thesis per se, one of the interesting threads that has come through in my interviews is how very poorly many women take it when their male partners don’t want to have sex with them. They don’t like it at all. For these women, being turned down for sex – even if only occasionally, even if only once – is read as communicating a whole lot of nasty things about them and their relationship. That their partner doesn’t find them attractive anymore, that he’s cheating, that their relationship lacks passion, that they’re bad in bed, that he’s not into women at all.
It’s a similar story with the male orgasm. As one woman I spoke to told me:
I remember one time, he didn’t finish and I was like ‘what are you doing?’ Because guys come really easily. I mean, compared to a woman. They cream really easily. So I thought, “what the hell has happened here that you can’t come? This is not good! This is definitely not me. We’re working on this until you’re gone. I don’t care if you get burns down there. [laughs] I don’t care.”
She acknowledged the irony that she didn’t orgasm once in the duration of their relationship.
So where do these (very common) outbreaks of insecurity come from? I blame them on what feminist psychologist Wendy Hollway calls the “male sex drive discourse” – the idea that men are always “up for it”, forever ready and able to “perform”, and can’t control their desires. In this discourse, there’s no room for being tired, for not “feeling like it”, for just wanting to cuddle, or even for refraining from assaulting a scantily clad woman. Even amongst many progressives, these assumptions are deeply seated.
Which is why you see reactions like the ones described by this Em&Lo commenter:
have you ever seen how a woman gets when she’s denied sex!?!? They’re HORRIBLE! They’ll pout, they’ll rub other guys in your face, they’ll call you gay, they’ll threaten to cheat… Awful!
Not all women, of course, but I’d wager that it is more socially acceptable for them to behave in this way than it is for men.
The flipside of the male sex drive discourse is the other point Pluralist touches upon: that if men are hungry sex fiends, women are too compassionate and docile to ever do something like pressure a man into sex, let alone to assault him. And if they do – well, it couldn’t have hurt that much and he probably wanted it anyway, amirite?
But otherwise “good girls” do unethical things in just the same way that otherwise “good guys” do. And I’d argue that defining people as such blinds us from looking critically at their – and more importantly, our own – behaviour and prejudices.
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