RMJ (also known as Rachel McCarthy James) is a twentysomething who grew up in Kansas and currently lives in Virginia. She works in education and loves cooking, cats, and television. She blogs about feminism and stuff at Deeply Problematic.
Trigger warning for description/discussion of sexual violence.
One of the common counter-arguments to feminist discussions of rape is “Well, what if it’s a case of the woman (because it’s always placed in those reductive framing borne of oppositional sexism) just waking up and, you know, regretting it the next morning?” Or, as world-class asshat Alex Knapper put it in a faded controversy:
“To cry “date rape” after you sober up the next morning and regret the incident is the equivalent of pulling a gun to someone’s head and then later claiming that you didn’t ever actually intend to pull the trigger.”
The gap between the time that post made a furor and the posting of this piece should give you an idea of how hard it was for me to write the following passage into my month-old draft.
In terms of sexual assault and abuse, I am quite privileged. I made it through my childhood entirely free of any kind of sexual abuse and mostly free of harassment, and 99.9% of my sexual experience has been uncoerced and generally awesome.
But at one point, all of my sexual encounters had been less than consensual.
In my first year of college, I began drinking and macking on dudes in the same month. The first time I really got drunk (on a single Smirnoff Ice) I made out with a dude in full view of my friends. This, while extremely embarrassing in retrospect, was fine.
The second or perhaps third time I got drunk, I got trashed for the first time. I was a stumbling mess, but I decided it would be fine to go into a bathroom with the dude mentioned above. After making out for a bit, he starts asking me to go down on him. I ignored the request at first, continued kissing him. But he kept asking.
No, I said, I’d rather not, I said. But it would feel so good, he said. I don’t want to, I haven’t before, I said.
Please? He asked again and again, and eventually I relented.
I remember little of the rest of the night, though I know vomit was involved. I remember more clearly waking up alone in the bed, my bra unhooked.
I didn’t say or think this was anything other than consensual for at least two years, until I’d gotten into a really good sexual relationship with my current partner.
I still, in my mind, don’t claim this as rape. But I feel – shitty thinking about it. I feel a shame I don’t attach to the first instance, which was a silly mistake on my part. I feel sad and anxious and worried. Not the way I feel after having shitty or disappointing sex with my lovely partner.
Sex borne of manipulation is not consensual. It’s not necessarily physical force, not drugs to ply the victim, but it’s an exercise of power in a very traditional sense: using emotional power derived from the manipulation of privilege – working that privilege to extract a yes out of no.
If there is a “no”, an “I don’t want to”, an “I don’t really feel like it”, present in communication about a particular instance of sexual activity, then any sexual activity resulting from that communication is not consensual. Full stop.
There are exceptions – saying, “don’t do this but please do that” is not the kind of conversation I’m talking about. And a “no” respected in one instance does not mean that a “yes” in another instance is tinted by rape – if it’s a different situation, whether it’s an hour or a week or a year later, then the previous “no” isn’t necessarily relevant.
Manipulation in the interest of “consent” is weaponized in a number of ways, and it’s not limited to cis men raping cis women (though that’s probably the most common type of this sort of rape). If a female partner guilts her male partner into sex, that’s not consent. If she uses society’s expectation that males are necessarily sexual to undermine or demean his gender identity, that’s not consent. (It’s also an instance of oppositional sexism). If a partner uses threats of infidelity, of abuse, of humiliation, to extract a yes from a reluctant partner, that’s not consent.
Is it the same as rape through physical force or through drink/drugs? No, it’s not. It’s not necessarily as bad as an instance of rape more traditionally defined. It’s not necessarily worse. It’s also not necessarily better. And these things are not necessarily mutually exclusive – pressure and manipulation can be compounded by physical force or intoxicants.
It’s also not necessarily rape. The degree of consensuality is defined only by the person who experienced it.
This is where the idea of regret is important. I’m not trying to say that every single instance of a yes extracted from a no is necessarily rape. If someone didn’t initially want to do it, but was sufficiently convinced by their partner and ended up really enjoying it, awesome, and more power to that couple. [And in this situation, if the initiating partner wants to make sure that their more reluctant partner is cool with proceeding, they only need ask, “are you sure? We really don’t have to.” Though, I suppose, this assurance could also be a part of manipulation. The definition is not up to the initiating partner.]
But if the person felt bad, felt used, felt regret, during and after the experience? That indicates a lack of consent to me. Folks are allowed to define their own experiences and their own oppression, but when those instances are described to me, they sure sound a lot like rape. When I think back on my experiences years ago now, it feels like I’ve been assaulted.
I don’t think that this is necessarily a new idea. The idea of active consent or positive consent gets at this. So does the idea of affirmative consent, as Marcella Chester points out:
Affirmative consent is a serial opt-in system that allows an opt-out at any time and which always returns to opt-out status whenever someone is not capable of opting in or of freely expressing the desire to opt out. Affirmative consent is non-transferable. If someone wants to opt-in to something which by default is opt-out they need to clearly negotiate their personal boundaries.
This is clearly different from the mere presence of the word yes. This is a standard which maintains a person’s freedom and requires the unending respect of other people’s freedom. Respecting other people’s freedom at all times is more complex than continuing until a no or taking a yes as a blank check, but this complexity is not a valid excuse for failing to respect other people’s basic human rights even during sexual activity.
And this is hard to define, and I’m not expecting this to be integrated into the law – but that’s mainly because I have no trust in the legal system with regard to rape, and think that some fundamental shift in our society’s culture is necessary to take consent seriously and from
Rape and consent are facts rarely taken seriously outside of movements focused on the rights of women. Consent is sought and contested in sexual conversations and acts, and emotional and intellectual manipulation can result in acts that the abuser can wash their hands of but the confused victim cannot wash away. When consent is ignored, abuse proceeds not always with force, but sometimes with just words. By using guilt, rapists and abusers can clense their consciences and eternally claim to be the good guy or girl. The emphasis should not be on the technical yes, the coerced “consent”, but on the feelings and experiences of victims, of survivors, of people who have been used and abused through manipulation, which leaves no mark.
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