My husband is kind, supportive, funny, generous, smart, and loving. However, I feel like I must divorce him. Six years ago, when we were in our early 20s and had just fallen in love, after a night of partying and drinking, he woke me up in the middle of the night and started to have sex with me. I was dozing and still drunk and, yes, I took my panties off myself. But when I realized that it was not OK for him to make advances on me in my state, I pushed him away and ran out. He later felt so bad he wanted turn himself in for rape. I was very confused and thought at times that I was overreacting and at others that I was raped. We painfully worked through this, but the incident made my husband very reluctant about having sex. This led to an agreement that he shouldn’t be afraid of coming close to me in similar situations as long as he asked my consent. This made us feel better and I felt secure again. However, we just found ourselves in a very similar situation. After coming back from a friend’s wine tasting we went to bed and he started to kiss me. I liked it and went along, only to wake up in the morning and remember only half of it. Now I am in the same painful spot I was before and I can’t fathom how he could have ignored our agreement. Should I just drop it or am I right about feeling abused?
Ugh. If she feels abused and wants to leave, that’s valid and she should leave. But this is one of those situations where the concept of “consent” gets tricky. Obviously marriage doesn’t mean that both partners consent to sex always. But marriage and long-term relationships do often mean, in practical terms, that partners stop asking each other, “Is it ok if we have sex now?” and accept non-verbal cues. Her phrasing of going along with having sex (the most recent time) sounds pretty consensual; it sounds like it was only the next morning where her spotty memory gave her pause. Consent isn’t defined by the absence of “no,” but her own description makes it sound like she did affirmatively consent, even if she didn’t give a verbal “yes.” And of course in real life, outside of gender studies courses, couples in loving and trusting relationships have sex while drunk or high or otherwise mentally-altered, including in situations where one or both partners wake up the next morning and realize they were too blasted to fully remember what happened the night before. Outside of a trusting relationship, the same sex act under the same set of conditions looks (and feels) a lot more problematic.
Marriage or a relationship doesn’t remove the possibility of sexual assault — lots and lots of people are raped and assaulted within their relationships and their marriages, often multiple times, often in situations where they didn’t explicitly say no. But there has to be a way to talk about consent that reflects lived reality — that relationships do matter, and marriage of course doesn’t revoke one’s right to say no, but non-verbal cues are going to be used more often than not.
At the same time, they had an agreement — he had to get her verbal consent if she had been drinking (or at least that’s how I read “ask my consent”). Not doing that is a major violation, especially since they agree he assaulted her years before.
And yet something about this whole situation just strikes me as…. off.
Here’s Prudence’s response:
I understand the need for colleges to have unambiguous codes of sexual conduct for their young, horny, possibly plastered students. These often require getting explicit permission for every escalating advance. However, if two adults are in love and have frequently made love then each can assume implicit consent to throw such legalistic caution—as well as panties—to the wind. Certainly spouses are entitled to say, “Not tonight” or “Not there,” and have such a request respected. But even a married couple who have had sex hundreds of times can enjoy that alcohol might ignite a delightful, spontaneous encounter. Your approach, however, seems to be to treat your sex life as if it is subject to regulatory review by the Department of Health and Human Services. Your prim, punctilious, punitive style has me admiring your put-upon husband’s ability to even get it up, given the possibility he’ll be accused of rape—or turn himself in for it!—if one of you fails a breathalyzer test. Living in terror that expressing one’s perfectly normal sexual desire could end one’s marriage, and freedom, is itself a form of abuse. Stop acting like a parody of a gender-studies course catalog and start acting like a loving wife. If you can’t, then give the poor sap a divorce.
I’m halfway with her (adults can have sex while drunk and it’s not necessarily rape, this approach does seem a little like a regulatory review) and halfway repulsed, especially at the admonishments to “start acting like a loving wife” and accusations that the letter-writer is simply being prim and punitive. But at the end of the day, the wife feels abused — it doesn’t really matter if Prudie or me or the Feministe commentariat or a court of law thinks that assessment is “right” or not. If she feels abused in her relationship, that’s an awful relationship for her to be in, and she should leave.