This piece by Alyssa Royse of the Good Men Project, printed at xojane, may be the worst thing I have read about rape all year — and that’s including the GOP’s pre-election bout of Rape Philosophy. In it — and trigger warning for sexual assault and victim-blaming — Royse discusses her male friend, a “nice guy,” who spend an evening flirting with a woman who fell asleep next to him. Before falling asleep, there was drinking. The woman flirted hard. She talked about her past as a sex worker, and her sexual exploits, all while looking this Nice Guy in the eye. Then she fell asleep. And when she woke up, he was penetrating her. She says he raped her. He is “devastated” and confused. It’s not her fault, Royse says, but it’s not exactly his fault either; it’s our fault. The culture’s fault. Because she sent mixed messages, and it’s so unfair that it’s taboo to talk about that.
Within the community at large, there were much harder discussions centering on how it was that he thought penetrating her while she was asleep was okay, but any discussion of her behavior leading up to it was taboo. Any suggestion that her behavior may have led to — NOT JUSTIFIED OR EXCUSED — the rape was met with screams of “victim blaming” and “rape apology.”
But to run from this part of the discussion is to let the problem stagnate and fester.
There are two simple truths here:
1. She had every right to do everything she was doing and fully expect to be safe from rape. (She was right.)
2. He believed that everything she was doing was an invitation to have sex. (He was wrong.)
The problem is not that she’s a “slut.” The implications of that word make my brain shrivel when sprinkled with the salty insinuations that so often accompany it: that a woman who exhibits a fondness for her own sexuality is somehow inviting anyone who sees her to have sex with her.
The problem isn’t even that he’s a rapist.
The problem is that no one is taking responsibility for the mixed messages about sex and sexuality in which we are stewing. And no one is taking responsibility for teaching people how the messages we are sending are often being misunderstood.
So here’s the thing: Royse is right that yes, we do live in a totally fucked up sexual culture. However, even in our totally fucked up sexual culture, I come across very few genuinely “nice guys” who think it’s ok to sexually penetrate someone while that person is sleeping.* From Royse’s telling, it sounds like the woman who was raped was sending this guy signals that she was sexually interested in him. But if she was sexually interested in him, she was probably interested in engaging in some sort of sexual activity — not in having sexual activity done to her like she’s some sort of blow-up doll while she’s unconscious.
Royse writes that “He believed that everything she was doing was an invitation to have sex,” and that while he was wrong, his belief that it’s ok to penetrate a sleeping woman if she smiled at you earlier is our culture’s fault. But that right there is where her argument goes off the rails. He probably did believe that the woman he raped was, to some degree, sexually interested in him. But there is no way that he actually believed her flirting with him meant that she wanted him to wait until she passed out and then have sex with her. What he almost certainly believed is that her flirtation would help him later on to justify what he did — which in his head he may not have called “rape,” but which he surely knew was a major sexual violation, and did because it was a major sexual violation. What he almost certainly believed is that a rape apologist culture would use the very things Alyssa Royse so helpfully points to in order to make a clear-cut situation seem “murky.” To make it seem somehow plausible that a “nice guy” like him would ever do something like this. To make people like Alyssa Royse believe him when he says he thought he had an invitation to sex which he chose to accept as soon as the woman in question fell asleep and couldn’t say yes or no, and now he’s just so confused.
That’s why, even though Royse says this was rape and rape is wrong, her piece is rape apology. Because she uses the same narratives and excuses that rapists have always used to get away with raping. She says she wants to talk about our culture and how it enables rape, but then she uses the exact same cultural memes to act like rape is at all fuzzy, and rapists don’t actually know exactly what they’re doing.
Royse seems very concerned with figuring out “why men rape.” The thing is, we know why men rape — Royse was just too lazy or too dogmatic or too interested in defending her friend to do five minutes of research before she wrote this awful piece.
This case has literally nothing to do with “mixed signals.” Even if the woman’s signals weren’t mixed at all — even if they signaled exactly what she wanted to do — he did something that in no universe is considered acceptable or anywhere within the realm of consensual. This isn’t a “we were messing around and she didn’t say yes but she didn’t say no either.” This is, “She was passed out, but because she flirted with me, I thought it was ok to stick my dick in her in a time when she couldn’t say yes or no and certainly would not be enjoying the experience.”
I’ve written this before, but one thing I find helpful when talking to people who seem not to totally get it when it comes to acquaintance rape is encouraging them to think through when they’ve been in similar situations. I have, many times over, been in bed with sleeping men and sleeping women. I have, many times over, been in bed with a sleeping man with whom I had sexual history, and with whom I was almost 100% certain would consent to sex with me in the morning, or even if I woke him up at that very moment. Never once did it even occur to me to have sex with or sexually penetrate any of those sleeping people while they were asleep. To think about actually doing that — not waking them up and then having sex, but intentionally fucking them while they were asleep without their consent — makes me feel ill. To think about someone doing that to me makes me feel ill. And in all the times I have fallen asleep next to men, there have been more than a few times when I was woken up in the middle of the night so that we could have sex. But they woke me up. And they didn’t wake me up by penetrating any part of my body; they woke me up with touches and kisses and normal sexy-time “I’m in the mood are you?” stuff. In all of the times I have gone out and gotten drunk with a boyfriend and came home and passed out, not once did any of them rape me in my sleep — even though we had had sex before, even though I was almost guaranteed to say yes when I woke up in the morning.
Not because they were all “nice guys,” although they mostly were. But because they weren’t fucking rapists.
To a large degree, my friend thought he was doing what was expected. And while he was wrong, weeks of flirting, provocative dancing and intimate innuendo led him to believe that sex was the logical conclusion of their social intercourse. Many people watching it unfold would have thought that, too.
Of course they would all be wrong. But if something walks like a fuck and talks like fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it’s not a fuck? Our binary language of “yes means yes” and “no means no” doesn’t address the entire spectrum of both spoken language and body language, which mean different things to different people.
Again, sex might have been the logical conclusion of their social intercourse. But what happened wasn’t sex, at least not in the way that one would “logically conclude” a night of heavy flirting might end. One logical conclusion of their night is that they would go home together and have sex. Not that he would rape her in her sleep. Flirting and sexual innuendo and touching and “walking like a fuck and talking like a fuck” (dear god) are, sometimes, the lead-ups to sex between two people. Those actions are sexy because they imply “I find you sexually attractive and I am touching you in this way that makes you think I might touch you like this when we’re naked.” When one person is passed out asleep, they clearly aren’t doing any touching or sexy-making. They certainly aren’t talking or walking like a fuck.
Also? I do not know a single woman who has not, at some point, been dressed up all foxy and flirted with a dude and had fun but did not at the end of the night have sex with him. And I do not know one dude who has not also flirted and been flirted with and at the end of the night did not have sex with their flirtation partner. Not having sex with someone you were flirting with happens all the time. It isn’t that confusing. Even being in bed with the flirtation partner gets significantly less confusing when they pass out asleep.
Alyssa, if your friend says “didn’t know” if he raped someone, that is because your friend is not a nice guy. He is a master manipulator who is fucking with you, too. Nice guys — not even nice guys, just non-rapist guys — do not have sex with sleeping women, even if there was a flirtation. Even if they’re in a relationship. Even if they’ve had sex a thousand times before.
Our culture has a problem with sex and with sexual assault. But right now, Alyssa? By looking for any reason to justify your friend’s decision to rape a woman, you’re a part of the problem. By pretending this is about “nuance” when in reality this is one of the least-nuanced acquaintance rape situations I’ve ever read about, you are part of the problem.
The problem is that your friend is a rapist. And I suspect he knows it but cares more about being perceived as a nice guy than actually being accountable or changing his behavior. And what’s sad and scary is that women like you, and women’s publications like xojane, and “good men” websites, will join you in an effort to make things even easier for rapists like your friend, and even more difficult for women who were raped but who are still kinda-sorta blamed and shamed and told that your remarkably limited understanding of “nuance” is more important than actually ending rape.
*Usual caveat: Some couples negotiate for sexual penetration while sleeping, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.