Bad Sex

Content note: bad sexual experiences, like it says on the box.


There’s something I’ve wanted to discuss in a feminist context for a while, and I guess now I have the platform, right?  I find myself nervous, though, because discussing it involves talking about some personal experiences that I usually prefer not to publicize.

I’ve mentioned in the past, I think, an impatience with what I have experienced as sex-positive feminists being unwilling to discuss negative experiences of sex, to dismiss them as not having “full consent” and therefore not being really sex, or something of that nature.  Sometimes I can feel quite alone in having had many experiences of sex that were really very bad.  And no, they weren’t rape.  They were experiences to which I fully and freely consented.  They were also experiences that were horrible, in some cases traumatic–but with one exception, I really don’t think they were rape (the exception I try not to think about).  I do think they are heavily inflected and dependent on a misogynist culture that keeps women from trusting themselves, feeling good about themselves, feeling good about their bodies, feeling confidence.  And maybe men have experiences like these too?  And just don’t talk about them?  I honestly don’t know.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time hanging around a given bar scene in NYC.  Giuliani had just come to power, and it was hard to get into places if you were under 21, which I was, so if you were a teenager and you found a friendly bar that would pour out for you, you tended to stay.  This scene had a number of bands circulating through it, as scenes do, and I had a crush on a big man in one of those bands.  He was–and is–significantly older than me and married.  Like, my father’s age.  (It’s probably not irrelevant that my father had just left my family and he and I were not on speaking terms.)  Dude was cute–insofar as my quirky definition of cuteness goes.  He was very smart, which was important to me, because I’m very smart (no false modesty here, I don’t have time), I was at the time, and I don’t have a lot of patience.  And he was very, very political in a way that I have a hard time finding outside of my immediate family, in a radical-left, know-your-history kind of way.  I still find that deeply alluring (one of the reasons my current favorite band is my favorite is because when I first heard them a few years ago, one of their songs referred to the police as “the pigs” and I hadn’t heard that since I was a little girl, so I fell immediately in love).

And at first, he was rather sweet to me, in a flirtatious sort of way, but in a way that indicated that he knew I was underage and had a crush on him.  Then two things happened.  One was that I turned 18; the other was that his girlfriend moved away (this is a whole other kettle of fish not worth going into right now).  I guess he had some spare time because he moved in on me hard.  There was a lot of buying me drinks and taking my hand going to secluded parts of the bar and staring deeply into my eyes and telling me that age didn’t matter, what mattered was how two people felt about each other.  You can tell that age does matter and that I was 18 because I fell for this crap.  And then there was a lot of making out in taxis and the hallways of the various buildings where I was living and once in my apartment.  And then I think the reality of what it meant to get a teenage virgin who’d never been kissed before to fall for you crashed in on him and he…stopped.  Just cut me dead.  The first time he saw me after going to bed with me for the first time.

Even before that, though, something had started to go wrong.  I’d stopped feeling anything when we were fooling around–not excitement or arousal or anything.  I just felt…detached from the whole thing, like I wasn’t really there.  That’s a feature of depression, certainly, but it scared the shit out of me–had I lost the ability to enjoy sex?  I can look back and say poor baby, a middle-aged married man fingering you in a taxi is not conducive to a kid’s sexual flowering, but that wasn’t my perspective at the time.  And understand this–he checked in with me every step of the way.  Did I want to be here?  Did I want to be doing this?  I always said yes.  But in a very real way, I wasn’t there at all.  My therapist at the time told me it was dissociation.  But it terrified me.  It was like I couldn’t feel anything.

So why did I keep saying yes?  I didn’t want him to stop liking me (fat chance).  I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t cool.  Nobody else had ever found me attractive.  And while I knew I was smart–I had all kinds of support and validation for that–the idea that somebody thought I was pretty?  Attractive?  Beautiful?  It was powerful.  It was important.  I really, really needed it.  But understand: he never said anything like that.  He never put any pressure on me.  But I still ended up doing things I didn’t want to do and didn’t enjoy.  My decisions were no doubt the result of a misogynist culture that taught me to value myself and my sexuality poorly; they were no doubt the result of rape culture that taught me to prioritize his experiences over my own.  But there were mine.  I was of age.  I consented, repeatedly.  This wasn’t rape.

I don’t mean to exempt this dude from blame.  He was an asshole, no doubt.  He should have known better–hell, he probably did know better.  It wouldn’t have taken a genius to realize that I was uncomfortable and unhappy.  It wouldn’t have taken a genius to realize that there was no way this situation was work out well for me.  It wouldn’t have taken a genius to think that a schoolgirl’s first sexual experiences should not have included giving a married man a blow job in a hallway that smelled like urine.  It’s just that he wasn’t a rapist.  And that’s a low bar to set.  He’s still scum.  (We actually have enough interests in common and NYC is a small enough city that I run into mentions of him from time to time, interviews, that kind of thing.  I have no idea if he runs into mentions of me, or, if he does, what he thinks.)  And for years I had several symptoms of PTSD related to these experiences–intrusive thoughts I couldn’t control, for instance.  I couldn’t talk about this in detail in therapy without dissociating–when I tried, I became literally nauseated.

The thing about dissociating during sex is that once you learn how, it’s pretty easy to do, and doing it–counting ceiling tiles until it’s over–often becomes easier than saying “this isn’t working for me,” so I’ve done it a lot, though not for a few years.  And the thing about what happened to me is that I lost all faith in my desire.  My gut reaction to feeling attracted to someone was to stay as far from them as I could, on the grounds that nothing good could come of that.  When you combine those two things, well, I ended up making myself sleep with men I wasn’t attracted to because I really liked them and they treated me well and it would be a great relationship, women I wasn’t attracted to because I started out being attracted to them but then they started being really nasty to me when it seemed too late to turn back, men I started out being attracted to and whose technique turned out to lack a certain je ne sais quoi.  And that’s a lot of lousy sex too.  A lot of wondering what was wrong with me that I wasn’t enjoying sex, like I was supposed to.  It really did a number on my head.  And my body.

And none of that was rape either.  It was all stuff I did to myself.  I made those decisions.  I consented.  I often initiated, because I could think of a good reason not to have sex and “I just don’t really feel like it” didn’t seem like a good enough reason to me.  I’ve been to bed with men because it just seemed easier to get it over with than deal with me not wanting to.

I will never do any of that again.  But it lasted for a long time, years, years of therapy.  I was really fucked up, and I have never found a good feminist analysis of the situations I kept finding/putting myself in.  For so many years feminists have had to keep hammering home that rape isn’t “just” bad sex.  That’s so important.  But I’d like to talk about bad sex now.  Is it gendered?  I feel like my experiences have got to be gendered.  I’ve never heard a man talk about anything like this, but of course my experience does not have to be universal.


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68 comments for “Bad Sex

  1. hc
    January 5, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    It is really great to see someone put this into words. I could have written almost exactly the same thing, if I were a better writer. I recognize the motivations your describe, and the dissociation, and I identify strongly with what you’ve written about depression.

    I don’t know how common this kind of experience is, and I don’t have much to say except “me, too” to everything you’ve written, but I kept saying yes and found myself in a whole relationship I didn’t want to be in, for 3 years, because someone found me attractive. I like to think I wouldn’t make the same decisions now, but my memories of that time period are so foggy I really can’t be sure. To this day I don’t trust my own judgment or the judgment of people who find me attractive.

    (I audited your course a few years back, EG, and it was a highlight of my year.)

    • EG
      January 5, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Many thanks! I had to take a deep breath before I hit “publish” on this one. It’s hard to talk about, but thank you for talking about it too–“me too” is kind of comforting to hear, you know?

      And I’m so glad that the course was a good one! That’s always down to the effort the students put in, too, so I can’t take all the credit, but I’ll take some!

  2. NS
    January 5, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    I think this is really great (not the experiences, obviously, but the conversation). I do a lot of work around the sexual assault on college campuses issue, and one thing that I’ve noticed is that younger generations seem to have this idea that there is only good sex and non-consensual sex, and that if you don’t enjoy the sex or feel badly after having sex or didn’t really want to be having the sex it must not have been consensual. This is something that older people in my field seem baffled by – they all have said “don’t people ever just have bad consensual sexual experiences anymore?” The anti-sexual assault movement has done great work in getting sexual assault recognized and making people feel more comfortable about reporting assault, but it seems like the discussion has become so black and white that the concept of sexual assault is starting to cover what are really instances of consensual bad sex. Obviously that is not always the case, but in my line of work I feel like I’m seeing this happen – where some girls have really bad experiences that they consented to and then have no word for it other than assault so that’s the word they use.

    • EG
      January 6, 2015 at 7:54 am

      It has felt to me in conversations, particularly those with sex-positive feminists, like there are only two options available, rape, which is bad, and sex, which is good, and if something’s bad, it goes in the rape column. I think it’s really important to note that there are numerous ways things can go wrong–even numerous ways that, to be specific, men can mistreat and hurt women using sex that are still not rape.

      Like I said, the older man I knew was an asshole of the first order. He did bad things to me and should have known better. He just wasn’t a rapist.

  3. Shonias
    January 5, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    I’ve had plenty of bad sex, and I’m pretty sure some of my partners in that bad sex have the same opinion of it, and some of them are men, so while I think many of the reasons for bad sex are gendered, my gut feeling is that men have bad sex too.

    A huge part of the reason for all this bad sex is that we don’t teach kids what good sex is, or how to have it. We have come a long way, we teach them (at least far better than we used to) what consensual sex is, but not how to make sure it’s damn fine sex, for all parties involved.

    I really can’t understand parents who don’t want “how to have safe, consensual, FUN sex” taught to their kids. A good sex life can contribute to a great life, with better mental health – who wouldn’t want that for their kids? And would want bad sex for them?

    • EG
      January 5, 2015 at 10:49 pm

      I don’t really think that education about good sex would’ve helped in my case. It’s not that I didn’t intellectually know, for example, that the situation with the older man was not ideal. It’s that I was desperately unhappy and being driven by emotional issues that I couldn’t get control of. It’s not that I didn’t know intellectually that I wasn’t attracted to the men I slept with to whom I wasn’t attractive; it’s that I was convinced that shouldn’t matter so much, or I should give them a chance, or we got along so well otherwise, surely I could make this happen.

      I don’t think it was about education for me. I think it was about insecurity and emotional dynamics.

      • Shonias
        January 6, 2015 at 7:52 pm

        That’s fair enough, education isn’t a panacea for everything, but setting higher, and also realistic expectations might help other people. I think it might have helped me.

        But more generally, I wonder if teaching people what good sex looks like, especially since it involves women having agency (and having fun) would help shift the general social conditions that contribute to some of the emotional issues you describe. More succinctly, I guess, good sex education as a weapon against patriarchy? I don’t know, maybe it wouldn’t help very much, but I would truly like to come up with some way for women to avoid going through that “I’ll do anything for someone who seems to like me” stage.

      • EG
        January 7, 2015 at 7:49 am

        Oh, I’m definitely all in favor of good sex ed! It can’t hurt, and it could help. It might not have helped in my case (in some ways, I think my parents’ eagerness to be open and “healthy” about how great sex was actually made me feel inadequate and like I had to live up to something that wasn’t realistic for me), but it could definitely help others.

      • Nikolaj
        January 7, 2015 at 6:28 pm

        @EG: Good read, thank you!

        I fully agree with Shonias. I think stories like yours, EG, are also an important part of sex education. Sex education should be about sex as a natural but complex part of our life that is influenced by peer pressure and bunch of other things that make it easy to have bad sex.

        Bad sex comes in many shapes. I often felt pressure about pleasing my partner through penetration. Even though I know it’s not important to her I had an image of sex that involved both partners orgasming at the same time (or multiple orgasms on her side) and I tried to reach this goal at the cost of my own pleasure. This probably led to bad sex on both sides many times (fortunately not in a grave way like in your case)…

        I think there are many men who feel similar since there are so many things available that “make you last longer”, e.g. condoms that etherize your penis. Like penis size it’s probably one of many sexual inferiority complexes many men have. They are probably fueled by the same toxic culture that embraces misogyny and probably lead to aggression towards the other gender by itself.

        I hope for a future where teenagers have to read realistic sex (ed) stories that describe all kinds of sexual experiences. Such stories should show all sides of sex and how your sex life can change over longer periods of time. The stories should be written in a way that allows arousal but offers also a tangible way of understanding the bad sides of sex. These stories should be openly discussed in class. I think such education is much more essential than math and language skills, it’s so sad that sex is still such a taboo topic.

  4. DragonBreath
    January 5, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    A few commenters wondered if what EG described happens to men also; yes it does, a me too also. It left me feeling really rotten, numb, depressed and insecure. According to my therapist who was a woman PHD, disassociation during sex is not very common in men but it does happen. It happened often.

    • EG
      January 6, 2015 at 7:56 am

      Rotten, numb, depressed, and insecure sounds right to me. I’m sorry for all of us who’ve been through that.

  5. CM
    January 6, 2015 at 12:10 am

    Thanks for writing this! I had this conversation with my husband just the other day in regards to having “the talk”s with my sons about sex when they grow up. As awkward as it is, it is important to talk about the realities, awkwardness, and awesomeness of sex in real, honest terms.

    I had bad sex and even sex I didn’t want to have, but sex that was consensual. I didn’t say no and didn’t feel violated but I was disengaged. I, too, thought there was something wrong with me. After the first few experiences, I assumed it was just normal bad experiences born from my own insecurity and inexperience. More recently I’ve come to realize it came from my misconceptions of my partners’ sexual experience (that they knew what they were doing), my reluctance to communicate to not seem slutty or too prudish, and, in fact, the patriarchal rape culture (which taught me that once I had given the ok, it would be horrible of me to back out just because I wasn’t feeling it and that I should focus only on my ability to please my partner, confidence and my pleasure would eventually result, right?). I also lacked some important understanding of anatomy and sexual response that just doesn’t get taught in sex ed lectures. Even now, I struggle with communication on this issue because of my upbringing, despite being a confident, empowered feminist who owns her sexuality.

    I have realized, having talked to my husband. He had some of the same concerns, insecurities, misconceptions as me, from a male perspective. I hope to be more direct and open with my sons, and I hope my husband will be as well. I plan to give them a woman’s perspective, which I hope helps them read their partners better and communicate more openly. Whether they wait until they’re married or not, sex should be a fun, enjoyable experience for my sons not awkward, uneducated, or selfish fumbling until they get it right. I really do not understand our culture of shaming people, women in particular, who speak openly about sex and sexual pleasure. Wouldn’t it be a better place if we were all sexually satisfied?!

    Plus, with open communication, we could remove the “threat” of dubious consent everyone seems so worried about!

  6. Donna L
    January 6, 2015 at 12:28 am

    Thank you for this, EG. I know how hard it is to talk about these things.

    I feel conflicted about trying to answer your question about whether men feel dissociation during sex. Because, on the one hand, I lived as a man for quite a few years, and had a male body. (At least, that was the way both I and other people perceived it.) I didn’t have sex until I was 26 — which was the first time anyone told me they found me attractive — and not so often after that.

    But I did have sex while I had that body.* But then again, I never identified as a man, really, and certainly didn’t want to be one, and was never very happy with my body, even at those times when I didn’t actively hate it. So I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer.

    But if I were to answer, I’d say: definitely, yes. I almost always felt dissociation — like it was happening to somebody else, to a body that wasn’t really mine — especially when attention was being paid to my genitals. (I would hear “other” guys talk about how much they liked receiving oral sex, but I never enjoyed it at all.)

    Even (although less so) after I began my medical transition and was on hormones, and no longer had to be concerned about whether I would be capable of a particular physical response, I still felt that kind of dissociation.

    The only times I felt fully engaged were when my own genitals weren’t involved at all — or, a few times, when I was so closely intertwined with someone, emotionally and physically, that I could almost feel like we were a single person, and (almost) forget my individual body.

    (I just deleted a much longer, more detailed response I had tried to write. It’s too difficult for me to talk about in public.)

    I haven’t had sex since I had GRS in 2009, so I don’t know how I’d feel now. Better, I hope. Although my fear of what would happen (along with fear of rejection in the first place for being trans) has prevented me from even exploring that possibility.

    I guess the bottom line is that my experiences don’t have much relevance to those of cis people.


    * Always consensually, not counting the sexual abuse by a doctor when I was in my early teens. But that wasn’t “sex” at all. It was abuse.

  7. January 6, 2015 at 5:14 am

    Thank you very much for this post. I can really relate. A year ago I released this song about a very edgy sexual encounter. Lots of feminists jumped up and called it rape and no matter how much I tried to argue with them, It didn’t help. As far as they were concerned if there was alcohol and pain then there was no consent. I see it as a perfectly consensual sexual experience that was painful. Calling it rape despite my own narrative is patronizing. Sometimes we need to go through painful stuff to figure out who we are. If there is pain there present in the person, probably sex will be painful too. Really tired of this gender biased railroading by women telling you if you had a difficult experience and you’re female, then you must have been raped.
    Here’s the song if you’re interested: [accidental doubling of text deleted and link fixed ~ mods] on youtube

  8. Hubs
    January 6, 2015 at 6:46 am

    Is this gendered? Yes; how could it not be? Do men experience bad sex and pressure to have sex with women when we’re not comfortable? Yes.

    The differences are in the power dynamic and the potential consequences (the labels applied to men about sex are very different to those applied to women). I’ve told women friends that men have sex with women when they don’t want to, only to be met with disbelief and scorn. But a great many people, women and men, have sex, because saying why they don’t want to seems more of a hassle.

  9. Rebecca
    January 6, 2015 at 9:33 am

    An echoing “me too.” Thank you so much for saying this.

  10. January 6, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Thanks for this, EG.

    My first relationship – which lasted ten years – was an abusive one, but it featured non-consensual sexual activity, bad consensual sexual activity and okay sexual activity. Of course, the fact the relationship was abusive put me in a weird position, but it was a complicated mix. Very often, I initiated and disassociated. Because it was my first relationship, I didn’t know it was possible to have sex with someone and mentally stay in the same room.

    Something that helped me understand this mess was reading a blog (now defunct) of a former sex-worker. Her experience of sex-work had not been positive, she felt it was a response to previous abuse, but she wasn’t being coerced and she didn’t need the money. There were some assaults and nasty situations, but much of the time it was, as you describe, just really bad sex that she endured, or maybe performed. And although my experience was very different, the feeling she described made sense to me. I realised I’d done an awful lot of performing.

    I feel bad sex has to be part of the conversation about consent and sexual health, without placing bad sex as rape. Because this dreadful sex, this sex that leaves a traumatic memory, is obviously about engaging in activity we don’t want. It’s not something we can stop people doing, obviously – people are allowed to engage in unpleasant activities! But this is one reason we place enthusiastic consent as the gold standard – not that anything else is rape, but that anything else is best avoided for all concerned.

  11. AMM
    January 6, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Well, I’m male (at least anatomically), and I certainly dissociated a lot during sex, especially during my marriage. I don’t think I was ever able to function sexually while being mentally and emotionally present. Later on, I wasn’t able to function at all. I think it was because I didn’t feel (emotionally) safe with my wife, and it was only near the end of the marriage that it occurred to me that not feeling safe was something I should pay any attention to.

    One difference between (biological) men and women is that women can “fake it” (I’m thinking of that scene in When Harry Met Sally), whereas it’s a lot harder for men to fake sexual performance, at least with PIV sex. So there’s the added stress of worrying about whether you can “perform”, in addition to the question of whether you will enjoy it.

    Another problem I’ve run into is that there’s an expectation that men are mainly concerned with the physical act. I remember a conversation with a psychiatrist who insisted that men didn’t need to have an emotional relationship with someone (he said “a woman”) in order to enjoy sex with them. Another man and I both said it wasn’t true for us (FWIW, the other man was gay.) I’d say for me, the emotional side is the most important part of sex. Sex without the experience of trust, closeness, acceptance, and caring is bad sex, bad to the point that I’d rather do without.

    • CBrachyrhynchos
      January 8, 2015 at 9:35 pm

      My experience when I was younger was that physical stimulation could produce an erection most of the time, and a climax many times, regardless of what was happening in my head. So the relationship is complex.

      I don’t know about disassociation but the times that I gave in to pressure was really painful.

  12. John
    January 6, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    I am a man (as you can figure out from the name), and I have never had bad sex as you described it. I have had clumsy, awkward, painful, and physically and emotionally unsatisfying sexual encounters, but nothing so bad I dissassociated during sex.

    But EG’s post raises a whole of bunch of questions that maybe don’t have answered (but they should at least be asked).

    1. Other than the age gap, what made EG’s experience not only “clumsy, awkward, painful, and physically and emotionally unsatisfying” but actively damaging? This caused PTSD level symptoms. But it seems like that the age gap was not the only factor here that caused that. Wveryone has “awkward” sex as they are learning about sex and sexuality. That is a part of life and people are better for the experience. Traumatic, but consensual, sex is something different. And we need to identify the root causes of the difference so they can be identified BEFORE sexual activity.

    2. What can partners do to recognize this issue? Simply ensuring consent is not enough, as this post illustrates.

    3. And, when in a relationship, I have had sex to please my girlfriend even though, at the time I was not in the mood. But this experience is far from uncommon (a recent Savage Love column confirms this), and it is certainly not traumatic. What can we do to identify the difference between “bad sex” and that type of “not in the mood” sex?

    • EG
      January 6, 2015 at 6:41 pm

      I followed one of the trackbacks and on it a commenter was talking about how consent is only one of the three elements of how people into BDSM decide if an encounter is a good idea. The others are safety, meaning “is this going to cause substantial/long-lasting damage?” and sanity, meaning “Is this person in a mental/emotional state where they know what they are consenting to and are in a position to make a good judgment?”

      I really like those, because it seems to me that if the older man I’d been into had taken 30 seconds to consider either of those questions, he could not have justified his treatment of me. He knew I’d never been involved with anybody; he knew my father had just left and wasn’t speaking to me; he knew I was a teenager. But he nonetheless behaved in a way that was guaranteed to hurt me–running hot and cold, taking advantage of my immaturity and emotional vulnerability. So, there’s that.

      • Kitty
        January 7, 2015 at 12:35 pm

        I never know how to feel when this topic comes up. My first set of sexual experiences were good–more or less–and still left me so traumatized that now, seven years after I stopped seeing the man involved, I’m still feeling the aftershocks of the experience and have been voluntarily more-or-less celibate ever since.

        I don’t know WHY the experience was so traumatic. I consented, certainly and (I would say) enthusiastically. Maybe it’s simply that I was taught that sex was bad and dirty and dangerous and I couldn’t shake those messages.

        My problem is that I’m not sure how I would live my life differently (besides obviously go back to my childhood and teach myself different things about sex). My brain, even then, and certainly now, didn’t want sex but at the same time it was all I wanted and all I could think about and I’m not sure how I could have gotten through that impasse without going ahead with the traumatic sex and teaching myself a “lesson.”

        I don’t know. This is very confusing and rambly.

      • Kitty
        January 7, 2015 at 12:47 pm

        Ack, didn’t mean for this reply to be here. Oh well.

      • Kitty
        January 7, 2015 at 12:47 pm

        Hi EG. As a BDSMer myself, I just wanted to note that some people in the kink community have actually moved away from SSC (safe, sane, consensual) precisely because some people are not “sane” by society’s definition yet may still wish to–and may be perfectly able to–consent to BDSM and don’t want that agency taken away from them. There are also concerns that “safety” isn’t an objective term and what may seem safe to one person given their personal biases and tolerance for danger may seem horribly unsafe to someone else.

        If you Google SSC vs RACK (risk-aware consensual kink) you can find more viewpoints on this as well as a variety of other philosophies (PRICK? CCC?) people have come up with but unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any acronymy quick fix here.

      • EG
        January 7, 2015 at 12:52 pm

        Thanks for the info! I admit to being quite ignorant re: BDSM, so I very much appreciate the added complexity.

  13. Dakini
    January 6, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    Thank you for posting this, EG. I thought it was really interesting. I used to identify as a sex positive feminist in retaliation to all the entrenched puritanical misogyny of key religious institutions, and because sex can be amazing, but I never meant to disregard all the shitty encounters that are not rape. I think the sexual climate is changing (or has really sigificantly changed) in the mainstreaming of porn at the moment; the prominence of 50 Shades of Blah and that kind of media that seems to be as a catalyst for whether you are edgy or a prude with no in between ground and no space for critique.

    I think a lot of the time the crappy way we (probably predominantly men) treat our sexual partners comes down to respect, and conquest mentality which probably has a gendered dimension but doesn’t necessarily need to. I’m not sure if it is in part a copying mechanism for potential rejection, that you objectify someone rather than identifying them as a person that you just happen to want to fuck. I had some really shitty consensual experiences where I just didn’t want to be there, but finding my voice to say ‘no’ and a perceived obligation to be ‘nice’ were big factors in my decision to go through stuff I didn’t want to. The only reason I think I even remember the very lo fi experience of childhood stuff was that I didn’t want to be there or do anything, but I wanted to be ‘nice’ and didn’t want to be rude.

    I’m sure it is an issue for guys, and probably a potentially really painful one because I don’t think boys (or those who aren’t from a very strong religious background) get the mixed messages girls get pertaining to sex and availability; if you’re male you are meant to fuck a lot and you are meant to enjoy it .

    Well, that’s my lengthy contribution. Cheers.

  14. Astrid
    January 6, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    I’ve been in a relationship like that in which I had lots and lots and lots of bad sex, and was on the receiving end of some sexual abuse as well. The parts I categorize as abuse were those in which I wasn’t asked and I just shut up because I was scared of losing my boyfriend. The bad sex is when I’d say yes because I felt I had to or because I didn’t want to deal with his broken puppy eyes and hear stuff like “don’t you love me?” or “I’m ugly, aren’t I?”.

    That relationship was my first serious one (I was 17) and although it didn’t destroy my capacity to enjoy sex, it did annihilate my capacity to feel desire. My body pretty much learned that sex is something that happened to it when other people wanted, because the guy I’m referring to constantly attempted to get me to fuck him so I never got the opportunity to even begin to feel desire. Every relationship I had afterwards crashed and burned because well, I decided I wasn’t going to go back there and have sex I didn’t really want to have…but my libido is at absymal levels. Bad sex and sexual abuse can really fuck with someone’s head, figuratively.

    • EG
      January 7, 2015 at 7:55 am

      Yes! While my capacity for desire was not annihilated, it has become very rare and fragile. And unreliable. I meet someone I’m genuinely attracted to on the order of once a year or so, and the rarity of that predisposes me, I think, to poor decisions. Also, desire can vanish for months or even years at a time for me, and sometimes that means I’m becoming depressed, but sometimes it just…goes. Perhaps I’d be someone with a low libido no matter what, but I can’t help but think that it’s related to the fact that the first time my desire was seriously engaged was such a distressing experience.

  15. Jane
    January 7, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Doesn’t the term “consensual” become meaningless when there’s no real choice? What I mean is, if you’re given the choice to do something or lose something you value (in your case, the good opinion of your older man) is that really a choice?
    You say you “consented” to the sex, and therefore it wasn’t rape, but at the same time you say he was entirely aware you weren’t into it, despite your assertions that you were. So, essentially he was in a sweet situation where he could use your body, aware that you didn’t want it, and you would go away and blame yourself for it, even all these years later.
    That guy knew full well what he was doing. His girlfriend left, he saw an easy target and he went for it. He knew you were insecure, he knew you would do whatever it took to please him and he used that totally to his advantage. He may not have held you down, but he certainly used your the situation you found yourself in against you.
    It’s up to you if you want to view it as rape or not, but in my opinion it absolutely was.
    IMO there is no grey area. Either all participants are genuinely consenting, engaging in the sex act of their own free will, or they’re not. You were not genuinely consenting. You were manipulated into feeling you had no choice but to consent.
    A decent man would ask “are you into this,” see that you’ve said “yes” but are very uncomfortable, and say “look let’s just cuddle and see where it goes,” then play it very very safe in order not to upset or hurt you. A rapist on the other hand, takes your “yes” as a green light to go on using you despite your clear discomfort, secure in the knowledge that even you, his victim, will be convinced he’s committed no crime.
    Sex is optional. It should always be optional. If it’s not optional, something’s wrong.
    Don’t contribute to rape culture by trying to get these manipulative subtle rapists off the hook.

    • EG
      January 7, 2015 at 10:23 am

      Trigger Warning: I am massively fucking angry in this response due to what I see as Jane’s emotionally blackmailing attempt to control and simplify my narrative of my experiences. No doubt if you’ve hung around Feministe, you’ve seen me angry before. For some reason, I feel like it could have more force as a blogger than a commenter, so hence, the warning.

      It’s up to you if you want to view it as rape or not, but in my opinion it absolutely was….
      Don’t contribute to rape culture by trying to get these manipulative subtle rapists off the hook.

      Do you not see how these two sentences contradict each other? It’s up to me if I want to view it as a rape, but by writing about my interpretation of my own experiences, I’m “contributing to rape culture” and “trying to get these manipulative subtle rapists off the hook.” That’s some pretty major silencing there: if I don’t want to toe your party line, I’m part of the rape culture problem and advocating for rapists. No offense or anything, but fuck that.

      Your response is precisely why I have no patience with the view of rape and sex that you espouse. You fundamentally divide sexual experiences into “good” and “bad” and call the bad ones “rape” regardless of whether the person involved consented. That’s bullshit, and what’s worse, it utterly strips me of agency. I was an adult. I was in a bad emotional place, yes. I was fucked up, yes. I was young and inexperienced, yes. But nonetheless I had agency, and I made decisions based on what I thought I needed at the time. Attempting to take those decisions away from me, as though I didn’t think hard about them, as though I didn’t have other options, options that I chose not to take, options that seemed worse to me than the ones I went with, is fundamentally over-riding my consent in way that man never did. He asked me. He listened to my answers. I did the best I could with what I had, and what I had sucked. But I nonetheless did the best I could. Agency doesn’t mean “everything is perfect and and in the best of emotional and physical health and the world is full of puppies and rainbows.” Agency means “I had the freedom to make choices.” I was genuinely consenting. I was just genuinely consenting for horrible reasons.

      Similarly, you divide men into “decent men” and “rapists” and claim I’m trying to get the latter off the hook–because if someone isn’t a rapist, why, he must be a decent man. Bullshit. I never said that. I called this guy scum and an asshole. A decent man would’ve bought me a drink, taken me aside, and said “Sweetheart, you’re very beautiful, and if I were twenty-five years younger and single, I would do whatever it took to be with you. But I’m not. I’m middle-aged and married, and as smart and attractive as you are, if I took advantage of you, particularly when you’re so unhappy, I would end up hurting you very badly. So I’m not going to do that. No matter how many times you throw yourself at me. I’m going to treat you like my niece.”

      That’s not what this guy did.

      A rapist would’ve gone on buying me drinks until I couldn’t think or speak, taken me somewhere semi-private, and fucked me. He certainly wouldn’t have kept on checking in with me.

      That’s not what he did either.

      Because he was neither a decent guy nor a rapist. There’re more than two options in the world.

      You’re right. There is no gray area when it comes to rape. This was squarely not rape. And you have no right to emotionally blackmail me into calling it rape (“contributing to rape culture” and “getting rapists off the hook” my ass) so you can maintain your binaries.

      Marx wrote “Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” I made my decisions. Not in circumstances of my own choosing, to be sure, but who the hell gets those? But your need to cast me as a passive victim with no choice says more about you than it does about either teenage me or my situation.

      One last thing: no, I don’t “blame myself” for what happened. I blame him, because he behaved terribly and hurt me. My consent does not relieve him of the burden of being a decent human being. You’re the one who views things that simplistically, not me.

      • Donna L
        January 7, 2015 at 11:44 am

        EG, I’m very glad that Jane apologized. Because what she said to you about contributing to rape culture was (in my opinion) completely beyond the pale, and you had every right to be furious.

        I also think it was out of line for her to tell you that you were raped when you know you weren’t. You’re not 17 now ; you’ve thought about this for a long time; and you don’t need to be educated about the difference between consent and lack thereof.

        Besides, the arguments Jane was making are almost the same (if you take them to their logical conclusion) as the arguments that there are no such thing as free choices for women in patriarchy, and/or that there’s never “true consent” to sex where there’s any kind of unequal power dynamic, whether of age, economics, vulnerability of emotional state, or otherwise. So the classic “married boss has sex with factory girl or secretary” is always rape; any kind of great disparity in age or experience is rape; and, of course, all sex work is rape. (And all paid work that people don’t enjoy and take for economic reasons and in which they’re exploited is analogous to indentured servitude or slavery.)

        Really, the bottom line to me — tl; dr! — is that taking advantage of someone in a vulnerable position to get them to agree to go to bed with you probably means they’re a complete asshole, but doesn’t necessarily make them a rapist. And that from the other person’s viewpoint, our choices are always constrained by circumstance — sometimes beyond the point of consent — but that doesn’t mean that all choices constrained by circumstance lack any agency. If everything is the same, what’s left to talk about?

  16. Jane
    January 7, 2015 at 10:43 am

    I clearly hurt you, and I’m really sorry.

    You’re right that I didn’t stick by my assertion that it’s up to you whether you view it as rape.

    Saying “don’t contribute to rape culture” was far too harsh.

    I would be interested in discussing this further but I get the sense that you wouldn’t, so I hope my apology makes up for things in some way and I’ll leave it there.

    • EG
      January 7, 2015 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks for the apology. I really do appreciate it.

      We can certainly talk about what kind of constraints render agency null and void–certainly there are many. What in particular do you want to talk about further? Is it my particular situation or constrained choice in general or something else? I think I’m up for it as long as there is some basic respect for my understanding of my experiences.

      • Jane
        January 7, 2015 at 5:30 pm

        Thanks for being up for a discussion.
        The thing I’m concerned about is the idea that as long as a ‘yes’ is obtained, even if it is obtained through manipulation, then it isn’t rape. It seems to me that it paves the way for the cleverer, more sneaky rapists who use words instead of violence.
        To me bad sex is sex where both parties are a bit rubbish/naive/lacking technique and it’s all a bit disappointing.
        A situation where one person happily obtains sex they know the other person doesn’t want while the other person ends up traumatised strikes me as a whole other thing.
        What do you think?

      • EG
        January 7, 2015 at 5:47 pm

        I don’t think every situation where a “yes” is obtained–even repeatedly–can’t be a rape. I was in another situation where a man I was in bed with kept badgering me repeatedly, after I’d said explicitly that I didn’t want to, to have vaginal intercourse, in the manner of a toddler asking for a cookie over and over again in the hopes of wearing down his mother’s patience. At one point I was worn down and did say “yes,” and if he had been able to go through with that act (I stopped it at the last minute), I think that would have been rape, because we were both very clear about what I didn’t really want, and he was trying to get me to agree despite that. So that’s an example of a situation where I would say me finally being worn down enough to say “yes” doesn’t make that not a rape (too many negatives, but I think you know what I mean).

        I don’t think the situation was that unambiguous in the case of my younger self, though. All my options were lousy; I had major emotional baggage; I’d never felt so attracted to somebody before. I wanted him but I wasn’t ready for what that really meant; I wanted him to like me and not think I was a baby, and at the same time I was pretty clearly into him precisely because I needed approval by a father stand-in; I didn’t enjoy what we were doing but I didn’t want to stop. There was a lot of ambivalence there, all my options kind of sucked (I wasn’t getting the approval of my peer group, either, so this bar was the only place I felt accepted), and I acted on what I thought I wanted–it’s just that I didn’t quite know what that meant, and I didn’t know how to value my own happiness, because I was so unhappy in general. What I needed was for the older, more experienced person to live up to that role and err on the side of not fucking me up. But instead he took advantage of my ambivalence and confusion and used me for…whatever he was using me for. An ego boost, probably.

        So I do think the difference comes down to my desire in the different cases. I think the older man was using the side of my ambivalence that wanted to be with him to justify his predatory behavior, but that desire on my part was there, and I did act on it. He didn’t make it up. He just ignored every other kind of red flag. Whereas toddler-man knew perfectly clearly that I didn’t want to have vaginal intercourse and felt fine trying to get me to anyway. He wasn’t working with my own desires, as self-destructive as they might have been; he was trying to ride roughshod over them.

        Does that distinction make sense to you?

      • Jane
        January 8, 2015 at 4:03 am

        I get what you’re saying. I’m very conscious of reinterpreting your experience, and I am totally aware that I can’t speak for you in terms of what you think and feel.

        The way I see it is that both toddler guy and older guy were basically doing the same thing, except toddler guy was far less expert at the whole thing.

        Men can read signals. They know when someone isn’t up for something. IMO it’s likely there was absolutely no ambiguity with older guy. He would have been able to see clearly that your demeanour, your responses, everything about you was saying no while your mouth was saying yes. But he used the idea that society has that once a woman says yes then it’s a green light for the man to just go ahead and get his jollies in order to get what he wanted.

        What I’m concerned about is that you’re focusing very much on yourself – my options were lousy, I had emotional baggage. That may all be true, and I would reckon most if not all of us have been there at some stage in our lives. But in no way do those facts about yourself mitigate what that guy did. He could see your options were lousy, he could see you had emotional baggage, and he used it against you, like another man might use the fact that you’re smaller than he is against you.

        You say yourself that the older man was “predatory” and that he “took advantage” of your ambivalence and confusion. I have no doubt that he in some way took pleasure in the fact that you didn’t want what was happening.

        To me, toddler guy and older guy don’t seem all that different. The fact that they used different tactics to get through your defences is neither here nor there. How you were feeling or what stage you were at doesn’t change the situation either IMO, only that the fact that you were in a bad place made older guy’s task easier, much like a woman being small would make a violent guy’s task easier.

        The fact is, older guy was a predator who wanted a willing young girl to fulfil some fucked up desire on his part. You happened to be in his line of sight and he used you. You were left traumatised by it. That is an awful thing to have happened and the person to blame was him. As you say yourself, he could have backed off, he could have been in some way decent. But he wasn’t – he used you to get what he wanted.

        To me, it seems that you’re keen to point out things about yourself that led to the situation happening and that comes across to me as an attempt to blame yourself for this guy’s actions.

        You had agency, of course you did, but so did he. And his choice was to hurt you.

        You were a young woman with baggage. A very common thing, nothing to be ashamed of. He was an older predator who used another person. I hope he is disgusted when he looks in the mirror.

      • EG
        January 8, 2015 at 4:54 pm

        The first thing I want to say is how much I appreciate the considerate, circumspect way you’ve written this. It makes it a lot easier for me to think carefully about what your saying when it feels like we’re collaborating rather than adversaries!

        You know, the decision to focus on where I was and why I did what I did was one I made years ago as a reaction against how much time I spent as a young woman trying to read his mind, focusing on what he was thinking, what he was feeling, why did he do that, he said X, what do you think that means, blah blah blah. It felt very freeing in therapy when I was in my mid- or late 20s or so to just say “Fuck him. Who cares why he did what he did or what he meant when he said what he said! I’m just going to focus on how what he did affected me, and to understand why I made the decisions I made, so I can not make them again.”

        I did blame myself for many years for what felt like such a humiliating experience, but I honestly don’t anymore, and I am in absolute agreement with you that he’s a shit who had agency and used it to hurt me.

        I have not before considered the possibility that my discomfort and unhappiness were positive features for him; it is an idea that makes me uncomfortable. I cannot dismiss it. My gut feeling is that in this particular case that was not true for him, and that his pulling away from me and dropping me had to do with the realization that the reality of a teenage virgin is nothing like the fantasy, that my inability to respond sexually in an enthusiastic way put him off in the end.

        But I haven’t interacted with him in fifteen years (I ran into him and his wife at a restaurant about seven or eight years ago; he looked profoundly terrified and avoided eye contact), and my youthful assessments of his character are not necessarily spot-on, you know? So I can’t dismiss the idea that he was into me being unhappy. Thought it does upset me to think of it.

        Still, I’m wary of making his mens rea a deciding factor here, rather than mine, you know? Sort of in an “intent isn’t magic” way, I don’t want what he wanted and felt to be determining how I think about my experiences. It is a tricky business.

      • Jane
        January 9, 2015 at 3:57 am

        I understand what you mean about focusing on your thoughts and feelings, as, like you say, they are the only things you can have any real insight into.
        My concern, and the reason I was very heavy-handed to begin with, is that giving the situation you were in the label “bad sex” runs the risk of writing it off as “one of those things” like bad food in a dodgy restaurant, something we all have from time to time, something almost to be expected and just shrugged over.
        It’s absolutely and definitely true that not all sexual encounters will be brilliant, some will be a bit rubbish and disappointing, even in a long term relationship. And when that happens, it is worth saying “meh, bad sex” and moving on, perhaps trying to learn what exactly wasn’t right and talking about it if that helps.
        To me, that situation with older guy was not “bad sex.” It was a situation with a massive power differential where a guy used you. You were left traumatised by it, and have struggled to come to terms with it ever since. It was not just “bad sex” it was a situation in which a man used his advantage over you to hurt you and it is absolutely not something women should expect or put up with.
        I am very concerned that you say “it was all stuff that I did to myself,” and the message that is giving. I understand entirely the need to identify your own agency in the situation, but to me, you go further than that and assign blame for what happened to yourself, as though that guy was a complete idiot who couldn’t see with his own eyes that what he was doing was wrong. I am concerned that the way you frame your discussion implies that in certain situations where women feel coerced into sex in subtle manipulative ways, then they’re to blame for that because they “consented.”
        The issue of consent is a massively problematic one in my eyes, as it is for many feminists – I’m not sure your feelings on it? IMO, the minimum standard for sex is some sort of genuine enthusiasm – consent in not enough.

      • EG
        January 9, 2015 at 8:29 am

        Well, I definitely don’t want to just write off “bad sex” as one of those things we have to expect–I think my experience with this older man was heavily determined by a misogynistic, patriarchal culture that, as you note, allowed him a much greater share of power than it did me. That’s one of the reasons I opened this conversation–I don’t think we should just write it off. I think we need a feminist analysis of how and why men behave like this and the consequences for women. This experience was definitely traumatic for me, and as you note, had far-reaching consequences over years and years as I grew toward a more feminist understanding of where the blame for it belonged–i.e., him.

        Perhaps my phrasing was infelicitous or not specific enough. When I wrote “this was all stuff I did to myself,” I was referring specifically to the paragraph preceding it, wherein I talk about subsequent poor decisions I made. Going to bed with men I wasn’t attracted to because I thought I could force that kind of connection and they would’ve been great in all other ways was my decision, not something those men caused in any way other than asking me out. Going to bed with the woman who treated me terribly during the encounter was a spur-of-the-moment decision; I then felt kind of trapped because of a snowstorm and poor public transit, and that may’ve been down to feminine socialization (I don’t want to cause trouble), but again, I suggested it to her. I didn’t mean that what happened with my first experiences was something I did to myself, so I’m sorry for that confusion.

        We had an interesting conversation here about the shortcomings of an enthusiastic consent model, but of course, I’m not sure what thread it was in at the moment…I think at the time I expressed a preference for an idea of “free consent.” Obviously, we are all constrained by our circumstances and the misogynist, racist society we live in, but I think it’s worth distinguishing between that and being directly coerced by another party.

      • Jane
        January 9, 2015 at 11:17 am

        When you said “this was all stuff I did to myself,” I took it to mean that all of the experiences, including the one with the older man, were of the same nature, and all part of the same series of bad decisions, ie all things that you did to yourself. Sorry if I read that wrong.

        My essential point is that in the original post you said you were looking for a good feminist analysis of the situations you kept finding/putting yourself in. You were wishing to draw a distinction between your situation with the older man and rape.

        What I’m saying is that you’re drawing a false distinction between rape and “bad sex” as exemplified by your experience with older man. I’m not saying you have define your experience with him as rape but I am saying that an analysis of that situation won’t differ from an analysis of a clear-cut rape situation: there was a serious power differential, he used ways to manipulate you, he ignored your (non-verbal) no, you felt traumatised by the experience, it affected future relationships and you actions afterwards – sleeping with people you had no attraction to etc – are well-documented responses to rape.
        Essentially, in my eyes, he didn’t use the accepted modes rape in the view of our misogyny-steeped society, but he did circumvent your ability to consent in any meaningful way, and he did it knowingly. He is no different from the millions of other men who do the same, and enjoy it, IMO.

      • Andrew
        January 20, 2015 at 4:13 pm


        Thank you for addressing this so directly and, ultimately, with compassion. It reflected a lot of what I was thinking and, in my experiences as a psychotherapist working with young women who often (far too often) have experiences that EG describes.

        You stated what I was having difficulty formulating and, honestly, wasn’t sure as a man would be well received.

        I sometimes see these situations as arising from a mixing up of personal, psychological reactions to an unwanted encounter and what we as a society view legally. Not to sound pedantic, but the word “rape” is often used to encompass both things and, for the individual, it often doesn’t work. Or it raises a thought that if I label my experience as “rape,” then I have some responsibility to do something more with that knowledge.

        I see this conflation often with the MRA types. Where they will say that if it doesn’t meet x and y legal criteria, then she can’t call it rape. When the actual experience is looked at and examined, she felt that way and that has validity, even if it doesn’t meet legal criteria.

        I actually did a post on this topic on Reddit recently.

        I will not say that what happened with EG is rape. I cannot define that for someone else.

        I can say that I have worked with young women who have had that exact same experience and have.

        It’s complicated and nuanced, especially when you are inside the situation. It’s a lot easier for me to sit outside and define a situation as I see it, rather than keeping my focus on my client’s experience, which is far more important.

        Thanks for being willing to address this. And thanks to you both for staying in the discussion. Not easy at all.

  17. MC
    January 7, 2015 at 10:46 am

    This kind of thing is obviously gendered. But even though there expectations, assumptions, and (as Hubs points out) especially power relationships and consequences are different for men and women, many aspects of your experience happen to us men, too.

    I certainly had my share of “bad sex” early on. I was geeky and overweight as a teenager. So when I finally lost a bit of weight and found a community as an undergraduate, I certainly had sex many times just because the woman found me –ME!– attractive. It was selfishly ego-affirming, and not always physically unsatisfying. But totally emotionally unsatisfying. Often worse than that.

    Mostly this resulted in (during the encounter) feeling bad about myself, because I know I don’t have the emotional connection to want this to go anywhere past tonight. And feeling like a jerk for feeling that while still not saying anything (crucially, through not knowing how to say anything–lingering teenage shyness and awkwardness). Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I guess. But deep down knowing that her having hurt feelings was probably going to be part of the situation at some point. And feeling like more of a jerk about that.

    I wouldn’t say any of this led to the kind of dissociation you talk about EG. But certain to emotional disconnection. Or even worse, it led to me convincing myself into trying to feel something for her.

    I had a few early relationships in which I deep-down didn’t really like her all that much, but had convinced myself that I should like her because our physical relationship should only happen if I liked her enough. So I acted in-a-relationship with her. And for a while convinced myself that I liked her, because admitting to myself that I didn’t meant admitting I was being a bit of a jerk to her.

    IMHO, much of this is happens, for men and for women, through having little education about sex. And importantly, having none about how to talk about sex and about relationships. So it’s all awkward fumbling, in a social and emotional sense, as well as in a physical sense.

    I’m certainly thinking about how to educate my (not-quite teenage) son better than I was. Especially educating him about how to talk with prospective partners about sex. And importantly, about how talking about sex involves more than obtaining consent. IMHO, if you are not comfortable talking with this person about your relationship, and the role of sex in that relationship, then perhaps your relationship isn’t yet ready for being comfortable getting naked together. (That certainly applied to many of my early experiences.) And educating him about how to take seriously the idea that mutual attraction and emotional connection –caring about each other– is an important aspect of good sex.

  18. Marissa123
    January 7, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    I’m not so sure it isn’t rape or at the very least sexual assault. Had you been a few months younger, at 17, this would have been statutory rape. Statutory rape exists for a reason – the uneven power dynamic. It’s not like that would have magically went away between the moments you were 17 and 18 with this middle aged man. He used those power dynamics as well as a sexist, rape culture-laden society to manipulate and coerce you. I don’t see any of this as consent of your own free will in the least. When the power dynamics are truly that unequal, I don’t really even think consent is particularly possible. And you had reactions to it that are the same as reactions to rape. I don’t mean to name something for you, you would know best and in writing this I only intend to extend your possibilities, but if it had been me, I think I would label it either sexual assault or rape.

    • EG
      January 7, 2015 at 3:11 pm

      I hear what you’re saying, and I take statutory rape very seriously. That said, 18 is also an arbitrary cut-off–if we’d been in Canada or the UK, for instance, 16 is the cut-off and I was well past that. I agree that the power dynamics were fucked up, but I just don’t think they rise to the level of rendering my consent null and void.

      I reacted to it the way one reacts to trauma, certainly, but there are lots of kinds of trauma that aren’t rape.

      All that said, I appreciate the considered, thoughtful way you phrased this message, and certainly I can see how another person having the same or similar experiences would consider it rape. It just doesn’t read that way to me, and I feel like I need to make room to have that conversation, too.

      • Marissa123
        January 8, 2015 at 2:47 pm

        I feel like I completely understand where you are coming from on this and that it is most important that you retained you agency in the situation. That is absolutely your decision to make and your agency to claim and no one should try to take that from you.

        And I agree that maybe we should have more conversations about precisely this issue. I often myself consider these questions: Are there limits to agency when the power dynamics are severely unbalanced? What are those limits? Who should decide?

        But at the same time, I worry about the stakes of such a conversation. No one should be deciding for you or for me or for someone else whether or not we have agency in a situation in which you or I or someone else has decided for themselves that they DID have agency.

        I think you are very strong to put yourself out there on the front lines of this so to speak. I thank you again for sharing your story because it has meant quite a lot to read the account of someone who went through something similar. And for fielding these kinds of questions and comments in response.

      • EG
        January 8, 2015 at 5:08 pm

        Thank you so much. It’s a conversation I’ve wanted to try for a long time, and I think people have been really great about it. I know Jane and I had a little bit of a contretemps up-thread, but I was so glad we worked it out and are able to really talk about different interpretations. I’m really grateful for all the goodwill people have sent my way.

      • LF
        January 9, 2015 at 9:08 am

        I struggle a bit with what counts as consent when power differentials come into play. Either way you are only responsible for your own behaviour, and your consent doesn’t make you responsible for his choice to act like a predator.

        I think we need more ways to describe these encounters than just rape/not rape. Bad sex seems too mild, appropriate for describing sex that is unpleasant or unsatisfying, not traumatic sex. I have also been pestered and guilt-tripped into having unwanted sex, and it had a lasting effect on me. It may not be rape, but it is harmful. It’s one reason why I think moving towards the standard of enthusiastic consent is important.

      • Marissa123
        January 9, 2015 at 8:25 pm

        “I have also been pestered and guilt-tripped into having unwanted sex”

        That sounds like coercion, which is a form of rape.

      • Asia
        January 9, 2015 at 11:43 pm

        I’d like to say that emotional and mental abuse are both parts of domestic violence. I have always understood that it’s easy to take advantage of a person.

  19. Marissa123
    January 7, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    I just wanted to add to my message another really really key point. However you decide to label this for yourself, I am so sorry that asshole treated you that way. Thank you for sharing your story. I just wanted to say I hear you, I have travelled similar roads, and it is meaningful, though truly sad, to me to know there are others who know similar kinds of pain. I hope you find some feeling of support in me saying this, as you telling your story has done for me, and in your life otherwise.

    • EG
      January 7, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      Thank you so much; it’s really good to know that writing this has helped other people, and I do feel supported by your words.

    • Andrew
      January 20, 2015 at 4:19 pm

      Very much echoed by me, EG. You are very brave to put this experience out here for us to discuss and debate and learn from.
      Thank you.

  20. ludlow22
    January 7, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    First, let me thank you for sharing such a powerful piece. That spoke to some of my experiences pretty directly.

    Second, I’m having a tough time with finding the line between bad sex and rape, though I agree there is one. Can anyone help articulate this? When is a power imbalance (like age) so severe it makes sex rape, and when isn’t it (obviously 18 is an arbitrary number, and in some places it’s 16 or 17 or 21)?

    Some commentators on here are arguing how you feel afterwards about sex should at least be considered, but I have a tough time giving that weight in terms of the rape/not-rape distinction.


  21. January 7, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Finally someone that actually gets it. Trying to explain to others how I could have sex with someone yet not be attracted to that person would be meet with bewilderment. In some ways I would describe it as easier, but regardless, there would be a certain amount of disassociation going on.

    Sex can be such a taboo subject, we talk about it, but we don’t really ‘talk’ about it. Often it’s brushed away, or made into a meaningless act. But for many people, it affects them greatly.

    So, this blog is refreshing to read about, the honesty can be hard. Especially to admit mistakes, wondering why it happened in the first place.

    But if nothing else, it serves to remind everyone that at least if you can learn from your mistakes, then perhaps you can help others along the way.

    Cheers for the honesty.

  22. Jenny
    January 7, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    I’ve never thought of it as dissociating before; more that I was just so not into it that I found myself thinking about ohter things until I was surprised by him finishing.

    One thing I’m still struggling to work through is the appropriate response to sex that does nothing for me. On one hand, I’m all up for saying what I like & don’t like, never faking (or suppressing) anything, and never pressuring my partner to do anything they don’t want. On the other, I know that if I enjoy doing something and that my partner enjoys it too (thinking particuarly of oral sex), I’ll often do that thing without any expectation or desire for reciprocation; I simply like making them feel good. The problem occurs if they clearly are operating on the same principles, but what they enjoy doing involves next to no foreplay or attention to my enjoyment (and trust me, if I enjoy it there’s no mistaking it). Should I ask them to do something they don’t enjoy? Or should I try to enjoy *their* enjoyment, and just write it off as us being uncompatible if it doesn’t get any better? Or does “enjoy” not match up with “want to do” in this instance (and if so, how / why not?)

    Eh, I’m not sure how relevant that ended up being. My intent was to express agreement and a sense of “Yes, me too!”, anyway.

  23. Megan
    January 8, 2015 at 12:06 am

    This post was very liberating and affirming for me. I have many thoughts that I would love to express, but feel as though I need to take time to properly put them into words. For now, I just thank you for your words and your experiences. I truly feel a sense of affirmation from reading about your thoughts on disassociation and “bad sex” occurring even when you’ve consented.

    Thank you.

  24. Unree
    January 8, 2015 at 3:42 am

    Excellent essay–thanks, EG. Really needed.

    As a straight woman I can’t speak for heterosexual men but I believe they experience bad sex a LOT. One aspect of the problem EG identified applies to them too: the lack of a name, no discourse. The lack of a name is fine if there really is no problem. But I think many men, especially ones older than millennials (a noticeably less homophobic generation), feel obligated to hit on women to show they’re hetero. I’ve watched men look relieved rather than disappointed when I’ve turned them down.

    “The New Male Sexuality” book by Bernie Zilbergeld has quite a bit wrong with it, but it’s useful when it tells men to make sure their “conditions” are met before they seize an opportunity for sex. I think something similar happened to EG in her bad-sex story. The encounter didn’t meet many of her needs–and she knew that even at the time, while all the flattery and excitement were going on.

  25. January 8, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    I’ve never heard a man talk about anything like this

    Just to share some anecdata … I have heard a man talk about these issues. Not my story to tell, but he described feeling especially isolated and forbidden from discussing his experiences, because as a male he was “supposed” to want sex all the time, and if he didn’t, there must be something wrong with him. But he described feeling degraded, used, coerced, pressured — but felt that he didn’t feel entitled to these feelings thanks to social scripts surrounding gender and sex.

  26. January 11, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    And for years I had several symptoms of PTSD related to these experiences–intrusive thoughts I couldn’t control, for instance. I couldn’t talk about this in detail in therapy without dissociating–when I tried, I became literally nauseated.

    When I here something like this I think of all those jerks who insist that women are looking for guys who are assholes that treat them like dirt and I get nauseated (not literally, but the point remains.)

  27. Alara Rogers
    January 16, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    When I was a freshman in college — so a legal adult, but barely — I joined an anime club off-campus. An older man, probably in his 20’s, had original Japanese material pertaining to my favorite show. Those of you who enjoy anime nowadays probably have no idea what it was like back then — this was the late 80’s, when no anime got to America without first being chopped up, mistranslated and ruined, and anime had no mainstream presence whatsoever. I was desperate to see this shit.

    So I went over his house a few times to see his stuff. It is probably relevant here to note that I am an Aspie, but never had a diagnosis as a kid, so I didn’t actually understand *why* I didn’t understand people or why I couldn’t read context clues. I was smart enough and high-functioning enough to slide under everyone’s radar (also I think Asperger’s might not even have been a thing when I was a kid; autism was thought of as something that mostly existed on the extreme of the spectrum).

    As an adult woman, having learned and studied the ways of the world, I know that a man inviting a woman to his house to see his anime collection is almost certainly hitting on her. I took it to mean exactly what it was on its face, just as if I was a guy his age and not a woman ten years younger.

    There were a few times when he kissed me or felt me up and I froze. How was I supposed to interpret this? His aftershave nauseated me and his kisses were disgusting but it kind of felt good to have my boobs felt up. Was this expected of me because now I was a grownup? How could I get out of it without hurting his feelings? Had I led him on? Why was this happening when I had never expressed an interest in it?

    We never had sex. This story comes back to my mind every time I read the feminist argument that women get raped because they are unlucky enough to be in the presence of a rapist, and that’s the only reason. It’s true. I was lucky not to be raped because this guy was, fortunately for me, not a rapist. He must have figured out I was not into it by my total lack of reciprocation or even movement, and did not go farther.

    I don’t blame him for what happened, because male socialization teaches guys that women send super subtle signals like being willing to go over their house to look at a collection of anime books, and that a lack of no means yes… he saw signals where there weren’t any because he’d been taught that women do certain things to send signals, whereas I, an Aspie feminist raised to believe I could do anything a guy could, never saw *his* signals until he was touching me. I don’t think either of us were to blame. I blame society. Because he was a decent guy who wasn’t completely clueless, he figured out that I was not actually indicating yes, and stopped inviting me over. We continued to talk to each other at the anime club as if nothing had happened.

    But it continues to freak me out to this day that I fell into a situation like that and I never actually said no, or stop, or I don’t want this; I was paralyzed. How many women does this happen to, where the guy keeps going? How many women react to this weirdness by assuming that somehow, they must have indicated that they want it, and so they never realize it wasn’t consensual? How many men who get hit on by women feel like they are unable to say no because it would impugn their masculinity or crush her emotionally, and go through with sex they didn’t want because they didn’t know how to say no within the social script for men?

    The whole script for dating and sexuality is toxic, both to men and women. It seems to me as if it’s impossible for such a situation to *not* create bad sex. I’m not in favor of the whole “bad sex = rape” thing either, because I see things in continuums. What happened to me would have been rape if he’d pushed me into sex, because I think I was too frozen and confused to have been able to figure out how to say no; but what if I’d actually found him attractive and convinced myself that this was something I wanted? What if I’d felt like my identity as a woman or my value as a sexual being or my position within a community required me to say yes, because otherwise I was a prude or a cocktease or something?

    When people who want sex are willing to initiate kissing or fondling to indicate that this is something they want, it’s painfully easy to imagine the recipient saying yes for stupid reasons, because they’re confused or they want to look grownup or even they’re actually turned on and this isn’t someone they’d ever have chosen to be with for good reasons that aren’t about not wanting sex. If someone says yes for stupid reasons, they’ve still said yes, and you can’t necessarily assume that the initiator could possibly know they don’t mean it. Yes, rapists and predators may be able to read the signs that their target doesn’t really mean yes, and get off on it, but if you really do mean yes when you say it because you have reasons of your own for going through with it, should we hold everyone responsible for being mind readers? On the other hand, the Antioch code was rightfully castigated for being kind of stupid, and wouldn’t really solve the problem anyway.

    • ludlow22
      January 16, 2015 at 1:54 pm

      If someone says yes for stupid reasons, they’ve still said yes, and you can’t necessarily assume that the initiator could possibly know they don’t mean it.

      Yeah, I have no idea. I think I wind up taking the position that if someone says yes to sex, in the absence of actual coercion by their partner, it’s by definition not rape. But that doesn’t necessarily resolve everything.

      What if you’re with somebody who intimidates you because they’re really physically powerful, and you say yes to sex because you feel trapped and scared by what they might do if you say no? But at the same time, the reality is the person you’re with would never in a million years be violent, you misread him, and he genuinely believes the ‘yes’ you gave is enthusiastic? That’s not good consent, and I could see how someone in that situation might feel like they were raped. But I also see how the other person could rightfully point out that they never committed rape.

  28. Naomi
    January 21, 2015 at 10:16 am

    You know, I read this two weeks ago and didn’t think I identified with it but it still stuck in my mind. And now that I’ve reflected more about my latest sexual choices and a particularly rock bottom experience a few days ago, I know exactly what you’re talking about. It was gray what happened to me a few days ago–yes I was drunk, but I do remember consenting even though I didn’t really want it. I don’t remember feeling scared or anything, just drunk enough to not care. And I was certainly taken advantage of in my inebriated state, but it was still my choice. Not a good one, certainly. And the way I felt after made me realize how little I had been valuing myself–having sex just to do it, without really getting anything out of it for myself… With people I didn’t like that much/didn’t seem to care much about me and I guess it’s been a wake up call that I don’t actually want to be that person, and I’m worth more than that. You hit the nail on the head with the dissociation piece–I’m realizing how many times lately I was just staring at the ceiling, moaning at intervals so the guy I was with would think I was enjoying myself, and just waiting for it to be over. But I think I had to have those experiences, unfortunately, to realize that’s not what I want. So thank you for writing this. Glad to know I’m not alone.

  29. J.T. Lincoln
    January 23, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    As a cis man, this is acually somethigg I have experienced, but I, like the author, have only experienced it with other men.

  30. January 24, 2015 at 10:29 am

    I keep meanin to comment on this thread. The anything-other-than-totally-enjoyable-sex = rape type of mentality also erases 1) sex-positive asexual a (which I am told is a thing.. They’re okay with having sex, just don’t actually desire it) and 2) people with diminished libidos, due to outside influences, who still want to engage their partners, physically.

    Since getting sick, my libido is kind of shot. This is a conversation I’ve had similar to.

    Boy: *sends signals re: sex”
    Me: responds, half heartedly
    Boy: you okay? We don’t have to do this.
    Me: No, it’s cool, I don’t mind.
    boy: are you sure?
    Me: yes, I’m sure.

    My consent is there. It’s not enthusiastic, but also not coerced. So would someone who is in the anything other-than-total-enthusiastic-consent becomes assault think my situation is assault or just doesn’t exist?

    • Andrew
      January 26, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      I think the response would be along the lines of, “Why would someone want to have sex with someone who isn’t fully appreciative of what’s going to happen? There must be something wrong/creepy/predatory about them.”

      That’s not my stance, but where I’ve seen these discussions go.

      • ludlow22
        January 26, 2015 at 11:43 pm

        “Why would someone want to have sex with someone who isn’t fully appreciative of what’s going to happen? There must be something wrong/creepy/predatory about them.”

        My response (not to you, but to those people) is that having sex when you’re indifferent to the idea isn’t all that different from giving your partner a back massage when you’re indifferent to the idea. It’s fucked up if you’re guilted/pressured/coerced into it, but sometimes you just want to make your partner happy/feel intimately connected/have an orgasm/make up after a fight. Or sometimes you just are OK either way and since your partner wants to and you love them, you’re happy to do it, especially since you know they do the same thing for you sometimes. Sometimes my partner gets home and is tired and wants to sleep, and I’m incredibly horny, and sometimes it’s vice versa, and sometimes we have sex and sometimes we don’t, and it’s all good.

        Enthusiastic consent presupposes that sex is a Big Deal every time for everyone. It might be a Big Deal for some people some times, but it doesn’t have to be. I mean, for some people, having sex when you’re just as happy going to sleep isn’t really different than watching some movie you don’t think you’ll like but your partner really wants to see.

        I think it’s toxic if it’s always in one direction, but not if it’s a mutual understanding between two adults.

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