CW: this is about non-consensual sex, coercion, rape and sexual assault so please take care of yourself if those are difficult subjects for you.
I’m starting to think that ‘yeah, actually’ might take over from #MeToo as the cry for solidarity when discussing the paradigm shift taking place in our sexual culture right now. The revelations about Harvey Weinstein have opened the floodgates, allowing more and more women to come forward to talk about their experiences and their trauma. And just as #MeToo has shown how widespread harassment and sexual abuse in the work place can be, people are now sharing stories of sex that was not violent or criminal, but was just as unwanted and just as potentially damaging.
Except that all of these revelations have been joined by equally loud voices trying to shout them down, claiming that no one really considers that to be assault and no one really believes that it is wrong. Well yeah, actually, they do and it is.
From the New Yorker story, Cat Person, which started discussions about bad sex when we feel socially unable to say no, to the recent accusations against Aziz Ansari extending this discussion to include coercion and persuasion, when we are not listened to or believed when we do say no and end up having to have sex anyway, the basic fabric of what constitutes a ‘good’ sexual encounter is under attack.
Although not technically criminal and not physically violent, this type of sex blurs the boundaries of consent and is definitely not enthusiastic, but the idea that this could be a form of assault is taking many by surprise. ‘How were we to know?’ they cry. ‘How can we understand these mixed messages??’
To me, the responses to these articles and to the whole #MeToo movement have highlighted the all pervasive grip of the Patriarchy and its impact on the development of rape culture. We were brought up to believe that love is a chase, a battle, and women or sex are a prize. Women are going to be reluctant to accept men’s romantic or sexual advances and must be persuaded – just look at Pepe Le Pew’s constant harassment of Penelope, the black and white cat. His persisting and obviously unwanted advances are literally the whole point of his cartoon and are treated as lighthearted and family friendly. And almost the entire romcom genre is built on persuading reluctant female leads to capitulate to the stalkerish actions of the hero. How is anyone supposed to believe that ‘no means no’ when this kind of behaviour is rewarded?
It has created a culture where men’s entitlement to sex has become more important than women’s comfort or autonomy. Where men are led to believe that they know what’s best for women, even when that women is vigorously disagreeing. And, yes, I am using very gendered language when talking about this issue but it is such a patriarchal concept that it is impossible to think of it otherwise, although I’m sure that many men have fallen victim to this fallacy, just as there are women who profit from it.
But it has to stop.
Sadly, it is ridiculously difficult to see through the bullshit Patriarchy when it has become second nature; become who we are and how we instinctively behave. When viewed only through the distorted lens of rape culture, people’s actions are too easily misinterpreted. When men have been taught to believe that women need to be seduced and lured into bed, why would they recognise a refusal as anything other than a part of some greater game? And when a woman has been socialised to accept that men are more important, why would they deny them? It’s too easy for men to misunderstand how entitled and potentially damaging their behaviour can be and for women to shoulder the blame and accept responsibility for how bad they feel after unwanted sex. I know this because I’ve done exactly that.
I am fortunate that I have had very little sex that I actively regret. Some may not have been such a great idea, but there’s only one night that I feel ashamed of when I remember it. So much so that I never really intended on sharing this story. For all the sex that I’ve written about on this blog and all of the personal insights I’ve shared, I’d always thought that I’d keep this one to myself. But every time I hear another story about bad, non-consensual sex and see the victim being told that they should have ‘just said no’ or ‘just got up and left’ (like it’s that easy), I remember and I wonder if they would say the same to me.
I had a two-night stand with a guy at university when I was nineteen. The first night was actually kind of fantastic and exactly the kind of sex I’d expected to have at uni – definitely drunken, probably misguided but pretty good fun nonetheless! Except that I’d picked the wrong guy to have this ‘fun’ sex with and found myself caught up in a drama that was disturbingly similar to the Ross/Rachel ‘we were on a break’ storyline. He told me that he was single and I believed him; his on-again/off-again girlfriend hadn’t considered them to be broken up and was heartbroken to hear he was fucking someone else.
I know this because on that second time that I took him home, she wouldn’t stop calling him. His phone first went off at roughly the same time as he had pulled off my dress. An unmistakable text message tone. After a pause there was another, and another, and then a phone call. Before I knew what was happening, we were fucking to the soundtrack of his phone and her desperate need to contact him. It was awful.
I asked what was happening. He told me it was his ex. I asked him if he wanted to stop to answer or silence the phone. He just told me to ignore it. So I told him I wanted to stop. I didn’t want to get pulled deeper into his drama and I certainly didn’t want to fuck him like this. I changed my mind, I didn’t want to do it anymore. But he didn’t stop. He said he was nearly finished so I just lay there and let him thrust into me until he came. He left soon after and, other than a perfectly pretentious early-noughties moment when I saw him ignoring me across the bar so texted him ‘It started out with a kiss, how did it end up like this?’, we didn’t really speak again.
Of course, I felt horrible afterwards. Ashamed of myself; icky and worthless. But most of my shame was tied up in feeling terrible about her; I was the other woman, I had hurt her, I was responsible. I never thought about what he had done. I knew the sex was bad but I never went further than that. I never blamed him.
And I didn’t blame him for years and years afterwards, or even acknowledge that what he did to me was wrong at all. He was clearly a twat for how he’d treated his ex, but not me. It was only when I mentioned this to EA in a completely different context and heard the horror in his voice that I understood.
It literally never occurred to me that this was essentially rape. I asked him to stop and he didn’t. When put that plainly, it is unambiguous. There was no violence to it, I wasn’t forced. He didn’t even have to work that hard to persuade me; just a short plea and I did something that I didn’t want to do because that’s what the man I was fucking wanted – and what I thought I was supposed to do. And, worse, I didn’t realise that that attitude was wrong; I couldn’t see through the rape culture distortion to see what had actually happened. It wasn’t criminal and those who shout about ‘mixed messages’ probably would tell me that I deserved it – I had invited him into my bed and started enthusiastically, what was he supposed to do? But I wasn’t able to change my mind. I wasn’t able to withdraw my consent.
Whether or not I consider this to be rape, a concept I still find difficult to fully accept, there is no doubt that I was affected by that night. I didn’t have sex again for six years; I retreated into unrequited loves and basked in the relative safety of inaction. I may not have known why I felt so terrible about it but I definitely did, and now I know better.
So I’m here to say that yeah, actually, when you strip back the patriarchal power imbalances and wipe away the entitlement, it’s most likely that every woman you know has been sexually assaulted. And yeah, actually, rape culture has blinded generations to the difference between enthusiastic and reluctant consent, and that is seriously fucked up.
And it’s still not easy to see past it, and it’s not easy to discard centuries of entitlement, and it may not even be possible for our generation to do that because these imbalances and expectations are so hardwired to our core, but we have to talk about them and we have listen to each other and believe each other when we do.
And we have to learn that not only does no mean no, but we should not simply accept such a low bar. Let’s only fuck people who are both willing and enthusiastic! Who actually want to have sex with us and really mean it!! Is that too much to ask?
Because, right now, the answer to that question seems to be ‘yeah, actually.’